After 40 years in journalism, I thought I knew what it takes to pin down the facts in a story, to get the underlying context, and to get those telling details that put it all in perspective. But reading Working by Robert Caro made me wonder.
Caro, of course, is the author of extensive biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. His books, which can run over a thousand pages, often take a decade to write. The reason, he explains in Working, is not that he writes slowly but that the research takes so long.
It’s no wonder, considering Caro’s work ethic. To take just a few examples….
In researching the first volume of his Johnson books, Caro found he was having trouble getting a feel for what LBJ was like as a boy growing up on an isolated ranch in the Texas Hill County. So each day after poring through hundreds of pages of documents at the Johnson library in Austin, he drove an hour to the Hill Country to talk to people who had known Johnson in those early years. But no one would say much. They didn’t trust outsiders, let alone one from New York. Caro thought about it and then told his wife (and chief researcher) that they needed to move to the Hill Country (prompting her to ask why he couldn’t write a biography of Napoleon). Caro and his wife rented a house outside Johnson City and lived there almost three years, long enough to win acceptance as a local and the trust of those of who knew LBJ’s secrets. “As soon as the people of the Hill realized we were there to stay,” he writes, “their attitude towards us softened; they started to talk to me in a different way….and they told me details and anecdotes that no one had even mentioned before.”
Then Caro got a tip that Vernon Whitestone, a close college classmate of Johnson he’d been trying to find, had moved to Florida. Where in Florida? The source only knew Whitestone was in a mobile home court in “someplace that had Beach” in its name. With nothing more to go on, Caro and his wife got a map of Florida, made a list of all the places with Beach in the name, and then called every mobile home court in each location to ask if someone named Whiteside was staying there. When someone in Highland Beach said yes, Caro jumped on a flight and the next morning he rented a car, drove to the mobile court, knocked on Whitestone’s door, and got the interview he needed.
Whitestone told him about several important incidents involving Johnson, and when Caro asked another classmate for confirmation, she told him they were all documented in their school yearbook. Caro was confused. He had a copy of the yearbook but hadn’t found it at all useful. He asked the classmate for the page references, and she looked them up. When Caro went to check, he discovered that each of the pages had been carefully excised from his copy. He then went looking for an unabridged copy, which he found in a used bookstore.
These are just a few of the fascinating stories in Working, a fitting title if there ever was one. Caro pulls back the curtain to give us a peak at how he operated in researching and writing his biographies of Johnson and before that of Robert Moses (The Power Broker). In doing so, he provides an inspiring lesson for every reporter, researcher, and historian—or anyone else who wants to get the facts right.
Caro’s explains why he goes the extra miles in terms that stand in stark contrast to much of today’s journalism:
“While I am aware that there is no Truth…there are Facts, objective facts. Discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts—through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing—can’t be rushed; it takes time.”
Caro is famous for taking his time, working up to a decade on each of his books, which typically run a thousand pages or more. Working is far shorter; at 207 pages, it can be read in a sitting, though it is better to read it slowly and savor it. Caro is 83 and he wrote this short memoir because he’s aware that he may not get to the full-throated version he still plans. After all, he still has one more volume of his Johnson series in the works.