October 30, 2017

Happy birthday, Robert Caro!


One thing to be glad about: Robert Caro is eighty-two today, and it’s a fine excuse to spend the day thinking about Robert Caro, who’s easily a candidate for least stupid person in America.

Caro is a lot of things: the paragon of a mostly bygone model of New-York-itude, hard-nosed, worldly, compassionate, and aggressive; possibly the most highly-regarded biographer in modern history; one of America’s most celebrated living writers; and a dude who once gave a personalized tour of New York City to a self-described “groupie” who happened also to the be the prime minister of the Netherlands.

In 1965, Caro was working as a journalist for Newsday when he got interested in Robert Moses, a public official with an uncanny ability to reshape New York City’s public infrastructure to suit his will. Caro’s years of painstaking research into Moses—including repeated interviews with his subject—blossomed, in 1974, into The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The book became an instant classic — with impeccable style and a profoundly restrained sensitivity to the line between detail and flourish, fact and conjecture, it portrayed an unelected visionary, whose racism, contempt for the poor, and genius at working the levers of power shaped New York City. “He was the most racist person I ever met,” Caro has many times said of Moses. (If you can get behind the paywall, don’t miss this remembrance of writing it that Caro published in the New Yorker twenty-five years later.)

The book was an instant smash. There’d never been anything like it. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize, and earned citations from the Modern Library and the Society of American Historians. In 2010, while giving Caro the National Medal in the Humanities, Barack Obama noted, “I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old, and just being mesmerized, and I’m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics.”

Since then, Caro has been at work—for more than thirty years now—on what is planned to be a five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. After publishing installments in 1982, 1990, 2002, and 2012, he is hard at work at number five. Commenting recently to the New York TimesJohn Williams, Caro explained that needed to go to Vietnam before he could finish the book, to see “the great battlefields of Huế.” Other dope comments included, “I’m not going to change the way I do it just because I’m getting older. I don’t know what the point would be of that.” The series has won numerous awards, including several Pulitzers, an LA Times Book Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the John Steinbeck Award, the Carl Sandburg Award, the Norman Mailer Prize

At eighty-two, Caro remains an old-fashioned type who shows up in a suit and tie every morning to work at a desk in his midtown office, talks in a classic, little-heard New York accent, and speaks with eloquence and directness about the relationship between the highest echelons of power and the daily lives of working people.

If you have a little time, this interview Caro gave with British politician William Hague is an absolute must-watch. Caro reflects on his own career, and is a fount of information — why are the overpasses so low on Long Island’s highways? How did LBJ’s childhood poverty impact his policy agenda? Is New York’s low-income housing designed to punish the people who live there?

Sit back and enjoy. And happy birthday, Robert Caro. Don’t change a thing.