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

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/magazine/robert-caros-big-dig.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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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6 comments
 
Seems like an amazing read. Thank you for posting this.
 
Caro's first three volumes on LBJ are among my favorite books. They're big, but well worth the time spent reading them.. The NYT article talks about Caro spending several nights sleeping on the ground in the hill country to get the feel of the land. No surprise. In the first volume of the the bio, Caro devotes a considerable chunk of the book's opening section to a detailed description of the land, its people, and the way they shaped LBJ's character. Those descriptions inform everything else he writes about Johnson. I strongly recommend these books, and I'm looking forward to the new volume.
 
The Power Broker (the Moses bio) is by itself well worth reading. But long as it is, there are still topics that could tell more detail.

In particular, the major example of successful popular resistance to a Moses proposal (not through the ballot box) --- Jane Jacobs's organizing against his proposals for highways through lower Manhattan --- also gets short shrift, perhaps because Caro himself was a minor player. For that I recommend the also excellent, and much shorter, "Wrestling with Moses" by Anthony Flint.
 
Yeah, it's great stuff. I've read all the volumes and ready for this one. I'm a displaced Austinite. The Hill Country is the best part of the state.
 
Robert Caro is a fantastic author. I have read all of his books and loved every one. He has changed the way I look at roads, mass transit, our relationship with the car/oil, and why technology in government follows election/funding cycles as opposed to what is most effective.
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