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tv   Robert Caro Working  CSPAN  August 21, 2019 8:01pm-9:36pm EDT

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>> hi everybody. i'm glad to see you, thank you. thank you so much for coming to tonight's program featuring robert caro and conan o'brien. [applause] >> i am andrea grossman, the founder of writers block now sailing to the end of our 30 third year. in.
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[applause] if you are not yet on the email list, sign-up. we just added senator amy >> so now for tonight, we're it was unforgetting. bob's story about the genius of the political -- like his subject, caro has no peer. over the years bob has spoiled us with his portraits of robert moses and lyndon johnson and treated us to slight left turns in the narrative, his diversions into fascinating bystanders, they might form the basis of future studies in and of themself. so consider his new book, "working," as a companion piece to his great moses and johnson
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books, and today in 2019 is more resonant than ever about power used for good and power used against the greater good. as the book answers core questions, it raises more, as caro gives us deep background into the ways and whys he does what he does with such graceful shorthand. asra if his books weren't physil and intellectual evidence enough about why he takes so long to crank out the next volume, caro gives us the background on the reasons he goes through every sheet of paper in every file to get to truth that essence of political power. it's conan who possesses a lot of media power. his late night comedy beats to its own drum, and he is, without question, respected as one of the funniest guys on the planet. if that weren't enough, he's also an armchair presidential scholar and, therefore, an
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achinglypr ardent caro devotee. team caro centre greats, and here's -- sent regrets. finish here's a guy who calls the johnson series our harry potter -- [laughter] here's a guy who offers national air time to authors, and they say no. so then i read a great piece in "the new york times" not too long ago which reiterated conan's lingering sadness that caro is the one who got away. anuntil tonight, everybody. [applause] so here's what's going to happen. conan and bob chat, and when they're through, feel free to ask very, very brief questions, like one sentence. there are mics that will be in the aisles, and afterwards bob will sign copies of "working" and one copy of another book of his. but to get that other book
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signed, you have to have a copy of "working." if you haven't purchased working already, i don't know why you haven't, do it tonight. you know that he doesn't come to l.a. often for book signings. remember the last time he visited or writers block was in 2002, 17 years ago, so don't wait another 17 years. i know all of you want to get pictures of conan and bob together, buton we want you to t your cell phones away and enjoy the program. so when i bring these two great guys out, i want you to stand up and if take pictures -- and take pictures. for 30 seconds, you can take all the pictures you want, and then you put your phones away. [applause] so it is, it is such a great pleasure to introduce bob caro and conan o'brien. [cheers and applause]
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>> this is an absolute thrill for me. it is no secret, mr. caro, that i have pursued you. you have been my white whale. i think "the new york times" referred to you as you were the white wail to my ahab -- [laughter] -- whale. and tonight i have cornered you, and there is no getting away, and this is the thrill of a lifetime. thank you so much for sitting down with me, really.
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[applause] >> it didn't take any cornering. i read the wonderful story about you started reading my books in college instead of going to fort lauderdale and getting hammered -- [laughter] this is what i did. [laughter] >> i skipped spring break, and my roommate and i read, yes, "the path to power" and didn't go to spring break. and then backstage you told me, you idiot, i went to spring break. [laughter] i also want to thank you for finally, mr. caro, writing a book that will fit on my night table, thank you. [laughter] there is so much to talk about. i am going to start, though, with one demand. i am the moderator tonight, and i am going to make a strict and simple demand. i will allow any question after i'm done interviewing mr. caro except one. tonight no one is allowed to is ask this man when is the next lyndon johnson book coming out. i forbid that question. [laughter] i forbid it.
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people are constantly bothering this man -- [laughter] when is that book going to come out, and i find it rude, and i talked to a friend of mine, a good friend of mine, and he said, well, you're going to be speaking at a temple, is so you should use the phrase -- [speaking in native tongue] [laughter] it means it would have been enough. and i maintain that when people bother mr. craro -- caro about when is the next book going to come out, my answer is had he just written "the power broker," it would have been enough. [applause] had he just written "path to power," it would have been enough. had he written any single one of thesehe book withs interspeak speak we will get it when he's damn ready to give it to us, and we're cool with that.
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are you cool with that? >> yes. [laughter] will have. >> i'm just going to talk. i'm not going to let you talk at all. [laughter] i finally got you, and i'm not going to let you speak. i've never killed in a synagogue like this, this is amazing. i'mg, really doing well. [laughter] mr. caro, i love the book, "working," and ill tell why -- i'll tell you why i have read all of your book and i'm a fan, and i knew you were thorough as a researcher and a writer, but i had no idea until i read this book that you were -- that i could use so many words dedicated, compulsive, committed. you have a grade that you were taught very early, and i'd like you to talk about it a little bit at the top. i think it was alan hathaway at newsday, one of your first jobs, told you when you're doing research,, turn every page. >> right. >> turn every page. you took it literally, and
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you've taken it further than any biographer in the history of the written world. tell us about that. >> well, i was a young reporter at newsday still doing very unshort stories, and through an accident i got thrown into an investigative, had to go down and go through a bunch of files in a federal agency. and i came back and wrote a memo for the real reporters who would write the story the next day. and we had a managing editor, thee alan hathaway, who was an old guy from the 1920s. he was a guy with a big head, just a fringe of hair around the back. the head was very red because he started drinking very early in the day -- [laughter] wert never even, we never knew that alan, whether alan graduated from college or even went to college, but he really had a prejudice against people from prestigious universities. i went to princeton. and they hired me while he was
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on vacation as a joke on him. [laughter] so he would walk by my desk every day on the way to his office, and he never talked to me. and i'd say good morning, mr. hathaway, or hi, alan, whatever. he'd never even answer me. so this one day i had to go to alan because everyone else was actually on a picnic, and no one could be reached because they didn't have cell phones. and i wroted a long memo. and the next morning very early his is secretary called me and said alan wants to see you right away. and i said, you see, i was right not to move. i'm about to be fired. and all the way in to office i was sure i was going to be fired. i got -- and his secretary, june, said to me go in. so i walked across -- he had a glass-enclosed office, and i could see this big red head bent over reading something very intently. and as i got to his door, i saw
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it was my memo that he was reading. and he waved me to a chair, and after a while he looked up and he said i didn't know someone from princeton could do, go through files like this. from now on you do investigative work. well, i have great savoir-faire at moments like this, and what i said to him was, but i don't know anything about investigative work. [laughter] and he looked up at me, for what i remember as a very long time, reand said just remember one thing: turn every page. never assume anything. turnrn every god damn page. and i can't tell you how many times in my life that stuck with me and really resulted in me finding manager. >> there are so many times, and you say it in the book, where you are, you are maybe a document away from this great discovery, and you're in these
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massive rooms, rooms this size filled with documents, and you don't think you're going to find anything. and you -- it's the next box, and you think this is a waste of time, and you do it anyway, and that's where you find the document that blows everything apart. >> that's happened a number of times. young know, it happened -- i hae to tell one example of it. so when i was doing lyndon johnson, he comes to congress at thee age of 29 in 1937, and i'm going through the -- you can't go through every page in the johnson library, there are millions of pages. but i said i really want to paint a picture of what a young congressman's life was like in the first years. so i said aisle do everything -- i'll do every page in this 10 or boxes. and i'm going through these things, very innocuous letters. and you're thinking, as you always think, yeah, i'm wasting another month of myyo life, you
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know? and all of a sudden, i noticed there was a change. at a certain point, and the point was october 1940, before that he had been the junior congressman writingng to senior congressmen, committee chairmen or whatever saying can i have five minutes of your time, that tone. after that, after election day november 5th, 1940, all of a sudden a lot of the letters from committee chairmen to this junior congressman were, lyndon, can i have five minutes of your time. so i was then interviewing an old -- i don't think anyone here is old enough to remember -- an old washington -- [inaudible] named tommy. i said to him, so what happened in october 1940? and he said money, kid. he used to call me kid. money, kid, money. but he said you're never going to be able to write about that, kid. iu' said, why not? he said, because lyndon never
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put anything in writing. but i'm going through these things, and i'm going through one innocuous letter after another, and all of a sudden the next document is this faded western union telegraph form from octoberes 19th, 1940. it's from george brown of brown and root which is the texas firm which really is financing lyndon johnson, and he is getting them increasingly big federal contracts. and the telegram says, lyndon, the checks are on the way. and lyndon replied himself on the bottom of it in writing, i'm not mentioning, i'm not responding to these people or telling anyone about them, so you thankle them. the six names were in there, and because they were there, i could course reference to their letter ands find out who they were. and then i keep -- well, as that
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happens you say, well, you know, i'm going to keep going. and i found another thing which, to me, is one of the most remarkable documents i ever came across. it's typed, it's six pages long, and both of johnson's assistants -- john connolly, who was hater the secretary of treasury, and walter -- [inaudible] they both told me that lyndon, that they had typed it. but whoever typed it, this is what it was. isthere were two typed columns. in the left-hand column there's the name of the -- [inaudible] in the center column there's how much money he wants and what he needs it for. thee amounts are so small, it's really almost -- >> by today's standards, yeah. >> yeah. it's like need $450 for last minute advertising. they're trying to steal it at the polls -- >> like today, by the way. but anyway, go ahead. [laughter] sorry.
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>> needs $600. but in the left-hand column in lyndon johnson's own handwriting, he wrote if he was going to give the person the full amount of money that the person asked for, he wrote "okay." if he's going to give him part of the money he'd question with the "oak and the amount -- okay and the amount." 300, 500. but for some of them he wrote "none." and for some of them he wrote "none, out." so i asked john connolly what did it mean when lyndon johnson wrote "none, out," and i can still remember his taupe, that guy was never going to get any money from lyndon johnson. lyndon johnson never forgot and he never forgave. so in this one month, somehow congress became aware that if you wanted money from texas, you had to go through this junior congressman. and all of a sudden he was on this roadat to national power.
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finish. >> you know, what's fascinating to me is the tenacity there to touch every document, to turn it over, to read everything even if you have to go through 5,000 boxes, you're going to go through all 5,000 boxes just in case. the flipside of that, which i think is completely unprecedented, is yousi have -- you need to have a sense of place.ic you, robert caro, need to have a sense of place when you are writing about these people, these men, these powerful men. so you decided when you were writing about lyndon johnson that you couldn't write about him unless you lived in the hill country. >> yes. >> you wentou and you lived the. >> yes. >> and we need to give a shout-out right now to your incredible wife,ou who i think s here tonight, ines is here -- ms. . [applause] there she is. stand up. [applause] you said e to your wife, we need to move to the hill country in
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texas and live there for possibly a year or two in order for me to really write about lyndon johnson. and she gave a very different answer from what my wife, who's also heress tonight, would say. [laughter] vshe said, let's go. and that is absolutely incredible. >> that's not what she said. [laughter] he said why can't you write a biography of napoleon? [laughter] but she moved to the hill cup, - country, and it worked because there were a lot of people who were reticent. they weren't talking to you, but once you and ina were living there, you could understand. you could understand the people, and they grew to accept you, and people started to talk about lyndon johnson who would not have spoke to you before. >> who didn't speak. you know, i tried -- i always
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think -- you are the best interviewer, but i always thought i was a good interviewer. the people i couldn't get to talk to me were the people of the hill country. there was a lone -- hill country starts -- started then -- at the western edge and went on for 300 miles. and there were hardly any people there. you'd get directions to interview people, and they'd say something like you drive 47 miles out of austin, and watch for the cattle guard and then you turn left. and you might go 30 miles on this rugged, unpaved road. and at the end of it would be a house. and you suddenly realized, i haven't passed a house in 30 miles. these people were so lonely, and theyey just weren't used to talking to people. and what you said before was such a perceptive remark, they believed it was wrong to say
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anything derogatory about the man who became president of the united states -- >> even if they didn't like him or had grown up with him, they thought it was unpatriotic, the man had become president, you don't say bad things about the president. man, have times changeed. [laughter] you -- there's a really strikig moment where one of hardship done von op's -- lyndon johnson's relatives, it's so pivotal in his life, his father was his idol s and then his father had a ranch and it failed, and the family became a laughingstock. and you were trying to understand that failure. and one of the relatives made you kneel down and put your hands in the soiling of that ranch -- soil of that ranch, and you realized it was only soil for about an inch or two, and then it was rock. >> exactly the right things out of this book, because his father
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didn't get -- it looked so beautiful when he had come to the ranch. it's covered with grass and all. but as soon as you -- there was so little soil on top of the rock that as soon as you tried to do anything with it, to grow cotton or raise cattle, the grass was eaten down and washed away. and i didn't realize this. i sort of thought lyndon's father was this wonderful legislator, was a wonderful man. and lyndon's favorite cousin, aver, really didn't like him. the way i talked about johnson. so she took me out, she said, now get out of the car. this is just the thing you just described. she said, now kneel down and stick your fingers into the ground. and it looked so beautiful. and just what you said, i couldn't even get the length of my fingers into the ground. and because lyndon john zune's father didn't realize this and made this one mistake, the family was ruined. >> they were ruined, he was
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humiliated, and so then there's this change in leadership -- lyndon johnson and this real bitterness and the problem between the father and the son. now, any other biographer would say, all right, i'm getting a few accounts here and there of trouble between the father and the son. you really wanted to you said it, and you did -- to understand it, and you did something i didn't understand, you went to lyndon johnson's brother sam, and you wanted sam to get you back to the moment. you wanted to understand what it was line, hawaiian done sitting with his -- lyndon sitting with his father during that period of disillusionment. you did a thing what i think an acting teacher might do. it's very unusual. you took sam to the house, and had him sit at the table. the house was, obviously -- >> recreated. >> -- recreated. you sat behind him where he couldn't see you, and and you prodded him over and over and over again in a really intense
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way to remember what it was like. and then suddenly he did, and he started talking. and so could you talk about those conversations he remembered? >> well, you know, because he had -- yes. can i say -- >> you can say whatever you want, it's your show. [laughter] >> when i started, of course, one of the first people i went to see was sam, his name was sam houston johnson. he was lyndon's little brother. and he had a reputation as being a very heavy drinker and being a guy full of bravado and brag doe show, and i found that that was true. and most of the stuff he told me, he told me these wonderful stories, but when you checked them out, they were untrue. so i said i've wasted enough time with him, i'm not going to talk to him anymore. so in the interim, the next year or so, i heard he had a terrible
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operation for cancer and that he hadnt stopped drinking. and oneib day i'm walking around johnson city -- because i used to do that a lot, just walk around this little town trying to get to know the people. and there he was coming towards me, and he was a different man. he had a cane, he was hobbling. and when i started to talk to him, i said, oh, this is really a different guy. i decided to try him again. so i knew by this time exactly what you said that whatever the secret of lyndon johnson's desperate ambition, his desperate desire to succeed had to do with his relationship with his father who he idolized until he was 12 or 13 years old. he said the happiest days of my life -- his father was a legislator -- the happiest day of my life was going with my father on the campaign trail. and then his father makes this one mistake, he loses the
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johnson ranch. and for the rest of lyndon johnson's boyhood, they live in a house that every month they're literally afraid the bank is going to take away from them. and there's often no food in the house because his mother was sick, neighbors have to come and bring covered dishes for charity. and lyndon johnson's feelings toward his father changed from idolization and love to a real hatred. and i really wanted to get a picture of what it was like. so as you say, i got the national park service -- so now he was -- i wanted to try him again. i thought of an idea that might get him to remember accurately. and i got the national park service to say i could take him into the johnson boyhood home, recreatede in johnson city, afr all the tourists were gone and we were alone. and i decided to take him in at dinner time, just about 6:00.
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so it'd be as much like dinner when he was a boy as possible. and as you say, i asked him to sit in his place at the table. his fatherr sat at one end of te table, the mother at the other end on a bench on one side were the three sisters, and on the other side was lyndon and sam houston. so i did, in fact, sit behind him because i didn't want anything to distract him. i said, now tell me again about these arguments that lyndon and hisyt father had at dinner. of and at first it was really slow, i remember, conan. i had to say and then what, is and then what. suddenly he was just sort of shouting a conversation. lyndon, you're a failure, you'll always be a failure. and what are you? a bus inspector, that's what you are. i felt he was back in his boyhood, and i said to him now, sam houston, i want you to tell
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me again all those wonderful stories about hardship done growing up -- lyndon growing up that you told me before and that everybody has been telling me, only give me a few more details. and there was a long pause, and he, finally he said i can't. and i said, why not? and he said because they never happened. then without another word, i didn't have to do anything, he just started telling me the very different story about lyndon johnson's growing up that's in "the path to power." and this time when i went back to the to other people who were involved in the same anecdotes, yes, that is what happened, and they'd give me more details. >> it was thede story on johnson before your book was the typical horatio alger, rags to riches, everyone loved him, he was popular. and you went back and through this process which is very unusual and takes a lot of time, youan got this completely
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different picture of johnson even down to noticing when you were looking at his old yearbooks in high high school. it tooken you a while, but you figured out pages were missing, and the same pages were missing from all the yearbooks because they had been unfavorable. >> yeah. >> and lyndon johnson had had them removed. who does that? that's absolutely -- [laughter] i mean, that is a level of -- and it took you a long time to figure that out, and when you do and you found the pages, you found out people really didn't like him when he was in school. >> no. he had the nickname in college of bull johnson which meant just what you think it meant. and, but, you know, also when you came across and someone said to you why are you bothering me with this questions, it's all there in black and white. and i said where in black and white? she said, in the yearbook. i said, i must have missed those pages. and she had a copy with the
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pages still in there. and when i turned to those pages, they were gone. and, you know, there are moments you say what sort of an individual am i dealing with here? he's 21 years old, and he takes the trouble to have these pages cut out of almost all the copies of the, of his college yearbook. >> right. and he didn't do it -- this is something he did not do when he was president. he kne at 21 he had to get rid of those pages. >> amazing. it was an amazing thing. >> it's interesting, and i'm curious if it's a coincidence or not, you've chosen two men -- moses and johnson -- that really devote your life to writing about, is and both of those men took, went to great extremes, more than anybody would, went to great extremes to hide their past as they were living it almost as if they knew you'd be
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coming for them one day. [laughter] it really is -- you did. you chose -- you didn't choose two guys who were just leaving notes and memos everywhere. you chose, you know, two guys who went to great, great extremes to not writing anything down. one of them is, at the age of 21, cutting out unfavorable pictures and notices in his yearbook. youe , ct chose incredibly difft people to write about. >> not deliberately. [laughter] >> maybe not, but there might be some connection there, some -- you may have had some sense. there is a line in the book "working" that really struck me that i wanted to bring up to you. you say you lack at your work -- look at your work, and i think a lot of people think of history as dry, and your life's work has been you don't believe it should be dry, you think it should be alive. it's very important to you. and one of the things you think about,be you wrote it in this bk
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account working," is, is there desperation on this page? >> yes. >> is there desperation on this page, that is something you ask yourself every time you write a page. >> well, not -- well, i have desperation -- you read this very carefully -- [laughter] >> i apologize. >> but i always felt, and it's something that i always did feel that if a book of nonfiction or history or biography is going to be successful, it's got to have the same qualities that a novel has to be successful. it's got to have rhythm, it's got to have aua sense of place, that sort t of thing. finish and what you're talking about iss lyndon johnson, it's his last chance, he's running for senate in 1948. if he loses, his political career is going to be over. he decided to leave politics. and he gets a kidney stone, and
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he's behind in the polling when he starts, and and he has to stay in the hospital for i think it's a month. when he comes out, he's so far behind that he can't think of a way of getting ahead. and he thinks of this tactic, helicopters were brand new things in 1948. he says if i campaign around all these small towns in a helicopter, people will come out and be like -- and it was. they all called it the machine stands still in the sky, you know? and you have this picture, i spoke to his -- you only p find out theseyo things, i said, wel, he had three helicopter pilots who alternated. and i said i'm going to talk to them. probably they'll have nothing to say to me. but you never know, you know? and one of them told me -- they all told me amazing things, but one, he was so excited that he would whip -- he would lean out
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as l the helicopter was going across texas and rip the xasides -- grip the sides of its if it wereif a horse -- whip the sides of it as if it were a horse. [laughter] you have a picture here of a desperate man. this is his last chance. and i did. it's exactly what you said. i put a note up on this lamp on myd. desk, is there desperationn this page. and i tried to do it in the rhythm. i ail went actually don't thinki actually don't think i succeeded very well, but i tried. >> no, you succeeded. [laughter] tremendously. you are fearless as an interviewer. i sometimes try to put myself, what if i were robert caro, could i do this. and so often i think, nope, i could not do this. one of the things i found you talk about in "working" is you uncovered that lyndon johnson had a mistress named alice
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glass. you uncovered that. no one had -- that had not been discussed. you had proof. and shortly after you find that out, you get a call from the office of lady bird johnson. and she says that she'd like to speak to you. and she'd like to talk to you. and you know that she knows that you know. [laughter] u and you went to that intervie. and you said you -- because you were never interested in his sex life, but now suddenly there was something that was relevant to his career, because she had been pivotal. but you went, and i was thinking could i go and sit with the first, former first lady if she knew what i knew? i mean, it's just terrifying to even think about. what was that like this. >> well, can i just say -- enter you can do whatever you want to do. [laughter] >> the reason, i wasn't going to write about all of lyndon johnson's affairs because almost all of them were, if not
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one-night stands, two-night stands. none of them had any significance to him. what happened, i can't remember if it's in this book or not, i'm reading all the letters. when johnson was in australia during the second world war, you were allowed one call back to the united states and only one. and i knew that franklin roosevelt, who had taken johnson as a protege, had said to him if you need any advice on anything, you can call the white house. and all of a sudden as i'm going through this, there's this telegram. and it -- the telegram says, lyndon, everybody, else, which it turned out meant the white house, thinks you should run for the senate. i think you should run again for the house. and the last line was hope we can have that birthday party, alice. i had no idea who alice was.
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knew this name. and shortly after that you say this is not -- it's just sheer luck on my, that happened to me. you sit up in the reading room of the johnson library, the archivist's desk is in the front, and if there's a call, it has to go through her. the phone rings, she says it's for you, and i go up to the desk, and the docent, the hostess in the reception desk out in the lobby says there are two women here who would like to speak to you. would you come and speak to them? i said, sure. so i went down and they said to me, youpe know, we read "the por broker," we know you're going to find out about alice. [laughter] and we want to tell you about her because alice was very, she wasn't another bimbo. she was really important in lyndon's, in lyndon's life. so to find out about her, i --
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she came from a little town in texas. she was a great hostess in washington. she had a grand salon. but she came from this little town called moreland in the middle of nowhere. so i would go and talk to all of her friends that she grew up with trying to get a picture of her, and no one -- i have to say, i hope there's no one here from motherland, texas -- motherland, texas, no one would ever go to moreland. [laughter] except for any other reason. and i got a friend from a mutual -- i got a call from a mutual friend who lived in moreland who said bird -- in texas everyone called lady bird "bird," she knows you've been in moreland, so she knows you know about alice, and about -- i never stated i was interviewing mrs. johnson who was of immense
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help to me. wii was interviewing her at her office in austin, and all of a sudden her secretary was saying this saturday she'd like you to come to the ranch and do do the interviews there. so we sat down -- i'm talking too long here. >> no, no. [laughter] >> we sat at this table. she sat at the head of the table, i sat at her right hand with my stenographer's notebook. and without a word of preamble, she starts to talk about alice glass, and she talks about how beautiful she was and how elegant she was. i remember she said i remember utalice in a series of the most beautiful dresses andmb me in dresses, well, not that beautiful. but she said whatever alice taught lyndon, he followed for the rest of his life like he had -- when she met him, he was thisre 29-year-old congressman, and he had very long, ungainly
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arms. so said turn them to your advantage, wear french cuffs with very nice cuff links. but she also said at various times in his life, she saved his political career. and one was particularly dramatic to me because herman brown, who was this very fierce, very bad-tempered ruler of brown and root, the financiers of - johnson's early rise, they suddenly came to a real collision point not long after johnson came to congress. johnson was getting themft contracts for this federal jam, and they -- but at the same time, he wanted to build a low income housing project in austin.. and the low income, it was mostly mexican-americans who were paying this real poor neighborhood, he owned most to of the houses and was getting a
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good income from it, and he was this.d by and his chief lobbyist said to me, you know, herman was about to turn on lyndon. when herman turned on you, he never turned back. >> and johnson really needed her match. he needed him -- herman. he needed him. so he couldn't afford this collision. >> no. they were providing the money for him to give other congressmen to finance his own career. and alice said just have them down to my estate. she had this great estate in virginia. she sat them down at a table, and she said there's an easy compromise. give herman the dam and let lyndon have the land, and all of a sudden everything was okay. and there were various times in his life when he went to her for advice. i mean, it wasn't one-night stand, it was sort of like a 2, 25-year -- i always felt, of course, you know this, but that the sexual part of it ended in
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two or three years. but even when he was vice president years later, he would drive down to her estate in virginia to spend the day with her. >> so you're in a room with lady bird johnson, and she -- it just goes unsaid, it goes unsaid that it was a sexual relationship even though she would have undoubtedly have known that it was. >> i didn't quite grasp that question? >> it's pretty dirty. [laughter] i'm embarrassed now. [laughter] i'm trying to think of another journalist or biographer who has sat with a former first lady and discussed -- i mean, it's really a captivating moment that doesn't happen much and, obviously, you never talked about that aspect of it, but i don't think that happens. >> no. and i have to say i say in this book it's the only interview i ever had where i couldn't bear toto look at the person i was
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interviewing even once. she talked, i just kept taking notes, and i didn't want to -- i couldn't look at her. >> you talk a lot about your process, and that's one of the things we really want to talk about here x we've talked about your need to hold the documents, turn every page, go to the actual place whether it's the hill country or capitol hill and experience what those people experience so that you could really feel it. another part of your process is you write everything out longhand -- >> yes. >> -- and you really sit with it for a while before you go to the typewriter. you use an electric typewriter, isn't that right? >> yes. >> and -- i feel like a prosecutor now. [laughter] do you, sir, use an electric the typewriter. [laughter] what is it about thatic process? that became your process. why does that help you, to write it out honghand first? -- longhand first?
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and why did you never graduate to what everyone else is using, which is a computer? >> that's a really good, really good question. it's because i'm too fast. and i've always been too fast. when i was at princeton, the incident that really was formative in this was when i was at princeton, i was in the creative writing course, and it was taught by a very courtly, old southern gentleman named blackman. so i took this course for two years. every two weeks you handed in a short story. i always got good marks. i thought i was fooling him, because i was always doing these short stories, it was always very easy for me to write fast. so i'd write them the night before. i remember we used to call it pulling all-nighters. so i pulled a lot of all-nighters. i thought i was fooling him about how much work went into it. and then at our very last session he handed back my short story and he said something
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complimentary about it, which he usually did. and then he said but you know, mr. caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you learn, to stop thinking with your fingers. and, you know how sometimes in your life you realize that someone hasas seen right through you. he knew i had never put any effort into this, that it was too easy for me to write. then i went to newsday, and i was really a fast rewrite man, you know? but when i quit to do "the power broker" and i started to realize how complex this was, trying to explain how robert moses got his power and all, i remember thinking i have to make myself not only think about them, but think about them all the way through, which was really hard for me. so i decided to slow myself down, and that's why i write my first drafts in longhand.
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>> you write them in long hap, and then you go back and you type, and you do revisions there, and you put things up on the board, and it's just -- you are slow, you're a craftsman, really. you're methodical about it. >> you're very complimentary. you call me a craftsman, in other wordsre saying i'm slow. [laughter] >> you're -- one thing that i was curious about is your standard for biography is so high, and you'll pend years working --is spend years working on one phase of a book. and it occurred to me, it must be difficult for you to read other people's biographies. because you must all the time be hearing about a great biography, and you read it and you realize this person could have gone further, this person didn't put in as much work. i mean, your standards are so high, is it difficult? can you sit down and enjoy someone else's biography, or do you think, you blew it, and
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throw it across the room? [laughter] >> no, there i have to say i don't think that that's right. i don't have that feeling about other biographies. there are a lot of terrific biographies out there. >> okay. that was no fun. [laughter] >> i'm out of my league here. >> no, that's me. there are so many times in this, in the book "working" where you describe moments in your career where -- and, again, this struck me -- how important you think, feel that imagination is for a biographer. and at first blush i would think, well, no. a biographer doesn't need imagination. you get the documents, you talk with the people, and you do the legwork, and then you construct the narrative, and so
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imagination doesn't really come into it. but it was clear to me when i read "working" that you have really employed imagination. you spent a lot of time when with you would find out about a moment, say in moses' life, where he was trying to imagine what he could do with the west side of manhattan when it was just mud. it was just mud and a dirty train coming through. and you describe you needed to feel what it was like when moses in his white suit as a young man would go up there and stand up there and look at that spot. and you could recreate it in a novelistic way, but it's biography. and it's compelling. imagination to you is so key. >> well, imagination is key, but it's a biography. unless you have the facts -- the
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reason i was able to talk about how robert moses envisioned the wholean west side highway and te henry hudson parkway, that whole huge, great public works project is because i read one day -- frances perkins was later roosevelt's secretary of labor. but when she was a young woman, she and robert moses used to walk around new york. and one day they were going on -- she wrote in her oral history, youy know, one day thy were going to a picnic in new jersey. so the ferry boat stood out -- remember, now at that time the new york central railroads trains were taking cattle and pigs to the slaughterhouses. so there wasng this -- they were coal-burping, so this was -- burning, so there was this constant smog hung over the whole western shore orline of manhattan. the smell was bad, and the city
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couldn't get near its waterfront. and all of a sudden she heard robert moses, she wrote in her oral history -- i remember -- suddenly she heard robert moses standing beside her ashe the fey pulled out saying, franciss, couldn't this waterfront be the most beautiful thing in the world? and he said we'll have this great highway running up along the water. i'll havee to tear down some buildings at 72nding street to build it around the curve, but we'll have a marina over here, baseball fields should be there. and as i'm listening, as i'm reading this, that's exactly how he built it 25 years, finally got to build it 25 years later. so then you could put things together. because people had told me how many amps he would come back -- afternoons he would come back from work. he lived on central park west, but he'd tell the taxi to take him all the way over to
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riverside drive. and he'd stand there. as you say, he liked to wear white suits. he was a ph.d. from oxford. he's a lower level municipal staffer, and he's envisioning something that's the largest public work of that type ever done in america. andpo it took him 25 years, bute did it. so when you have that fact or those facts, group of facts, then you could say this is what he was thinking when he was looking, otherwise i couldn't have done that. at>> right, right. it's almost you need the big bricks of fact and the legwork and then this little bit of mortar of imagination, putting yourself this. >> that's a great way of putting it. you need the bricks first. >> yeah. i'm a a terrific writer. [laughter] i've never felt this stupid in my life. [laughter] you talk about something that's very personal in this book,
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"working." you say that you did not grow up in a house of books. and that was not part of something that was important to your dad. your mother became ill when you were quite young, and she had a dying wish that changed the trajectory of your life. >> yes. well, my mother got very sick when i was 5. in those days if you had breast cancer and it came back, there was very little -- nothing really -- that they could do for you. so she died when i was 11. but she made -- my father, he spoke english. he came over here from poland. he taught himself to write english by copying out whole articles in the "new york times." but he, his language with his
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friends was yiddish, not english. but before she died, my mother made him promise to send me to the harvest man's school, and that became really the center of my boyhood. when i think of my boyhood, i think more of horaceman than i do my home --man mann. >> maybe you got your first taste of journalism? >> yes, i worked on the paper. to this day, ina and i have dinner with two or three guys who worked with me on the horace mann record 60 years ago. so the first remarkable thing is we're all still alive -- [laughter] and it'shi very -- so if we getp from the table and we haven't set a date the next meeting, a thguy named joe diamond makes te arrangements, someone with says,
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joe, you didn't set a date. this is what's keeping us alive. [laughter] >> whatever works, you know? and you have said that you've been snagged every prestigious prize that one can get in your field. you think the biggest honor is the one that horaceman pen gave you -- horaceman gave you. >> you ask terrific -- no one's ever asked me about this before. >> i've been waiting. [laughter] someone at npr was like, what is it today? caro? all right, here we go. [laughter] send in the next hippie, you know? [laughter] anyway, go ahead. [laughter] theen horace mann, this is a big deal. [laughter] of all the prizes that you've been awarded, yeah, the horace mann prize.
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>> so some years ago horace mann said they'd like to name a prize after me. so i said that would really be great if it was for something that i believed in x they were really nice and said, well, what do you want? so i think i said earlier in this interview that i feel it's very important and not sufficiently understood that ifu you want a history or a biography to endure, the level of the writing has to be at the same level as as a novel. i believe that. if you read given and you say why does people still read that? try reading his sentences. he was just great. so theych named the prize the horace mann prize for literary excellence in the writing of history, the prize for literary excellence in the writing of history. and that's the biggest thrill, to go up there, you know, and nowth they say each year the
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number of submissions -- you know, you have to do an independent essay for this -- increases. and this one professor, teacher who administers it, barry bernstein, says, you know, the faculty e is talking, there's more interest in writing biography now. so that makes me feel totally great, yeah. >> i would think so. that would be, i mean, also to have come full circle like that, you know? would just be -- to come full circle like that, to have been at horace mann and come back now and, in your name, these kids are getting this prize. >> well, that, you know, sometimes i win an award or something and ina says to me, why aren't you excited? and i usually -- [laughter] well, i'll act excited if you want, but it's like it happens to somebody else. but in the happens -- this
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happens, this is me, what happens. >> yeah. >> so, yeah. >> it occurred to me reading about these men that you write about and that you have devoted your life to, your interest in them, they have something in common with you which is, and this is a line -- there's a line that people used to say about lyndon johnson that they never saw anybody work that hard. and it occurred to me that your book is called "working." your work ethic and, obviously, you're born with these incredible talents, but your work ethic to be at this and to be in the harness for years at a time, it bears some similarity to these people that you write about. do you think that's fair to say? >> is that a compliment? >> it is. [laughter] that is -- no. i believe, i mean, that's
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something that one of the things i find very inspiring about you and about this book is we live in the area of attention deficit disorder and apps, and everyone's on their phone, and no one can pay attention k. and youe and your wife took a vow f above few, practically, to work on the moses book. and disappeared for seven, eight, nine years with no real, you know, evidence that this would be a big success. that is counter to entire culture that we're in today, this devotion to work can and this devotion to doing your work rkd doing it well. and i found that to be -- there are almosts, i know you've found a lot of unfavorable things about these people that you've written about, but there's also amazing qualities about them. and like you, both of them were
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incredibly hard working people. and that must resonate with you. >> yeah. and, well, that's very perspective. -- perceptive. the qualities, in many ways they're as opposite as you could, but they're -- unbelievable amounts of work in that, they are the same. id tried, you do lots of things as a writer to try and remind yourself, like my publisher is reallyly wonderful. they've never asked me when are you going to deliver. i have never been asked when is this book going to be done. so it take me so many years that it's easy to fool yourself that you're working hard, you know? because nobody's checking up on you or anything. so i do everything i can to remind myself that it's a job. people make fun of me because i
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wear a tie and a jacket to work, but the truth is it's because when i was young, people wore ties and jackets to work. i do other things, you know? i write down every day how many words i wrote, you know, that sort of thing just to remind yourself it's a job. you have to produce. >> i -- one thought struck me, look at the cover of this book, and i think a lot of you have it, but it's you posing in your office where you work, and i was thinking you don't really have a boss, and you're in this room, and you're working. i know you havea this very strg work ethic is and you get in there -- what time are you writing by in the morning? ..
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in the morning. he wouldn't exhaust the fuel tank. why m.i. in comedy, i'd have noo idea why i'm wasting my life. [laughter] >> i wrote my senior thesis and one of the things he said was i
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always stop when i know what the next sentence is going to be. that is the best piece of advice i've ever gotten. >> it's a little shy of that day. you are in the office, 3:00 in the afternoon you are supposed to do more work you are running and do you ever think i'm up here on the upper west side. i could pop out and see a movie? [laughter]e do you ever do that, sneak out and see a movie? [laughter]
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if i don't answer it is because i am so deep in the work. >> that's what they all say to me. [laughter] it's what every girl said to me when i askedth her out if i dont answer, i'm deep in the work. [laughter] i'm going to open it up to questions now from the audience and we will take it from there. how long for questions, 15 minutes? we will figure it out. if i'm a huge words of your -- fan of your work.
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when i read "the new york times" piece, i found a kindred spirit so i wonder working on this piece, how did you finally ended getting your -- >> you are asking the wrong question here. >> i didn't write that piece. a very good writer, right here. he heard about this rumor that i was obsessed with in an unhealthy way. is there anything in the lives of moses or jones in that you rkfound inspirational or acquird
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in your own life either in what to do, how to be, what's not to do or how not to be? >> is there anything you feel you learned from the personality that you have applied it in your own life >> that's such a good question. with both of them i never put it in the terms before. you feel the most important thing is to keep working at something. it's a vision that the west side highway whatever year that was, 1912, he didn't get to build it
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until 1937, for 25 years. inhe envisioned a speech in what had seemed impossible to create something like that and johnson, the book i'm writing right now, socialassinhe's passing off of welfare legislation, the civil rights act, the voting rights act, head start. you say he is working overtime to change the vote. it's very impressive how hard they work and never stopped thank you for coming here and doing this work. it seemed the next book would
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cover the presidency. i'm not going to ask the question you don't want me to ask but at what point did you realize it had to be divided into two books, thedi path to power and the one coming up? >> he was wondering at what point did you decide that it wanted require more than just one book? >> at the time i started they all told us that chapter or two. none seemed t seem to have enour and detail but then i realized there was this incredible story, those of you that have read the book and they were telling me
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these stories about johnson as a ruthless fear even as a young man, but then no matter what lyndon was like, we loved him because he brought the light. it took a while they were talking about electricity. what does this mean, i was a ricity boy so electricity was turning on a light switch. and then you say this is an incredible that he transformed the lives of these people by doing something impossible. to create the hydroelectric power and then they have delayed not thousands but tens of thousands of line to these
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isolated farmhouses but as soon as they did it, women didn't have to do everything by hand. so he said i'm going to tell that story. i remember i also said it's very hard to show, i want to show what the government can do for people. i think we've forgotten that. the great power, what was it like when you lost your job, had to retire. i'm working right now on a section that you could recall what it was like to be old and y sick before medicare. they revolutionize things. it's hard to show that if you are talking about a city project because there's all these crosscurrents and economic backgrounds of the social programs and immigrants etc. but here we have a congressional
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district where there's yet thea new congressman lyndon johnson. if i i can examine what he did r these people, i can show the effect of how the government can help people. i constantly tell the court i never thought of this, so that is what makes my book. [applause] at the end of the most recent volume passage of power you start writing about vietnam and a lot of people including me speculated president kennedy lived she probably wouldn't have gotten all of the domestic legislation thatat johnson dot t maybe we wouldn't have gotten mired in vietnam. what do you think of that
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speculation? >> his legislation wasn't going anywhere. in many ways comic kennedy is a great president and could enunciate the best of america, unbut the fact is on the day he was assassinated, the civil rights billay for example was never going to get past, so johnson the legislative genius picked up as far as vietnam. i'm going to take a pass on that question because i haven't written it yet or ever even really thought it completely through yet. certainly as it turns out it's a horrible story would have turned out the same way i don't think i'm ready to answer.
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>> would you share with us what first led you to select robert moses and lyndon johnson as a subject for your life's work? what's led me to select robert moses, an incident in my youth i was a reporter on newsday and got interested in the politics doing investigative work, so i had a couple of minor journalistic awards but when you are veryno young and when anything, i thought i really understood how the political power worked. then the following thing t thing hto makeyou wanted to build yetr bridge.
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so they assigned me to look into it and i founthat and i found oa terrible idea that would have generated so much traffic as i nerecall where it would have needed 12 extra lanes to handle the traffic that would come down from new england and the bridge would have to be so big that it would have caused pollution in the long island south so i wrote those stories and spoke to the governor nelson rockefeller and his counsel and to the speaker of the assembly and the president of the state senate. everyone understood this was the world's worst idea, the bridge was dead and went on to something else. i had a friend in albany and about two weeks later, he calls me andie says i think you better come back up and i said i don't think i have to bother. i think i took care of that
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ofbridge. robert moses was up here yesterday and i think he ought to come back up so it was one of these revelations of my life. i spoke to the same people. they all thought it was the world's greatest idea in fact the state was financing the preliminary work. you think you know about everything i've been writing. you think you live in a democracy and power comes from being elected. here is a guy that was never elected to anything that he has more power than any mayor, governor, and he held this power for 44 p years and with i it he shaped his wholeye metropolitan area and you who is supposed to know about political power have no idea where he got this power
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and neither does anybody else, so that was the moment when i started thinking about that but i didn't really have time to think about it as a book because as a reporter you are running every day to do another story. you don't get the chance. but then i became known as a fellow at harvard university which means you go to harvard for a year and that was the first i remember that year. i was alone a lot of the time and then the foundation had about social events and i don't like to go by myself so i spent a lot of time in this little thoffice and thought that the ia of the power broker and when i finished i really thought it was a book not about him, bu but hes
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in power in the cities and i wondered if the national power andd -- >> you mentioned at the end of the interview that you once met or saw lyndon johnson and i was curiousi the circumstances. >> one time in your life that you actually saw in the/lyndon johnson. >> one time i saw him iim never talked to him or anything. i was a substitute political reporter when he ran againstst goldwater and came along the press line. this is more than an honor and more of a fan boy question you asked all evening. in the first couple of johnson books it was hard to get the people closest to him to talk
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and when the books came out, you got attacked a lot by nobody morere than jack and then he dia real about-face and praised you to the high heavens rightfully. did that make it easier for you to get interviews from the people closest to johnson subsequently? >> he was asking after the books came out you t you took a lot ot from johnson's friend especially jack and then he said he turned around and started to praise you and i think your question was did that mean a lot to you? splenic a lot of the people that attacked me and wouldn't talk to me at the beginning they almost
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all came around. i was in austin last night speech to >> i always heard your book are not sold at the johnson library you go to the gift shop they are not sold as the true tax >> they were not sold for a number of years now they do sell them and in fact i had a wonderful dinner of johnson library had last night. the president of the lyndon johnson foundations were said that they regretted hostility
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towards me. [applause] is there any chance a new edition could be published restorers the words that your publisher forced? >> by publisher and i would like to publish all those first. >> it's not so easy to do that. you don't just put it back into the buck so it's a lot of work to do but i hope to do that, yes. >> if you worked on a word processor computer you can hit one button. you may do with that what you will. >> will you comment on operation texas and johnson reference for
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judaism? >> there's something called operationis texas. are you familiar with that? >> no. >> i am a retired history teacher. i read of the power broker in all of thehe books twice and i think it speaks for a lot of people here when i tell you you are the finest biographer. [applause] my question is this. johnson had a number of important mentors along the way, men and women. you mentioned franklin roosevelt, sam rayburn, richard
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russell. is there one you might point out that you thought was most pivotal? who was the most important of all of his mentors? >> those that you mention, woosevelt and russell, the shared two characteristics. they were both bachelors, they were incredibly lonely men. johnson made himself with people call the professionals on to them. he would invite them to his house for a sunday brunch for dinner. ladybird would make them feel at home. he spent as much time with them as he possibly could and they were instrumental in raising him to power. roosevelt was different. it's interesting, roosevelt never made protéges of young
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congressman. started to realize there was one exception to this and often he would say come have a fist with me and he did have breakfast with him and i said to a man named james rowe, i said what made this different for franklin roosevelt and he said you know, roosevelt was a political genius almost no one understood what he was talking about. lyndon johnson and her started it all from the first minute and roosevelt saw that. it was just two geniuses. he said if i had gone to southwestern texas state teachers college, i might have
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turned out like that. when you are doing interviews, people are aware that they are talking for history and care about how they look. how do youth decide what to believe that >> i never believe anything. you interview people over and over again. i think i had a 22 interviews, several hundred pages of typed notes then you go to the other people involved in the story and ask them the same questions. then you go back to the first person and say so and so, how do
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you reconcile that. it's a very laborious thing. sandford johnson, he never allowed the minutes to be taken that somebodbut somebody had tos on them. people just told you the story so many times they think it's but often it's not. >> who were the most important influences in other biographers or historians in your process? >> i can tell you who the most important influence was. we have to read a part of it when i was at princeton. remember i was captivated by the sentences. he's such a great writer.
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what makes history come up to me it has to be written really well. and there are a lot of other historians one way or another of influence, but he stands alone. thank you for being here and for your work. i'm a journalist with aspirations and wondered if you can speak about your relationship at the beginning of your career because for instance there was a story that you have to sell your house to cover your living next to us while finishing the power broker, and i'm just one ring whether they were present for you or if that is just a chip that was missing. >> it is a question i was interested to bring up and she's
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asking basically you sold your home, i bet it was to pay for the powerr. broker. at one point your back goes out and you are saying i need to go, she's doing it is getting the record for you and you arere telling her take a left or a right. how did you deal with out writing a book that you are not sure how long it's going to ta take. >> i didn't fight it very successfully. it was a big part of my life.
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i got a grant from the foundation one day he sold the house and unfortunately it was before the real estate boom.
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i finally wrote half a million words in the manuscript. so i gave it to my editor who took a long time to return my telephone calls and then returned me to a chinese restaurant on broadway as i remember said he liked the book and i said basically can i have the other $2,500 he said to me though, i guess you didn't understand, we like the book and wants you to continue with it
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but no one is going to read a book on robert moses. very luckily for me not going after that so i could leave. so i got an agent.
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i said i'm worried i won't have enough money to finish the book. she said how much are you talking about and i no longer remembered. she looked at me and says that what you are worried about.
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you were very present in 2016 when they supported a group of historians to come before the election and i guess i'm just wondering if does this make this president more excruciating for you and if you do have the feeling of this too shall pass and get on with the next one? >> i think it is too early to tell you. >> we had a discussion backstage when we were wondering is he in now hire to thread the needle in
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this moment of this particular timat this particulartime becau, that it or is it a sign of something to come and we were talking about that backstage, what do you think? >> i don't think we know the answer yet. >> hello and thank you all both for your passion and scholarsh scholarship. i'd like to know what advice you would give to a roomful of writers in the age where perhaps people's attention spans are wandering maybe not in this room, but in the rest of life. what advice would you give? >> in this age of the wandering attentione span, what advice
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would you give when things seem a little buyer for the process you've dedicated your life to? >> i don't have any advice. i think everybody has to find their own way. i certainly don't think that my own ways of best buy. i happen to think the time has already started to turn back the sales. people keep saying attention spans are shorter and shorter. it's the only field i know anything about the presidential biographies. so, the book on truman i think was about 1100 pages. i'm not sure if that's sold many more copies and biographies.
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i think the proof is everywhere around us but not necessarily our attention dan is getting shorter. people want things as long as the writing is good. i happen to think there's always a desire and curiosity in people to find out how things really happen and i don't think you find that out. [applause] thank you. [applause]
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we will be working in the foyer, see you soon.


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