Robert Caro has written two monster biographies, one on Robert Moses and the other (five volumes) on Lyndon Johnson He is in his mid 80’s and is still writing the 5th volume of the LBJ book. He has won three Pulitzers for these works.
In his third book Working, he talks about how he went about writing the other two. It’s a fascinating read, especially the LBJ chapters. He writes about interviewing the taciturn people of the Texas Hill Country where Johnson was raised and the loneliness and misery of their lives; of discovering the vital role an illegal Mexican played in Johnson winning his first election to Congress in 1948; of the almost life-long lover who was also an advisor on what he should wear and what policies he should pursue; and of Lady Bird’s admiration for this more than beautiful and shrewd woman.
And he does all this in 207pages.
Caro says he is fascinated with political power and how it shapes all our lives, even in little ways, like why a freeway in New York City takes a turn that adds 3 miles to your trip. Moses, though never elected to any office, managed to get built over 600 miles of expressway and force over 250,000 poor and mostly minority people out of their homes and destroy their neighborhoods
“I never thought of my books as the stories of Moses or Johnson. I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times.” It took 7 years to write the Moses book; he has been working on the Johnson volumes since 1977.
Johnson got through an obstinate southern dominated Congress the first significant Civil Rights law in close to 100 years. With his leadership Congress passed seventy education bills, a Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart, and a liberal immigration bill. And he escalated the Vietnam War to 58,000 American deaths and 288,000 seriously wounded Americans.
Caro concludes: “I think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we are voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will l be, and the better our country will be.”
I have not read either of Caro’s biographies. At the rate I read getting through even one volume would be a career choice. Working is filled with great stories, and is a great read. The Multnomah Library has 200 copies. There is a long line of requests for it, but I had only a three week wait. If you don’t want to wait that long or don’t have access to the Multnomah Library listen to this 37 minute interview with Caro on NPR.