NYT Profile of Robert Caro Gives Insight into How Political Power Really Works


This New York Times Magazine profile of Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker, the definitive biography of Robert Moses, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the even-more definitive multi-volume biography of LBJ, was a delight - a great example of how the curatorial power of a magazine or newspaper can lead you to encounter people and ideas that you might miss if relying only on the more casual, news-driven flow of content from social media. And if a NYT profile is a more thorough bit of research and writing than a casual blog, how much deeper is the work of the subject of this piece!

Caro has been working on his biography of LBJ for over 36 years - a true antithesis to the quick reportage that we take for granted today. It has grown from a single volume to at least four, and maybe five. He does exhaustive research - seeking out, for example, in researching his biography of Robert Moses, someone who had delivered the newspaper to Moses' parents when he was involved in a scandal, and getting a firsthand account of their reaction! (His feats of original research are truly astonishing.)

But what I found most thought-provoking in the profile was the notion that Caro is less focused on writing biographies of individuals than of writing "studies in the working of political power and how it affects both those who have it and those who don't."

From the article:

"Caro had a further epiphany about power in the early ’60s. He had moved on to Newsday by then, where he discovered that he had a knack for investigative reporting, and was assigned to look into a plan by Robert Moses to build a bridge from Rye, N.Y., across Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay. “This was the world’s worst idea,” he told me. “The piers would have had to be so big that they’d disrupt the tides.” Caro wrote a series exposing the folly of this scheme, and it seemed to have persuaded just about everyone, including the governor, Nelson Rockefeller. But then, he recalled, he got a call from a friend in Albany saying, “Bob, I think you need to come up here.” Caro said: “I got there in time for a vote in the Assembly authorizing some preliminary step toward the bridge, and it passed by something like 138-4. That was one of the transformational moments of my life. I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’ ”

"The lesson was repeated in 1965, when Caro had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.’ ”

"Caro’s obsession with power explains a great deal about the nature of his work. For one thing, it accounts in large part for the size and scope of all his books, which Caro thinks of not as conventional biographies but as studies in the working of political power and how it affects both those who have it and those who don’t."

That's a really important insight. Even as we lament its brokenness, we still take for granted that our political system fundamentally works the way that was documented in our eighth-grade civics textbook. Caro's books apparently study how our system really works. They just got onto my "must read" list.
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