A New Memoir Reveals the Research Secrets of Our Greatest Political Biographer
Never say never in this life: within three years we’ve seen the Cubs win the World Series and now Robert A. Caro has written a short book.
Full disclosure, I’m friends with Bob and Ina Caro, the latter being his wife and one-person research department. I’ve covered their visits to Austin since he published his third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, Master of the Senate, in 2002, and I’ve had dinner with them a few times.
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing is a lot like sitting with them at dinner. Caro supplements fresh reminiscences about his research and writing adventures with previously published material so he can get back to chasing his white whale in what he swears will be a fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which he’s been working on since 1976. That’s not a typo.
If you’re a fan of the greatest living political biographer or an aspiring nonfiction writer there’s a lot to like here–and a lot to consider before diving in as deeply as Caro obsessively does. He and Ina have spent years in the reading room at the LBJ Library in Austin pawing through boxes, trying to heed to advice of one of his old editors at Newsday: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddammed page.”
At the library, Caro acknowledges, that task would take several lifetimes. But the goal is to understand what happened at a molecular level. To do that, he and Ina have gone to fairly incredible lengths.
Consider the case of the magic Precinct 13 ballot box in Jim Wells County in the 1948 election, the one that first sent Johnson to the Senate over his opponent, Coke Stevenson. Johnson at first appeared to have lost the election until six days later when the Democratic boss in the area discovered 202 uncounted votes, 200 of them for Johnson, which gave him a win overall by fewer than 90 votes.
The saga became legend and the conventional wisdom for decades was that Johnson maybe stole it. But then again, everybody played dirty, nobody would have been stupid enough to write anything down, and the truth would be unknowable. Along came the Caros.
Someone told Bob that the party boss’ “enforcer” Luis Salas moved around a lot, sometimes back and forth from Mexico, and could possibly be dead. Caro found him in Houston. Salas talked about how he’d misreported votes for Stevenson as ones for Johnson and backed up his recollections with a manuscript he’d written called “Box 13.” Caro’s next stop was a store with a photocopy machine. “Truth takes time,” Caro writes. His telling of this episode is a centerpiece in “The Means of Ascent.”
Another tale illustrates how glamorous investigative work can be. Caro gathered enough first-hand former student recollections to believe Johnson might even have played dirty in campus politics while attending what was then Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. Johnson’s right hand in that misadventure was Vernon Whiteside and, they all said, “he daid.”
He wudn’t. Caro learned Whiteside had sold his ranch, traveled the country in a mobile home with his wife, and was just settled or about to settle in some mobile home park in a Florida city that had the word “Beach” in the name. “That certainly narrowed it down some,” Caro notes dryly. He and Ina got a Florida map, divided up a list of cities that had “Beach” in their names, and called every mobile home park in those towns. The manager of a mobile home court in Highland Beach told Caro someone named Whiteside had pulled in that afternoon. Caro was on a plane to Florida that night.
Now, if the image of a husband-and-wife Woodward and Bernstein sitting on the floor of the New York Public Library going through small-town phone books doesn’t make the kids want to go to journalism school, I don’t know what could.
Caro’s inability to be less than thorough, to tell whatever truth the papers and the interviews led him to and to eschew hagiography in favor of something more complex, more human and more tragic, riled some of the Johnsons and their loyalists. LBJ would likely have wanted the whole story to come out. And no one has come closer than Caro. In doing so he’s changed the artform itself. He’s its unparalleled practitioner.
To do this, especially early on, their pursuits came at a price. When he was working on his first book, “The Power Broker,” the Caros lived hand-to-mouth. Ina sold their house when Bob learned he couldn’t possibly finish the manuscript in a year. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. When he had difficulty getting laconic Hill Country farmers, ranchers and townsfolk to talk, not trusting yet another journalist parachuting in, he and Ina moved to Johnson City. Ina learned to make Frito Pie and take small gifts to stooped-over Hill Country widows to coax them to talk about what life was like before electricity and running water, which Johnson brought to the area after he went to Washington.
Has it all been worth it? The Caros would certainly say yes. Nobody has better shown how power works. These books will last forever. Keep writing, Bob. We’ll wait.