Robert Caro is a New Yorker. And the restaurant at which he chooses to have lunch is as New York as they come. Patsy’s Italian restaurant, off Broadway on 56th, has been run by the same family since it was opened in 1944 by Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo. It was a favourite haunt of Frank Sinatra, and the walls are plastered with photos of film and TV stars, including what looks like the entire cast of The Sopranos, whose near-doubles are here on the day I meet Caro, sitting hunched over plates of manicotti and chicken contadina.
Caro, dressed in sober dark suit and tie, cuts a slighter more elegant figure as he enters. The restaurant is near the Columbus Circle office where, for the past 22 years, he has continued to work on his biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Earlier this year, Bill Clinton described the latest volume, The Passage to Power, covering the early 1960s and the assassination of JFK, as “fascinating and meticulous”. Caro, the former president continued, had “once again done America a great service”.
The biography is famous not just for its erudition but also for its length: the four volumes published so far run to a total of 3,500 pages – and the length of time it has taken to write (the first volume appeared 31 years ago, the longest gap between books is 12 years). Together, they tell the story not just of the man whom Caro argues is the most important American president of the 20th century but of the political landscape he inhabits. From Johnson’s youth in the bleak Texas Hill Country (The Path to Power, 1982) to his rise to Congress, including a controversial description of how the future president, in Caro’s view, cheated in the 1948 Texas Democratic primary (Means of Ascent, 1990) to his domination of the Senate (Master of the Senate, 2002). At each turn, the books shed light not just on US history but on politics in the present day.
Caro, 77, is researching what he promises will be the final volume. “I said when I started these books that it would be three; now it’s five, but this is where it’s supposed to stop,” he laughs. It will cover the years from Johnson’s victory in the 1964 presidential election to his death in 1973, a period overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. Johnson, says Caro, liked to pick bombing targets himself. It’s a shocking piece of information but not a surprising one. The LBJ that Caro portrays is a complex character: a man of great cruelty but also great compassion. Caro’s Johnson mercilessly bullies his staff and his long-suffering wife, Lady Bird. But he is also the man who forced the first meaningful civil rights bill through Congress, and then as president championed those rights. “I was the first one to write the truth about Johnson,” Caro says, before pausing to wonder if this is why Lady Bird stopped talking to him during his research for the first book.
We stop to look at the menu and Caro tells me that many people don’t like the restaurant because it serves traditional “red sauce” Italian food. He expresses disappointment that a fresh crabmeat cocktail appetiser is not available. “It was the appetiser of my youth,” he says sadly. “No one serves it nowadays.” Instead, he has chopped salad, and chicken livers cacciatora. I order a house salad, then shrimp scampi with spaghetti.
He tells me how his view of his subject was formed during research of Johnson’s childhood and college years in Texas. To do this Caro – and his wife (and sole researcher) Ina – moved to Texas for three years. “If you write about power,” he says, “it’s necessary to show not just the person who uses power but the effect of that power on people. You have to go to the place. You never know what you’re going to find.” With his New York vowels, that last word comes out “foind”.
“If you can get a clear picture of someone at college, you can get a clear picture of him at any stage of his life,” he says. “So I said I’m going to try to find every classmate of his.
“They didn’t have an alumni directory. It wasn’t like Oxford, or Princeton [where Caro went to university]. I remember Ina and I sitting on the floor of the New York Public Library with all these telephone books. I did find a lot of his classmates, out of which emerged this totally revelatory story about him, about his personality. But just finding them took weeks, if not months.”
Caro’s meticulous research into Johnson’s youth in rural Texas resulted in a portrait of a young man scarred by poverty, driven by his father’s failure as a businessman, farmer and politician, and desperate for power. It’s a portrait that was controversial at the time of publication but one that Caro stands by nearly four decades on. “My opinion of Johnson hasn’t changed – it’s the same guy. As Michelle Obama said at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, ‘Power reveals.’”
Caro’s fascination with power, and his desire to examine it through biography, began long before he embarked on his decades-long Johnson project. After studying English at Princeton, he found work as a newspaper reporter in New Jersey, before taking leave to work for the Middlesex County Democratic party. Accompanying a senior Democrat during an election in the early 1960s, he witnessed a group of African-Americans, acting as poll-watchers, being loaded into a police van.
It was, he explains, an episode that affected him deeply and he left the campaign trail immediately. He decided then that he would write about political power – but as an outsider, first as an investigative reporter with the Long Island newspaper Newsday, then on his first biography, The Power Broker, a 1,250-page epic on the life of Robert Moses, the master builder responsible for the Triborough Bridge and many of the other bridges, parks and parkways that now characterise New York.
Writing about Moses and, later, about Johnson, says Caro, he drew on the example of Ernest Hemingway, on whom he wrote a dissertation at Princeton. In Death in the Afternoon, for example, Hemingway describes the goring of a bullfighter, and the whiteness of the bone in the bullfighter’s thigh. “I wanted to describe like that, what you are seeing,” says Caro.
His writing also has a crusading element. As an example, he tells me that one of Johnson’s greatest achievements, albeit one designed to help his corporate backers, was to bring electricity to isolated rural farms in Texas. “They [the farmers] would tell me these stories about Johnson, you know, some of them were terrible stories, but then, over and over again, you’d hear the same thing: ‘We loved him because he brought the lights.’ Intellectually, I knew what he had done but I had no idea how [it] had transformed their lives.
“I always want to show what the potentialities of government are, what’s the potentiality of political power,” he continues. “Here you have an isolated area, a tabula rasa. Before [Johnson] became a congressman, they lived like this. After he became a congressman, they lived like that. It’s very important now, when there’s all this debate about how big government should be, they forget what government is. Here, here is such a dramatic example of what government can be.”
The Robert Moses biography took Caro seven years to write, and as soon as it was finished, in 1976, he began work on Lyndon Johnson. “Every month, you know, every month the rent was a problem …” he recalls. But then the New Yorker bought the rights to serialise The Power Broker. “The first thing I did, I asked [my agent], ‘How long does it take a cheque like this to clear?’” and the next morning he and Ina were on an aeroplane to France.
In the 37 years since, the couple – who married as soon as Caro left Princeton – have spent almost every summer there. In France his and Ina’s roles are reversed. A historian of medieval Europe, she has published two books about the country, and Caro plays second fiddle. “I carry her books around. I drive, I chauffeur her. I’m always wakened by the rustle of maps. She’s always saying something like ‘It’s 180km – that’s not too far to drive for lunch.’” He remembers how, when he told her that, to understand Johnson’s youth, they needed to move, temporarily, to Texas, she replied: “Couldn’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”
He says when they are in France he tries never to mention Johnson. And, though it’s easy to imagine Caro is obsessed by his work, he says he has been careful not to allow Johnson to take over his life. “I don’t care how late I work in the office but I never bring anything home about Johnson.”
As we struggle through our enormous main courses, having just about managed our salads, Caro speaks, as he writes, with painstaking precision. “I’m going too fast,” he keeps saying. Sometimes he stops, wincing as if in pain, as he reflects on what answer he wants to give. Although he writes quickly, he edits and re-edits himself right up until the last minute.
His efforts have been rewarded with two Pulitzer prizes and the Francis Parkman prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist”. In 2010 he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. “After the ceremony, [Obama] is standing right there and he looks at me and says, ‘Robert Caro, I remember reading The Power Broker when I was 22 and I know it shaped my political thinking.’ That was really right from the heart. It meant a lot.”
I ask whether he thinks Johnson can teach today’s politicians anything. He compares Obama’s achievement in getting the healthcare bill through Congress to Johnson getting the 1957 Civil Rights Act passed. “There are lots of things wrong with the healthcare bill, like there were [with the Civil Rights Act], but once you got it passed, it’s easier to go back to fix the situation.” He also sees similarities between the sclerotic, ineffectual Senate before Johnson took over as majority leader in 1951, and the current logjam in Congress.
“I do see parallels. Harry Reid [Democrat Senate majority leader since 2007] came to my apartment two or three weeks ago – Mr and Mrs Reid came – and we had a wonderful morning. In talking with him about the Senate, and the difficulties he has in getting it to pass legislation, I had the feeling we were talking about the Senate of the 1950s. The same dysfunctional place.
“Johnson was majority leader for six years [from 1955 to 1961]. During those six years the Senate really works – he passes all those social welfare bills, he passes the Civil Rights Act. And the minute he leaves, the Senate goes back to being the same mess it was before and since.”
He says the issues that readers email him about now are the role of money and the media in elections – negative and big-budget campaigning was pioneered by Johnson in his fight for election to the Senate in 1948. “Just think: $2bn was spent on advertising in this [recent presidential] campaign. This election was sort of revolting in a way,” he says, spearing a piece of liver with relish.
As we share an Italian cheesecake for dessert, Caro tells me that Anthony Trollope is his favourite author and that he is rereading Can You Forgive Her? for the third time.
It’s not surprising he should be so drawn to Trollope, whose sure-footed portrayal of the interplay between politics and the personal, as well as his fluidly elegant prose, could be a blueprint for Caro’s own style.
He is perhaps at his most Trollopian when writing about feuds that overshadowed the lives of both his subjects – Robert Moses’ with Franklin Roosevelt; Johnson’s with Robert Kennedy, who was appalled by his brother’s decision to choose LBJ as his vice-presidential running mate in 1960. Bobby Kennedy, says Caro, will be a “huge presence” in the next book: “I can’t wait to write the Robert Kennedy/Johnson scenes. You would have to be a pretty bad writer for this not to come out great.”
We talk about how disturbing it was that, as Bobby Kennedy lay dying in hospital after being shot in June 1968, Johnson kept asking his aides, “Is he dead? Is he dead yet?” I wonder why Johnson tried to stop Bobby being buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his beloved brother, despite Johnson having once fought for a place there for a Mexican soldier who had been denied one on race grounds. As I mention this, Caro gets excited – “I didn’t see that” – and borrows a sheet of paper and my pen to make a note of it while I bask in the glory of having perhaps made a contribution to the next volume.
Caro says he knows what the last line of the last volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson will be, and, when he takes me up to his office after lunch, he allows me to look at everything except the outline that is pinned on the wall in dense typewritten pages. (He writes in longhand on white legal pads, then on a typewriter, and has only recently acquired a computer.)
All his last lines are powerful. In the latest volume, he closes the description of Johnson’s Herculean efforts in the months after John F Kennedy’s assassination by noting that the darker forces in his character would soon resurface. “If he had held in check these forces within him, had conquered himself, for a while, he wasn’t going to be able to do it for very long. But he had done it long enough.”
And what of his own efforts? “You feel, if you have found out something about political power, you don’t just want one generation to know it, you want succeeding generations to know it. And to do that, the book will have to endure. And if you want it to endure, the level of the writing has to be the same as great fiction.”
Sarah Gordon is the FT’s companies editor
236 West 56th Street, NY
Chopped salad $11.00
House salad $10.00
Chicken livers cacciatore $29.00
Shrimp scampi with spaghetti $31.00
Italian cheesecake $12.00
Mineral water x 2 $10.00
Decaf cappuccino $5.00
Filter coffee $4.00
Total (incl service) $136.50