Robert A. Caro

Robert A. Caro


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Robert A. Caro was born in New York. After graduating from Princeton University he became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Later he worked as an investigative reporter for Newsday.

Caro's book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.

Other the last 25 years Caro has been writing about the life and career of Lyndon B. Johnson. This includes The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990) and Master of the Senate (2002).


Means of Ascent

Here, Johnson’s almost mythic personality—part genius, part behemoth, at once hotly emotional and icily calculating—is seen at its most nakedly ambitious. This multifaceted book carries the President-to-be from the aftermath of his devastating defeat in his 1941 campaign for the Senate-the despair it engendered in him, and the grueling test of his spirit that followed as political doors slammed shut-through his service in World War II (and his artful embellishment of his record) to the foundation of his fortune (and the actual facts behind the myth he created about it).

The culminating drama—the explosive heart of the book—is Caro’s illumination, based on extraordinarily detailed investigation, of one of the great political mysteries of the century. Having immersed himself in Johnson’s life and world, Caro is able to reveal the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson was not believed capable of winning, which he “had to” win or face certain political death, and which he did win-by 87 votes, the “87 votes that changed history.”

Telling that epic story “in riveting and eye-opening detail,” Caro returns to the American consciousness a magnificent lost hero. He focuses closely not only on Johnson, whom we see harnessing every last particle of his strategic brilliance and energy, but on Johnson’s “unbeatable” opponent, the beloved former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, who embodied in his own life the myth of the cowboy knight and was himself a legend for his unfaltering integrity. And ultimately, as the political duel between the two men quickens—carrying with it all the confrontational and moral drama of the perfect Western—Caro makes us witness to a momentous turning point in American politics: the tragic last stand of the old politics versus the new—the politics of issue versus the politics of image, mass manipulation, money and electronic dazzle.


Excerpt

The Chamber of the United States Senate was a long, cavernous space—over a hundred feet long. From its upper portion, from the galleries for citizens and journalists which rimmed it, it seemed even longer than it was, in part because it was so gloomy and dim—so dim in 1949, when lights had not yet been added for television and the only illumination came from the ceiling almost forty feet above the floor, that its far end faded away in shadows—and in part because it was so pallid and bare. Its drab tan damask walls, divided into panels by tall columns and pilasters and by seven sets of double doors, were unrelieved by even a single touch of color—no painting, no mural—or, seemingly, by any other ornament. Above those walls, in the galleries, were rows of seats as utilitarian as those of a theater and covered in a dingy gray, and the features of the twenty white marble busts of the country’s first twenty vice presidents, set into niches above the galleries, were shadowy and blurred. The marble of the pilasters and columns was a dull reddish gray in the gloom. The only spots of brightness in the Chamber were the few tangled red and white stripes on the flag that hung limply from a pole on the presiding officer’s dais, and the reflection of the ceiling lights on the tops of the ninety-six mahogany desks arranged in four long half circles around the well below the dais. From the galleries the low red-gray marble dais was plain and unimposing, apparently without decoration. The desks themselves, small and spindly, seemed more like schoolchildren’s desks than the desks of senators of the United States, mightiest of republics.

When a person stood on the floor of the Senate Chamber, however—in the well below the dais—the dais was, suddenly, not plain at all. Up close, its marble was a deep, dark red lushly veined with grays and greens, and set into it, almost invisible from the galleries, but, up close, richly glinting, were two bronze laurel wreaths, like the wreaths that the Senate of Rome bestowed on generals with whom it was pleased, when Rome ruled the known world—and the Senate ruled Rome. From the well, the columns and pilasters behind the dais were, suddenly, tall and stately and topped with scrolls, like the columns of the Roman Senate’s chamber, the columns before which Cato spoke and Caesar fell, and above the columns, carved in cream-colored marble, were eagles, for Rome’s legions marched behind eagles. From the well, there was, embroidered onto each pale damask panel, an ornament in the same pale color and all but invisible from above—a shield—and there were cream-colored marble shields, and swords and arrows, above the doors. And the doors—those seven pairs of double doors, each flanked by its tall columns and pilasters—were tall, too, and their grillwork, hardly noticeable from above, was intricate and made of beaten bronze, and it was framed by heavy, squared bronze coils. The vice presidential busts were, all at once, very high above you set into deep, arched niches, flanked by massive bronze sconces, their marble faces, thoughtful, stern, encircled the Chamber like a somber evocation of the Republic’s glorious past. And, rising from the well, there were the desks.

The desks of the Senate rise in four shallow tiers, one above the other, in a deep half circle. Small and spindly individually, from the well they blend together so that with their smooth, burnished mahogany tops reflecting even the dim lights in the ceiling so far above them, they form four sweeping, glowing arcs. To stand in the well of the Senate is to stand among these four long arcs that rise around and above you, that stretch away from you, gleaming richly in the gloom: powerful, majestic. To someone standing in the well, the Chamber, in all its cavernous drabness, is only a setting for those desks—for those desks, and for the history that was made at them.

The first forty-eight of those desks—they are of a simple, federal design—were carved in 1819 to replace the desks the British had burned five years before. When, in 1859, the Senate moved into this Chamber, those desks moved with them, and when, as the Union grew, more desks were added, they were carved to the same design. And for decades—for most of the first century of the Republic’s existence, in fact for the century in which it was transformed from a collection of ragged colonies into an empire—much of its history was hammered out among those desks.

Daniel Webster’s hand rested on one of those desks when, on January 26, 1830, he rose to reply again to Robert Hayne.

Every desk in the domed, colonnaded room that was then the Senate’s Chamber was filled that day—some not with senators but with spectators, for so many visitors, not only from Washington but from Baltimore and New York, had crowded into the Chamber, overflowing the galleries, that some senators had surrendered their seats and were standing against the walls or even among the desks—for the fate of the young nation might hang on that reply. In the South, chafing under the domination of the North and East, there was a new word abroad—secession—and the South’s leading spokesman, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, had, although he was Vice President of the United States, proposed a step that would go a long way toward shattering the Union: that any state unwilling to abide by a law enacted by the national government could nullify it within its borders. In an earlier Senate speech that January of 1830, the South, through the South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne, had proposed that the West should join the South in an alliance that could have the most serious implications for the future of the Union. The specific issue Hayne raised was the price of public lands in the West: the West wanted the price kept low to attract settlers from the East and encourage development the East wanted the price kept high so its people would stay home, and continue to provide cheap labor for northern factories. The East, whose policies had so long ground down the South, was now, Hayne said, trying to do the same thing to the West, and the West should unite with the South against it. And the Senator raised broader issues as well. Why should one section be taxed to construct a public improvement in another? “What interest has South Carolina in a canal in Ohio?” And what if Ohio didn’t want it? Why should the national government decide such issues? The sovereignty of the individual states—their rights, their freedom—was being trampled. The reaction of many western senators to Hayne’s proposal of an alliance had been ominously favorable Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton asked the South to “stretch forth” a “protecting arm” against the East. And to Webster’s first speech in response, Hayne—slight, slender, and aristocratic in bearing although dressed in a “coarse homespun suit that he had substituted for the hated broadcloth manufactured in the North”—had passionately attacked the North’s “meddling statesmen” and abolitionists, and had defended slavery, states’ rights, and nullification in arguments that were considered so unanswerable that the “white, triumphant face” of a smiling Calhoun, presiding over the Senate as Vice President, and the toasts in Washington taverns to Hayne, to the South, and to nullification reflected the general feeling that the South had won. And then two days later, on the 26th, Senator Webster of Massachusetts, with his dark, craggy face, jet-black hair, and jutting black eyebrows—“Black Dan” Webster, with his deep booming voice that “could shake the world,” Webster, Emerson’s “great cannon loaded to the lips”—rose, in blue coat with bright brass buttons, buff waistcoat, and white cravat, rose to answer, and, as he spoke, the smile faded from Calhoun’s face.

He stood erect as he spoke, his left hand resting on his desk, his voice filling the Chamber, and, one by one, he examined and demolished Hayne’s arguments. The claim that a state could decide constitutional questions? The Constitution, Webster said, is the fundamental law of a people—of one people—not of states. “We the People of the United States made this Constitution. . . . This government came from the people, and is responsible to them.” “He asks me, ‘What interest has South Carolina in a canal to the Ohio?’ The answer to that question expounds the whole diversity of sentiment between that gentleman and me. . . . According to his doctrine, she has no interest in it. Accourding to his doctorin, Ohio is one country, and South Carolina is another country. . . . I, sir, take a different view of the whole matter. I look upon Ohio and South Carolina to be parts of one whole—parts of the same country—and that country is my country. . . . I come here not to consider that I will do this for one distinct part of it, and that for another, but . . . to legislate for the whole.” And finally Webster turned to a higher idea: the idea—in and of itself—of Union, permanent and enduring. The concept was, as one historian would note, “still something of a novelty in 1830. . . . Liberty was supposed to depend more on the rights of states than on the powers of the general government.” But to Webster, the ideas were not two ideas but one.

When my eyes shall be turned for the last time on the meridian sun, I hope I may see him shining brightly upon my united, free and happy Country. I hope I shall not live to see his beams falling upon the dispersed fragments of the structure of this once glorious Union. I hope that I may not see the flag of my Country, with its stars separated or obliterated, torn by commotion, smoking with the blood of civil war. I hope I may not see the standard raised of separate State rights, star against star, and stripe against stripe but that the flag of the Union may keep its stars and its stripes corded and bound together in indissoluble ties. I hope I shall not see written, as its motto, first Liberty, and then Union. I hope I shall see no such delusion and deluded motto on the flag of that Country. I hope to see spread all over it, blazoned in letters of light, and proudly floating over Land and Sea that other sentiment, dear to my heart, “Union and Liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Tears in the crowded Senate gallery tears on the crowded Senate floor. “Even Calhoun,” it was said, “revealed the emotions he tried so hard to conceal. Love and pride of country—these were things he could understand, too.” Men and women were weeping openly as Daniel Webster finished. Among those men were western senators, ardent nationalists, who had “thrilled to the patriotic fervor of Webster’s final words.” Those words crushed the southern hope for an alliance with the West. They did more. Webster revised the speech before it was published in pamphlet form, trying to convert the spoken words, “embellished as they had been by gestures, modulations of voice, and changes of expression, into words that would be read without these accompaniments but would leave the reader as thrilled and awed as the listening audience had been.” He succeeded. Edition followed edition, and when copies ran out, men and women passed copies from hand to hand in Tennessee, it was said, each copy “has probably been read by as many as fifty different” persons. “No speech in the English language, perhaps no speech in modern times, had ever been as widely diffused and widely read as Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne,” an historian of the period was to write. That speech “raised the idea of Union above contract or expediency and enshrined it in the American heart.” It made the Union, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, “part of the religion of this people.” And the only change Webster made in those ringing last nine words was to reverse “Union” and “Liberty,” so they read: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” Those words would be memorized by generations of schoolchildren, they would be chiseled in marble on walls and monuments—those words, spoken among those desks, in the Senate.

The long struggle of the colonies that were now become states against a King and the King’s representatives—the royal governors and proprietary officials in each colony—had made the colonists distrust and fear the possibilities for tyranny inherent in executive authority. And so, in creating the new nation, its Founding Fathers, the framers of its Constitution, gave its legislature or Congress not only its own powers, specified and sweeping, powers of the purse (“To lay and collect Taxes . . . To borrow Money on the credit of the United States . . . To coin Money”) and powers of the sword (“To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal . . . To raise and support Armies . . . To provide and maintain a Navy . . .”) but also powers designed to make the Congress independent of the President and to restrain and act as a check on his authority: power to approve his appointments, even the appointments he made within his own Administration, even appointments he made to his own Cabinet power to remove his appointees through impeachment—to remove him through impeachment, should it prove necessary power to override his vetoes of their Acts. And the most potent of these restraining powers the Framers gave to the Senate. While the House of Representatives was given the “sole power of Impeachment,” the Senate was given the “sole power to try all Impeachments” (“And no person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of Two Thirds of the Members present”). The House could accuse only the Senate could judge, only the Senate convict. The power to approve presidential appointments was given to the Senate alone a President could nominate and appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and all other officers of the United States, but only “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” Determined to deny the President the prerogative most European monarchs enjoyed of declaring war, the Framers gave that power to Congress as a whole, to House as well as Senate, but the legislative portion of the power of ending war by treaties, of preventing war by treaties—the power to do everything that can be done by treaties between nations—was vested in the Senate alone while most European rulers could enter into a treaty on their own authority, an American President could make one only “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was to write:

The Founding Fathers appear to have envisaged the treaty- making process as a genuine exercise in concurrent authority, in which the President and Senate would collaborate at all stages. . . . One third plus one of the senators . . . retained the power of life and death over the treaties.

Nor was it only the power of the executive of which the Framers were wary. These creators of a government of the people feared not only the people’s rulers but the people themselves, the people in their numbers, the people in their passions, what the Founding Father Edmund Randolph called “the turbulence and follies of democracy.”

The Framers of the Constitution feared the people’s power because they were, many of them, members of what in America constituted an aristocracy, an aristocracy of the educated, the well-born, and the well-to-do, and they mistrusted those who were not educated or well-born or well-to-do. More specifically, they feared the people’s power because, possessing, and esteeming, property, they wanted the rights of property protected against those who did not possess it. In the notes he made for a speech in the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote of the “real or supposed difference of interests” between “the rich and poor”—“those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings”—and of the fact that over the ages to come the latter would come to outnumber the former. “According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the latter,” he noted. “Symptoms, of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in certain quarters to give notice of the future danger.” But the Framers feared the people’s power also because they hated tyranny, and they knew there could be a tyranny of the people as well as the tyranny of a King, particularly in a system designed so that, in many ways, the majority ruled. “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power,” Madison wrote. These abuses were more likely because the emotions of men in the mass ran high and fast, they were “liable to err . . . from fickleness and passion,” and “the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.”

So the Framers wanted to check and restrain not only the people’s rulers, but the people they wanted to erect what Madison called “a necessary fence” against the majority will. To create such a fence, they decided that the Congress would have not one house but two, and that while the lower house would be designed to reflect the popular will, that would not be the purpose of the upper house. How, Madison asked, is “the future danger”—the danger of “a leveling spirit”—“to be guarded against on republican principles? How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded against? Among other means by the establishment of a body in the government sufficiently respectable for its wisdom and virtue, to aid on such emergencies, the preponderance of justice by throwing its weight into that scale.” This body, Madison said, was to be the Senate. Summarizing in the Constitutional Convention the ends that would be served by this proposed upper house of Congress, Madison said they were “first to protect the people against their rulers secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”

Excerpted from Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro. Copyright © 2002 by Robert A. Caro. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Praise for The Power Broker

Winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in Biography

Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize

Named by Modern Library as one of the Top 100
Greatest Nonfiction Books of the
Twentieth Century

“Surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” —David Halberstam

“I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was twenty-two years old and just being mesmerized, and I’m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics.” —President Barack Obama

“The most absorbing, detailed, instructive, provocative book ever published about the making and raping of modern New York City and environs and the man who did it, about the hidden plumbing of New York City and State politics over the last half-century, about the force of personality and the nature of political power in a democracy. A monumental work, a political biography and political history of the first magnitude.” —Eliot Fremont-Smith, New York

“One of the most exciting, un-put-downable books I have ever read. This is definitive biography, urban history, and investigative journalism. This is a study of the corruption which power exerts on those who wield it to set beside Tacitus and his emperors, Shakespeare and his kings.” —Daniel Berger, Baltimore Evening Sun

“Simply one of the best nonfiction books in English of the past 40 years . . . There has probably never been a better dissection of political power . . . From the first page . . . you know that you are in the hands of a master . . . Riveting . . . Superb . . . Not just a stunning portrait of perhaps the most influential builder in world history . . . but an object lesson in the dangers of power. Every politician should read it.” —Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times

“A study of municipal power that will change the way any reader of the book hereafter peruses his newspaper.” —Philip Herrera, Time

“A triumph, brilliant and totally fascinating. A majestic, even Shakespearean, drama about the interplay of power and personality.” —Justin Kaplan

“In the future, the scholar who writes the history of American cities in the twentieth century will doubtless begin with this extraordinary effort.” —Richard C. Wade, The New York Times Book Review

“The feverish hype that dominates the merchandising of arts and letters in America has so debased the language that, when a truly exceptional achievement comes along, there are no words left to praise it. Important, awesome, compelling–these no longer summon the full flourish of trumpets this book deserves. It is extraordinary on many levels and certain to endure.” —William Greider, The Washington Post Book World

“One of the great biographies of all time . . . [by] one of the great reporters of our time . . . and probably the greatest biographer. He is also an extraordinary writer. After reading page 136 of his book The Power Broker, I gasped and read it again, then again. This, I thought, is how it should be done . . . One of the greatest nonfiction works ever written . . . Every MP, wonk and would-be wonk in Westminster has read [Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson], because they think it is the greatest insight into power ever written. They’re nearly right: it’s the second greatest after The Power Broker.” —Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times

“Apart from the book’s being so good as biography, as city history, as sheer good reading, The Power Broker is an immense public service.” —Jane Jacobs

“Required reading for all those who hope to make their way in urban politics for the reformer, the planner, the politician and even the ward heeler.” —Jules L. Wagman, Cleveland Press

“An extraordinary study of the workings of power, individually, institutionally, politically, and economically in our republic.” Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

“Caro has written one of the finest, best-researched and most analytically informative descriptions of our political and governmental processes to appear in a generation.” —Nicholas Von Hoffman, The Washington Post

“This is irresistibly readable, an outright masterpiece and unparalleled insight into how power works and perhaps the greatest portrait ever of a world city.” —David Sexton, The Evening Standard

“Caro’s achievement is staggering. The most unlikely subjects–banking, ward politics, construction, traffic management, state financing, insurance companies, labor unions, bridge building–become alive and contemporary. It is cheap at the price and too short by half. A milestone in literary and publishing history.” —Donald R. Morris, The Houston Post

“A masterpiece of American reporting. It’s more than the story of a tragic figure or the exploration of the unknown politics of our time. It’s an elegantly written and enthralling work of art.” —Theodore H. White

“A stupendous achievement . . . Caro’s style is gripping, indeed hypnotic, and he squeezes every ounce of drama from his remarkable story . . . Can a democracy combine visionary leadership with effective checks and balances to contain the misuse of power? No book illustrates this fundamental dilemma of democracy better than The Power Broker . . . Indeed, no student of government can regard his education as complete until he has read it.” —Vernon Bogdanor, The Independent

“Irresistible reading. It is like one of the great Russian novels, overflowing with characters and incidents that all fit into a vast mosaic of plot and counterplot. Only this is no novel. This is a college education in power corruption.” —George McCue, St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Robert Caro's bloated LBJ biography

By Erik Nelson
Published May 7, 2012 6:40PM (EDT)

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“Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” When Bob Dylan wrote that line in 1964, the naked emperor was Lyndon Johnson, which makes that image perhaps the most disturbing in all of Dylan’s apocalyptic work.

By stripping down Lyndon Baines Johnson to his essence, Robert Caro has himself become an American legend. Since the publication of "The Path to Power" in 1982, Caro has transformed LBJ’s life into a cautionary tale of Shakespearean dimensions. In some wonky circles, the release of a new volume is heralded like the Summer of Love release of “Sgt. Pepper's.” Can Caro possibly top his “Revolver"?”

I am proud to be one of those wonks. Anticipating the release of "The Passage of Power," I went full-metal LBJ, and reread every word of the previous 1,040 page “prequel” – “Master of the Senate.” Much like catching up on the last season of “Mad Men” before the new one begins, I time-traveled like the hero from the new Stephen King JFK-themed novel back to 1958, as the Master Senator (and Master Biographer) prepared for their rendezvous with world history.

The release of this new book has seen Robert Caro morph from legend to Literary Saint, a transformation aided and abetted by the Northern Liberal Media that Johnson so ridiculed. Charles McGrath of the New York Times recently wrote a piece where Caro’s monastic work habits, nurturing relationship with his longtime editor and publisher, and total immersion into the life of his subject is detailed in every, and I mean every, detail.

And after this lengthy profile and slide show, the Times then unleashed crack literary critic Bill Clinton for a hagiographic “review” – which, no surprise, revealed more about Clinton than Caro or, yes, LBJ. The final premiere event was the by now traditional preview of coming attractions in the New Yorker. This time, the sneak peek excerpt was Caro and historical writing at its very best. Things you thought you knew, things you think you have seen, are transformed. The background of the iconic photograph of Johnson being sworn in as president next to a bloodstained and haunted Jackie Kennedy on Air Force One take on entirely new meaning through Caro’s literary filter. Here are the last words of the article. “The oath was over. His hand came down. 'Now let’s get airborne,' Lyndon Johnson said.”

Few works of fiction, let alone history, are written that vividly, and after reading those words and that article, well, that’s when I decided to go back into the 1950s Senate and the wonderful world of cloture, cloakrooms and clout. A symbolic 1,776 pages later – 1,040 of "Master of the Senate" and 736 pages of "The Passage to Power," here I now sit.

Remember that naked Emperor I mentioned earlier? I feel I’ve just read the same book twice. “The Passage to Power” breaks down to four books, one worth reading. Twenty-five percent is fresh, brilliant reporting (that New Yorker extract is by far the best part). Twenty-five percent is explicit and oft-cited retellings of stories from the previous three books. Twenty-five percent is editorial observations about LBJ repurposed from those previous three books. And 25 percent reads like a book proposal for what (hopefully) is to come in the next book.

Sadly, this is no “Sgt. Pepper's.” It’s a greatest hits collection. Lyndon Johnson contained multitudes? Check. Adoptive father of civil rights movement? Check. Power that does not corrupt, but reveals? Check.

Caro also wanders off on tangents. These are not the fascinating tributaries of the history of the Senate that illuminated "Master of the Senate" or the luminous description of the Texas hill country in “The Path to Power.” Here there are chapters, long chapters, devoted to John Kennedy’s biography, even down to yet another recounting of the PT 109 saga. The chapter called “The Drums” seems entirely researched from watching readily available footage of the Kennedy funeral, with Caro’s insights on those days and that footage more appropriate for a DVD’s director's commentary.

There are, of course, priceless nuggets of research gold scattered in this meandering stream. In the second to last chapter (and first part of the tease to the next book), Caro recounts LBJ’s eager questioning of an aide when he hears Robert Kennedy had been shot. “Is he dead? Is he dead yet?” This wishful thinking even shocked Johnson’s staff, and by 1968, they were not easily shocked. And then, there were the odds. According to Caro, before accepting the purgatory of the vice presidency, Johnson had his staff look up the odds for a president dying in office. Those odds worked out to a little less than 1-in-4 for a modern president. And as Johnson said to Clare Booth Luce on the night of Kennedy’s inauguration, “I’m a gambling man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.” And we wonder why he gets cast as the fall guy in many episodes of "Conspiracy Theatre"? But apparently, Caro doesn’t want to go there -- any possible Johnson role gets dismissed in about a page.

My disappointment, as LBJ would say, comes “with a heavy heart.” The first book in the Caro series, “The Path to Power” and the third, “Master of the Senate,” are masterworks, deserving of any praise, hagiographic or otherwise. But the second, “Means of Ascent," seemed a padded-out novella – it could have been edited down to a single, long New Yorker piece. Same thing here. These 736 pages could have been culled to 250 and still hit their target very hard.

Caro assumes the reader has not read any of the others in the series, so endlessly recounts what he wrote in them. At the same time, he wants to make sure that the reader is panting for the next installment to arrive, hence a lengthy tease to the next work-in-long-progress. It's as if the 76-year-old author has made a deal for immortality, as long as he can just tease the reader into waiting another 10 years for him to get on with it.

Of course, each book should be able to stand by itself, and not require an act of devoted rereading before picking up the new one. Yes, but these books are also being written and produced as a definitive series, one long book now broken into five. They should stand with the big boys: Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Carl Sandburg's life of Lincoln, and Shelby Foote's three-volume narrative of the Civil War.

In Caro’s defense, although he treads water in “The Passage of Power," what water. His incisive look at the fear and loathing Johnson had for Robert Kennedy (and vice versa) is a highlight. There are flashes of descriptive writing that achieve a kind of Stephen King-esque kind of time travel. In the case of his account of the food at a Texas state dinner for German Chancellor Erhard, Caro’s literary powers summon a longing for a bib, a handiwipe and some of that thar barbecue. But these passages are few and far between, surrounded by lengthy flashbacks to previous books, long quotes taken from those same books, and even, quotes recycled yet again from the book you are still holding in your hand. The book cries out for the Ghost of William Shawn and a red pencil. How can a book take 10 years of obsessive work and still seem sloppy? It is no service to either Caro or history that he has achieved what every great writer thinks he wants, but should not necessarily have: an editor with Stockholm syndrome.

There is another non-editor-related problem that haunts this book. An omission that will definitely haunt the new work in progress no matter how exhaustively teased: the absence of the erudite voice of Bill Moyers.

Moyers was Johnson’s press secretary when the Credibility Gap was being invented and perfected. But he still has not spoken in any insightful detail of those days, to anyone. Thanks to the New Yorker excerpt, I did learn that Moyers was standing in the back of the crowd during that traumatic swearing in on Air Force One. He’s the guy with glasses, standing upper right. But although a recent profile mentions that Moyers shares an office building with Caro, he remains AWOL in “The Passage to Power." Moyers has stated he is writing a book about Johnson where he will grapple with their shared past. But will he? One wonders if the long arm of LBJ will throttle him into silence. For a man of Moyers' eloquence and moral insight to remain silent, when even Robert McNamara finally and very publicly grappled with his demons, is a loss to Caro’s lifework, to history, and worse, to the America that Moyers has served so well.

McGrath and Clinton’s full admiration for Caro -- and their grudging respect for LBJ -- does make one wish that Caro had learned just a few things from The Master. Perhaps, in an upcoming elevator ride as he and Moyers head to their respective offices, Caro might grab Moyers by the lapel, pull him close, and give him a bit of persuadin’ to attend a Texas-style chinwag. Hope so. Time is not on either man’s side.

If the 10-year gap between Caro’s book and the 45-year gap since Moyers resigned during the "Sgt. Pepper" summer is any indication, time is not on our side, either.


Recent Appearances

Working

Robert Caro talked about his book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, on his experiences investigating and crafting…

Q&A with Robert Caro

Author and LBJ biographer Robert Caro talked about his book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.

Robert Caro Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History

Robert Caro and Horace Mann School student Yuanjun Zeng, recipient of the Robert Caro Prize for Literary Excellence in the…

Q&A with Robert Caro

Robert Caro talked about talks about, “On Power,” his audio project on the evolution and exercise of political power in…


“I seem to remember shaking his hand.” Robert A. Caro spoke in a voice so suddenly soft and musing that he appeared to have gone into a trance. “That’s really strange,” he said, sitting back on the couch and thoughtfully stroking his necktie. “Until you asked me that just now, I’d totally forgotten. But I think I may have shaken his hand.”

It was during the 1964 presidential campaign that Caro saw with his own eyes the smothering, grasping, gigantic figure who would ultimately, from beyond the grave, commandeer decades of Caro’s life and thought. Lyndon Johnson was campaigning in New England, and Robert Caro, a young Newsday reporter on urban politics, had been reassigned to cover him.

“I was a substitute,” Caro recalled. “I was nothing. I was never part of the pool. I was never on the plane. I could only see him from a distance. But what got me was this colossal energy. It was an endlessly long day-he was always jumping out of the car, constantly shaking hands.

“We were in New Hampshire. During that day or the day before, Teddy Kennedy had been in a plane crash and hurt his back. In my memory, it was midnight when Johnson decided to go to Boston and visit him. So a few hours later, we were standing outside the hospital in the dark. There were people in hospital uniforms standing over on this side waiting to shake his hand, and the press standing outside the was lined up over here. Then he came out, looming, untired. I remember seeing his hands. They were scratched and bleeding! Whether I just saw him shaking hands with the nurses or whether he actually came over to me, I can’t tell you. But I was close enough to see his hands bleeding.”

Caro was silent for a moment, then snapped out of it. The man who has tirelessly invaded Lyndon Johnson’s secret motivations for fifteen years is himself cunningly private, and such moods of introspection are rare. He talks with passion and an undisguised sense of achievement about his vivid, ongoing biography of L.B.J., but you can’t get him to brood on it. His life of Johnson, he says, began as an exploration of “how political power works in a democracy on a national scale,” but the work thus far is so personal, so full of awe and outrage toward its main character, that its origins might lie not just in intellectual curiosity but in the faint memory of a bloody handshake.

On the February morning I sat talking with Caro in his apartment on Central Park West, Means of Ascent, the second of a projected four volumes of Top Rep. Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was nearing publication. Caro, at fifty-three, was halfway through. Over the previous few months, The New Yorker had published six excerpts, and Alfred A. Knopf, Caro’s publisher, had just sent out bound sets of galley proofs to reviewers, along with a publicity sheet that reminded them of the lavish praise they had bestowed on volume one (“Stands at the pinnacle of the biographer’s art” “By every measure …a masterpiece”).

Caro, already well into volume three, appeared bright-eyed and eager, neither exhausted by his labors nor haunted by the ghost of his spectacular subject. I looked in vain for the usual fetishes with which writers surround themselves, but there were no photographs or hokey plaster busts of L.B.J. anywhere. Indeed, except for the framed awards hung discreetly in aback hallway-the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, the National Book Critics Circle Award-there was no visible reference to Caro’s obsessive occupation. The apartment’s decor was elegantly spare. On the walls were nineteenth-century French landscapes that Caro and his wife, Ina, had collected on their annual vacations in France. The uncluttered bookshelves held leather-bound sets of the works of Tolstoy, Gibbon, and James Fenimore Cooper.

Caro himself, standing now with his elbows propped on the marble mantelpiece, was no disheveled bookworm. He was trim and donnish, with dark brown hair and dark brown tortoise-shell glasses, but the classy exterior did not conceal his revving energy. More eager to ask questions than to answer them, he appeared both gregarious and secretive.

When I asked him why his biography of Johnson-originally planned for only three volumes-was taking so long, he said in a genteel Manhattan accent, “I believe that time equals truth.

“I like being a reporter,” he explained, “but there was one aspect of it that I truly hated. I never had enough time to really find out everything I thought I should know. I wanted to explore something all the way to the end.”

One of the reasons for Caro’s success is his inspired distaste for deadlines. He works seemingly without regard for the ticking of the clock or the passing of the years, and his relentless research into the life and times of Lyndon Johnson has generated its own legend. Already enshrined in Texas literary folklore is the image of Bob Caro, in his blazer and regimental tie, arriving at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, in Austin, and gazing upward with epic resolve at a four-story display of red archive boxes containing thirty-four million documents. Or Caro spreading his sleeping bag under the Hill Country sky to better understand the frontier isolation of Johnson’s background (“You’d wake up in the morning,” he said, “and there was still nobody there !”).

Caro and Ina, a medieval historian who aided him greatly in his research, spent a total of more than four years in Texas, poring over the documents in the L.B.J. Library, interviewing hundreds of Johnson’s contemporaries, and aggressively absorbing the landscape. In volume one, Caro’s dogged methodology resulted not only in an unforgettably caustic portrait of Lyndon Johnson but also in set pieces of startling clarity and surprise. He took, for instance, what should have been the most boring subject on earth-the advent of rural electrification-and turned it into a chapter called “The Sad Irons,” which may be the most brilliant single passage of prose ever written about Texas.

“What’s most remarkable about Bob Caro,” says Robert Gottlieb, who edited Caro’s books at Knopf and continues to do so even though he is now editor of The New Yorker, “is the depth, the obsessiveness, the accuracy of his research. The totalness of it. He simply never stops. He simply finds out more than anybody else finds out about anything. And then, out of the infinite detail he accumulates, he creates real drama.”

It was not only Caro’s research that made his first volume on Johnson, The Path to Power, such a success when it was published in 1982. It was also the furrowed-brow grandeur of his prose, his gift for making the sluggish currents of modern political history roar along like a flash flood. His portrait of Johnson is meticulous but hardly temperate. This is not just a biography but a seething, emotional story about a man who, in Caro’s words, had “a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception, and betrayal.”

Johnson loyalists greeted Caro’s depiction with a collective howl of outrage and academic historians, while as agog as everyone else at Caro’s narrative power, tsk-tsked what they perceived as the book’s distortions and pumped-up drama.

But 450,000 readers bought The Path to Power. Its aims were clearly so mighty, its scope so audacious, that it became, if not the last word on Johnson, certainly the most compelling. For Texans, especially, The Path to Power filled avoid in a notoriously spotty historical record. This was not just the story of the rise of Lyndon Johnson it was by default the basic text of the history of modem Texas.

The second volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a hefty monument itself, though it is shorter than the first volume by about four hundred pages. Whereas The Path to Power is a panoramic survey of Johnson’s life from his birth to his defeat by W. Lee

“Pappy” O’Daniel for the U.S. Senate in 1941, Means of Ascent is a concentrated study of “a seven-year period in the life of Lyndon Johnson in which his headlong race for power was halted.”

Caro warns in his introduction that there were two “threads,” one bright and one dark, running through the fabric of Johnson’s personality and that in this volume, “the bright one is missing.” Here L.B.J. is depicted as a villain of almost Shakespearean dimensions: weaseling out of active service in World War II and then shamelessly inflating his one combat experience abusing his congressional power to acquire a marginal radio station and turn it into a major source of enrichment and influence peddling and then finally-in a sustained narrative, told with the bold, sweeping strokes of a novel-stealing the 1948 Senate election from Coke R. Stevenson, a former governor of Texas and “old-style cowboy knight of the frontier” whose own threads, as Caro portrays him, were blindingly bright.

“It’s not a question of liking him or hating him,” Caro said of Johnson. “What I meant to do was understand him. People are going to say when the third volume comes out, ‘Caro’s view changed. Lyndon Johnson is now a hero.’ Well, that’s not the case. The case is, he’s going to do heroic things. We wouldn’t have a substantial amount of the civil-rights legislation we have today, for instance, if it hadn’t been for Lyndon Johnson. But the personality does not basically change. Anyone who expects a great personality change in Lyndon Johnson from volume to volume is going to be sadly disappointed.”

THE WEATHER OUTSIDE, as we walked along the margins of Central Park, was clear and bracing. Caro mentioned that he had been born a few blocks to the north, back in the days when this part of the Upper West Side was still more of a family neighborhood than an urban fortress for the well to do. His father, a Polish immigrant, was in real estate. “He was a man who found it difficult to express emotion,” Caro once told Leo Seligsohn, of Newsday-which was more than I could get him to tell me. His mother died of cancer when he was a child.

“She took sick when I was very young,” he said hurriedly, anxious to change the subject. “I remember that she loved to read. But I was very young, and she was very sick for a long time.”

Caro attended Horace Mann, a private high school whose students came largely from a middle- or upper-class Jewish background, and then he went on to Princeton, where he wrote short stories of such length that one of them took up a whole issue of The Princeton Tiger.

After college, Caro worked as a reporter for the New Brunswick Daily Home News, in New Jersey, and served a brief stint as a speech writer and campaign director for a local political boss.

“I was making something like $52.50 a week as a reporter, and then I’d go in and write a press release for this guy, and he’d hand me a wad of fifty-dollar bills. On Election Day, I rode with him in his car, and at each polling place, a policeman would come up and report through the window about how they were doing and how they were keeping the other side-the reformers-from really supervising the election. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be in here with you. I want to be out there with the reformers.’ And so I just got out of the car. That was the moment when I began to realize who I really was.”

It was at Newsday that Caro began to fully deploy his talents as a reporter and to sense their limitations. “Political power influences everybody’s life,” he told me. “I was writing about it every day, but I didn’t really understand the truth about it. What I began to notice was that no matter what lines of investigation I chose to pursue, they allied to this guy Robert Moses. But nobody knew, including me, who the hell Robert Moses really was, where he got his power or authority from.”

Caro decided to find out. From 1967 to 1974, he labored on his Pulitzer Prize winning study of a New York City parks commissioner who, through political genius and the abuse of public authority, became the most powerful figure in the state. If Robert Caro today is the very embodiment of writerly success-with a house in East Hampton, his own table at the Cafe des Artistes, and a comfortable income that is the product of hard-won literary prestige-during the years he was writing The Power Broker he was an impoverished former newspaper reporter with a tiny advance on the book, writing about a subject that every day grew more massive and uncontainable. To help finance the book, he and Ina (“My beloved idealist,” he calls her in the acknowledgments to Means of Ascent) sold their house on Long Island and moved to Riverdale. When he finally finished The Power Broker, it was so long that 300,00 words (approximately twelve hundred manuscript pages, or three regular-sized books) had to be cut out of it.

“I really wanted to do a biography next about someone I thought I could love,” Caro told me. “I was so angry at Robert Moses. He dispossessed five thousand people from one block-elderly Jewish people-to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway. When I interviewed these people, I’d ask them, ‘What is your life like now? ” And they’d say, ‘Lonely.’ And in my experience, that’s a word people don’t say unless it comes from deep inside. One evening I went to interview Moses and asked him if he thought these people were upset. He said, ‘No, there’s very little discomfort. It was a political thing that stirred up the animals there.’ I wanted to punch him in the teeth.”

Caro thought he would love Lyndon Johnson. He thought Johnson would turn out to be a shrewd, ruthless, but ultimately engaging populist like Al Smith. But that was before he found the dark thread.

Caro maintains that his portrait of Johnson is untainted by animosity, and it’s true that no other writer has chronicled L.B.J.’s admirable traits-his devotion as a schoolteacher to his dirt-poor Hispanic students, his almost maniacal responsiveness to his congressional constituents, his truly heroic indifference to exhaustion and physical pain in the 1948 campaign-with anything approaching Caro’s precision and fervor. But it would be pointless to pretend that Caro is a cool scholar. He reports on Johnson’s villainy with an undertone of personal offense.

“When I found out how he betrayed Sam Rayburn, I was almost indescribably sad,” he told me, referring to the way Johnson had cruelly usurped Rayburn’s role as President Roosevelt’s most-favored Texan. “Part of my feeling about Rayburn was how lonely he was, and how much he needed Lyndon and Lady Bird. I was sitting there in the Lyndon Johnson Library, reading these telegrams and memos back and forth to Washington. And I suddenly began to see what was happening. I remember I got up from the desk with a horrible feeling. I’m sitting there taking notes, and it’s about to happen. Johnson is about to betray this man who loved him. I went outside the library and walked around it several times and thought, ‘God, don’t let this mean what I think it means.’ I didn’t want this to happen to Rayburn.”

But if Caro was outraged by Johnson, he found a hero in Coke Stevenson. In Means of Ascent, Caro introduces the cowboy governor in a long chapter entitled, with the simplicity of a children’s fairytale, “The Story of Coke Stevenson.” What follows is a beguiling but controversial portrait in which Stevenson, in contrast to Johnson’s Black Bart, is presented as the last great hero of the Old West. A check of the book’s index reveals in a glance how the author has set the stage. Under “Johnson, character of,” there is a preponderance of such entries as “aggressiveness,” “ambition,” “cruelty,” “cynicism,” and “flattery and obsequiousness.” Under “Stevenson, character of,” one finds “dignity,” “fairness,” “frugality,” “honesty and integrity,” “sense of humor,” and “sincerity.”

“All I knew about Coke Stevenson,” Caro said, “was that he was the guy who lost in 1948. I had no intention of writing about him in detail. Then one day I was interviewing a congressman named Wingate Lewis who had been in Fort Worth in the forties and fifties. He was an extremely pragmatic, cynical politician. He was explaining to me that he had been afraid of Johnson’s power because Johnson was so close to his principal supporters. He said something to the effect of ‘I even had to support Lyndon against Coke Stevenson in 1948.’ Then he said-and remember that this was a very pragmatic man-‘I knew Coke Stevenson, and I thought a lot of him. He lived by the code of honesty.’ Well, to have come out of his mouth words like that about a governor who lived by the ‘code of honesty’ sunk into my consciousness. And I heard the same thing from other people-and I realized they were speaking of Stevenson intones of reverence.”

Not everyone, though, speaks of Stevenson in those tones, and Caro’s portrait has drawn fire from critics who remember Stevenson as much for his racial bigotry (a topic that Caro mentions only glancingly) as for his political integrity. (“The problem with Caro’s method,” says Lewis Gould, a historian at the University of Texas, “is that the same standard that is so rigorous and difficult for Johnson to meet is sort of put aside for someone Caro admires.”)

If Steyenson was so great, I asked Caro, why do so few contemporary Texans seem to be aware of it?

“It’s totally lost! The last guys who knew him are dying as I write. Texas is a state with a history that’s not only truly glorious but truly significant in understanding America. And I think Texas is losing that history. For instance, Stevenson was a conservative, and we’ve forgotten what that meant. We see conservatism today in a form in which one of its original, motivating, particularly American impulses has just about totally vanished. What’s vanished is the spirit of the frontier individualism and self-reliance that imbued conservatism with something noble and heroic.

“The most amazing thing that’s happened to me in my writing career is the reaction to Coke Stevenson. Not in Texas, but in New York. After The New Yorker excerpt came out, one of New York’s most glamorous hostesses called me and said, ‘My God, I gave a dinner party Saturday night, and all I heard about was Coke Stevenson. The literary world in New York is all talking about Coke Stevenson!’ ”

I was beginning to sense that Caro was going to catch some flak in Texas over this one. Part of it, of course, had to do with sheer provincial envy, the realization that it had taken a Yankee from Central Park West to render Texan culture with such enduring authority. And part of it was the uneasy and wary feeling that New York was now the arbiter of Texas’s heroes. Lyndon Johnson, whom Texans used to rather like, had been expertly dismantled before our eyes, and now in the salons of Manhattan the latest intellectual fashion threatened to be frontier conservatism.

ROBERT CARO WRITES his books on the tenth floor of an office building near Columbus Circle. As a point of discipline, he works in a coat and tie, even though he is there all alone, the telephone turned off, the mail slot closed-nothing to distract him from the daily task of reconstituting the life of Lyndon Johnson.

When I walked up to his office, I noticed that Caro has a gold-colored nameplate on his door, just like those of the dentists and talent agents in the other offices. Inside, Caro’s workplace was a model of idiosyncratic organization. Instead of the unruly pile of notes and books one would expect of a biographer, there was a big, clean desk without a sheet of paper on it, just a portable electric typewriter and a lamp whose base was a bronze statuette of Apollo in a horse-drawn chariot. One wall of the room was lined with bookshelves and files, and just above the desk hung a large corkboard displaying the twenty or thirty sheets of paper that form his outline.

The outline is the key to Caro’s working method. “I’m determined to think through the book from beginning to end before I start it,” he told me. .’First I make a very short outline, just a page or two. Then I start filling it in with transitional sentences and key thoughts. You’re really writing the book without the details at that stage. Then what I do is I go through the notes and fill in the details. Let’s say I have a hundred and fifty pages of notes dealing with a particular incident-but of course I don’t I have nearly a thousand. Anyway, you give a number to each interview. You go through all your file folders, and you index everything in it to that outline. And the outline keeps growing until you’ve got the entire book-an entire wall, twenty or thirty feet long, covered with paper. There it is. And then you come in one day, and you look at it, and you have to start writing.”

But between the sheets of paper on the wall and the actual writing is an even more detailed outline, one chapter at a time, that he keeps in a three-ring binder. This outline has notations indexed in red markers to corresponding numbers in the file cabinets. The other tools of his trade are black ballpoint pens and white-not yellow-narrow-lined legal pads, a product, he notes with some alarm, that is being discontinued. Caro doesn’t use a computer, or even, for the first few drafts, his typewriter. He writes in longhand to slow himself down.

“I don’t know how good a writer I am,” he confided as he leafed through a stack of notes that he had transcribed from his sui generis shorthand. (He almost never uses a tape recorder.) But I’m a very good interviewer. I tried to learn how to interview from two characters in fiction. One is Inspector Maigret and one is George Smiley. When I was a reporter, I felt I was too aggressive in asking questions. The thing about both of them is that they’re quiet and patient. They let the other person talk and really listen to what he’s saying. Maigret takes out his pipe and refills it and taps it on the table. Smiley takes his glasses off and wipes them on his necktie. It’s a way of keeping themselves quiet. I write ‘shut up’ in my notebook a lot. Or just ‘s.u.’ If you looked through my notebooks, you’d see a lot of s.u.s.”

Caro picked up a neatly folded sweater and slipped it on. For the first time, I thought I could detect a trace of weariness in him, and I thought of the twenty-five remaining years of Johnson’s life that still faced him-the rise to power in the Senate, civil rights, the Kennedys, the vice presidency, the assassination, Vietnam, the brief twilight years at his ranch on the Pedernales River. It seemed more than two volumes of narrative, and it seemed a bit more than one biographer’s lifetime.

Did he ever worry, I asked, that he would grow old and die before it was finished?

“I try not to think about that,” Caro said. “I don’t like to feel rushed.”


Robert Caro Still Working on Final LBJ Book

Robert A. Caro knows that his fans are anxiously awaiting the fifth and final biography in his celebrated series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. But for now, he’s not saying how long they’re going to have to wait.

“It doesn’t matter how long a book takes, what matters is how long a book lasts,” Caro told the Associated Press in an interview after being asked when the follow-up to The Passage of Power might be finished. He said it’s the standard answer he gives to all curious readers.

Caro’s series of lengthy LBJ biographies have been some of the most acclaimed in recent American history. He published the first book in the series, The Path to Power, in 1982 The Passage of Power came out 30 years later. The other titles are Means of Ascent (1990) and Master of the Senate (2002).

Between them, the books have won two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, a Pulitzer Prize, and a National Book Award.

Caro said that the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated his plans for the fifth book he had to postpone trips to Vietnam and Austin, Texas, where he needs to do further research for the biography.

He said he’s up to 1967 in the fifth book, which will cover Johnson’s presidency and his final years. The former president died in 1973.

Fans of Caro’s book series will almost certainly have to wait a long time to read the fifth LBJ book. In a 2018 interview with the AP, he said he was still “several years” away from finishing the biography.

Michael Schaub is a Texas-based journalist and regular contributor to NPR.


What We Found in Robert Caro’s Yellowed Files

The author of “The Power Broker” and a multivolume biography of L.B.J. is giving awed archivists — and New York — access to more than 50 years of research.

Transcripts of interviews with “RM,” Robert Moses, whose public works projects transformed much of New York. Credit. Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

A seasoned curator entered the spare Upper West Side office of her subject the way a student of art might approach the Louvre. Eyes wide, notebook in hand.

Along the wall was pinned the 27-page outline for a section of a long, long-anticipated book: the fifth and last volume of a magisterial biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In a corner sat the idiosyncratic desk designed decades ago for her subject by the personal physician of another back-pain sufferer, John F. Kennedy. And on that desk, a Smith Corona Electra 210, a model of typewriter last manufactured in the 1970s.

“Wow,” said the curator, Debra Schmidt Bach, which is pretty much all one can say upon entering the writing sanctuary of the author Robert A. Caro.

Anyone not familiar with the name can find a measure of his elevated status in the carefully appointed backdrops seen these days on cable-news programs. Often prominent on the bookshelves of pundits is “The Power Broker,” the classic, Bible-thick exploration of government, politics and influence.

At 85, Mr. Caro is bespectacled, graying and old-school he routinely wears a jacket and tie to an office where he is the only occupant. He is also a superstar chronicler of 20th-century America whose patient methodology — grounded in the belief that time equals truth — has long since entered literary lore.

He has spent most of the last year re-researching and rewriting a single section of the new volume, about how Johnson succeeded in getting monumental initiatives enacted into law — including voting rights and Medicare — while simultaneously escalating American involvement in the tragic Vietnam War.

Early last year the New-York Historical Society arranged to acquire Mr. Caro’s substantial archives, including the files for his Johnson masterwork and for “The Power Broker,” which examined how one unelected official, Robert Moses, used his political wiles to reshape the New York metropolitan region.

But as Ms. Bach, a curator for the society, would learn, the Caro records extend much deeper into the past — back to when he was a young newspaper reporter — revealing hints of the compassionate rigor that would one day earn the writer international acclaim.

Peering into a file cabinet crammed with Johnsonian nuggets, Mr. Caro looked up and, not for the only time, asked, “Do you want to see?”

There was only one answer.

Ms. Bach, 58, has curated exhibitions on subjects as varied as the history of New York breweries, the comic book superheroes of Gotham and the treasures of Congregation Shearith Israel. Her mission now was to begin imagining a permanent Caro exhibition, planned for September in the historical society’s building at 77th Street and Central Park West.

“I need to figure out a way to have these paper-based materials displayed so that they can really speak for themselves,” Ms. Bach said. (If these papers could speak, they would be in the author’s distinctly New York accent.)

Her quest began in Mr. Caro’s office. There are no knickknacks, no works of art the only appliances are a coffee maker and an electric pencil sharpener.

“I try to have nothing in the room that’s not about writing,” he said. “It’s hard enough to concentrate.”

“Right,” Ms. Bach said, taking notes.

His desk is actually two combined, both modest. One he found left behind in an office he used to rent on West 57th Street. The other features a half-circle cutout that, like many things in Mr. Caro’s world, has a story behind it.

Nearly 50 years ago, when he was just beginning his research for “The Power Broker,” Mr. Caro badly injured his back while playing basketball. “We were totally broke, and I couldn’t sit up to write,” he said.

Taking a long shot, his wife, Ina, contacted Dr. Janet Travell, an expert in musculoskeletal pain who was President Kennedy’s personal physician. She is responsible for Kennedy’s use of a rocking chair, which became a symbol of his presidency.

Taking on the case, Dr. Travell — who also served as physician to Mr. Caro’s future subject, President Johnson — studied how Mr. Caro sat at his desk. She then devised a godsend of a solution: a semicircle cutout in the desktop that alleviates pressure on his back as he types.

“These days, if I hurt my back, the best place to be is not my bed,” Mr. Caro said. “It’s my desk.”

Just as iconic, at least among the Caro-obsessed, is the Smith Corona Electra 210. The anachronism is an extension of the man, reflecting his desire to pin down elusive historical moments with strikes of keys against paper you can hold.

Mr. Caro has amassed 14 of these machines, which he cycles through a typewriter shop in Chelsea for maintenance and repair. He also found a man in Cleveland who agreed to make cotton typewriter ribbons — if he ordered in bulk. (He did.)

Under gentle questioning by Ms. Bach, Mr. Caro said that his favorite is on the desk, while a close second is at his home near Sag Harbor, on Long Island.

“Don’t make me sound like too much of a schmuck,” Mr. Caro added, just as gently.

How did his archives wind up with the New-York Historical Society? Another story.

Mr. Caro grew up on Central Park West, between 93rd Street and 94th Street. His mother, Cele, learned she had cancer when he was 5 and died when he was 11. On many Saturdays, her sister, his Aunt Bea, would take the boy to lose himself in either the American Museum of Natural History or the New-York Historical Society.

Fast-forward to 2018. Mr. Caro realized that he would have to deal someday with his extensive archives a few libraries had already inquired. “But my head was always in my book,” he said.

In his heart, though, Mr. Caro knew where he wanted his papers to go: the same historical society building where he found distraction as a boy, a beloved aunt by his side. He asked a friend to inquire whether there was interest. There most emphatically was.

Louise Mirrer, the president of the historical society, made a generous offer and said a few magical words that clinched the deal. At a dinner with the Caros a few nights later, she elaborated: The papers would be processed quickly, made part of a permanent, rotating Caro exhibit and be easily available to future scholars in a dedicated study area — a stipulation dear to a man who had been told too often in his research that so-and-so’s papers were unavailable.

“Everything I wanted, consciously or subconsciously, was suddenly being voiced by the woman across the table,” Mr. Caro said.

Now he was showing Ms. Bach a small sample of the thousands of interview transcripts, manuscripts and notebooks that the society had acquired. Here was a stenographer’s pad, on the cover of which was scrawled “LBJ I,” and which contained notes from interviews with Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, and brother, Sam. There, a cabinet drawer filled with files: “Campaign aftermath” “Vietnam” “Bundy-Moyers.”

The notebooks reflected just one part of Mr. Caro’s laborious, step-by-step process: reading, researching, interviewing, organizing, assembling a comprehensive outline and, finally, pecking at a typewriter, with papers sullied by rejected language crumpled and thrown in the general direction of a wastebasket.

“There’s a belief among some — not all — nonfiction writers that all that matters is to get the facts,” Mr. Caro said, reflecting on his continuing quest to find the right words. “I don’t believe that. I believe that the quality of writing is just as important in nonfiction as in fiction.”

He said he often keeps a note on his desk lamp that reads, “The only thing that matters is what is on this page.”

But so much of Mr. Caro’s research never made the page. For example, he interviewed all the key aides to Fiorello La Guardia, who served as New York’s mayor from 1934 to 1945. Yet only a minuscule fraction of that research appeared in “The Power Broker.”

This is one reason he wanted the archives to be accessible to the public. The unpublished materials extend well beyond Moses and Johnson to encompass much of American life over the last century, from the streets of New York City to the rutted roads of the Texas Hill Country — to the marbled halls of the United States Senate.

“Years of observation,” he said, by which he meant more than a half-century.

Ms. Mirrer said in an email that the acquisition would secure the historical society’s place “as among the greatest destinations for research in — and understanding of — 20th-century history.” The Caro archives, she said, also demonstrate “the transformative effect that the skills of an investigative journalist can have on historical research.”

“I could not be more thrilled,” Ms. Mirrer said.

With much more to share, Mr. Caro led Ms. Bach and James Hicks, an exhibition designer, out into the cold, wet morning and a few dozen paces east to his apartment. Stored there were more than two dozen scrapbooks — many of them never before seen by anyone outside his family — that had been assembled by his wife, his indispensable research partner.

Mr. Caro has no shortage of clippings, having won nearly every literary honor, among them the Pulitzer Prize for biography twice the National Book Critics Circle Award three times the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters the National Humanities Medal, given to him in 2010 by a big fan, President Barack Obama. He is even a “living landmark,” according to the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

But the half-dozen scrapbooks he had chosen to share with Ms. Bach — already stacked on the dining room table — mostly included items from the time before Robert Caro was ROBERT CARO. To when he was a fledgling reporter trying to find his way.

One scrapbook featured a 1952 front page from the newspaper for the Horace Mann School, the prep school he attended in keeping with his mother’s fervent wish. The headline: “Robert Caro Named Editor of the 1952-53 Record.”

Others contained clippings from his years as a reporter on Long Island for Newsday, including his first big investigation: a 1963 series that exposed a scam in which older people, particularly former New York City police officers and firefighters, were being duped into buying retirement-home sites in Arizona’s Mojave Desert with no access to water or utilities.

“You might want this,” Mr. Caro said.

“Yes, we might,” Ms. Bach said with a laugh.

“This is the application for the Pulitzer.”

“Well, no,” he said. “I didn’t win.”

Another scrapbook was dedicated to “The Power Broker,” which was published in 1974 after seven years of research, doubt and financial hardship. Its success made Mr. Caro.

Here were the early print ads for the book the many profiles of its author a note from the distinguished journalist Murray Kempton (“…will be seen as a revolutionary challenge to the scholarship that has until now deluded Americans about the way their lives are run.”).

Then Mr. Caro fell silent. He had come upon a news clipping he hadn’t seen in more than 50 years: an article he had written for Newsday in 1964 called “Anatomy of a $9 Burglary.”

“I thought for a long time this was the best thing I ever wrote,” he said softly.

The story details the many lives affected by one small criminal moment: a man burglarizes a Long Island home, steals $9 from a wallet and is quickly caught.

Mr. Caro tracked down the still-traumatized victim and her daughter, seven of the 12 jurors in the trial and the defense attorney, who ruefully admitted to being fooled by his client’s professions of innocence. Most affectingly, the young reporter gained the confidence of the burglar’s wife, who initially did not want to talk.

She finally opened up about falling in love, realizing that her husband was a criminal, living on welfare while he was imprisoned, trying to protect her two young, heartbroken daughters — and finally deciding to cut ties with their father.

The story, on yellowing newsprint kept now in a binder, may be as forgotten as the crime that prompted it. But like the crime, it is also larger than itself, revealing the journalistic meticulousness — the determination to dig deep beneath a moment’s surface — that would become Mr. Caro’s hallmark.

“I remember walking away from her house …” he said, then stopped himself. He seemed to struggle with his composure. “I don’t want to say this.”

Mr. Caro has done thousands of interviews since, many with people of historical consequence. Still, memories of this long-ago interview, with the wounded but resilient wife of a Long Island criminal, had caught his breath.

After a moment, he recalled crying when he wrote this story. Then, with a veteran curator peering over his shoulder, the celebrated author turned the page.


What Robert Caro Got Wrong

Arnold Newman, White House Press Office.

Robert Caro’s series on The Years of Lyndon Johnson, now in its fourth volume (with, the author’s health willing, one more to go) ranks among the towering achievements in literary biography. Volume 1, The Path to Power, tracing the future president’s youth, may be the best book ever written about the role of money in American politics. Volume 2, Means of Ascent, while deeply flawed, is a seminal study in corruption. Volume 3, Master of the Senate, is a riveting portrait of how LBJ transformed a deliberately sluggish institution into a vehicle for self-aggrandizement and social justice.

But Volume 4, The Passage to Power—covering the 1960 election, LBJ’s forlorn vice presidential years, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Johnson’s ascension and first actions as president—is something else.

On the good side (which is considerable), and like all the others, it is a terrific read. Caro paints palpable scenes and draws vivid characters. His account of why Kennedy picked LBJ as his running mate is compelling, as is his case that, had JFK lived, he probably would have dropped Johnson from the ticket in ’64. His detailed description of how Johnson manipulated the Senate to pass a tax cut and the Civil Rights Act—bills that JFK had sent up but would never have pushed through on his own (because he didn’t understand the Senate the way LBJ did)—is gripping.

But two things make this book less essential than the others. First, unlike the other volumes, the era it treads is hardly unpaved territory. One of Caro’s major themes—the hatred between Johnson and Robert Kennedy—was the topic of Jeff Shesol’s 1997 Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade. The once-secret tape recordings, which serve as Caro’s source for LBJ’s wheeling and dealing in his first months as president, were transcribed and annotated by Michael Beschloss in Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-64. Caro writes up this material with more verve and unfurls new details, but, for reasons beyond his control, Vol. 4 doesn’t provide a whole new look at an era the way his earlier volumes did.

But my second problem is much more serious: Caro’s treatment of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—and of the roles that Johnson and the Kennedy brothers (especially Robert Kennedy) played in the crisis—is, on several levels, simply wrong.

I find it unsettling to write that sentence. After all, this is Robert Caro we’re talking about: the investigative historian with the gnawing need to hunt down every source and unearth every detail of a story before committing it to type, the man who has often proclaimed, as his credo in research, “Turn every page!

And yet, when it came to the defining episode of JFK’s presidency, a pivotal moment in Cold War history, the closest that the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war, Caro left many pages—whole documents—unturned, unread, unopened. Either that, or (a more troubling and, my guess is, less likely possibility) he chopped and twisted the record to make it fit his narrative.

This point is not a disagreement about interpretation it is a statement of fact. Like Johnson and Nixon after him, John F. Kennedy surreptitiously recorded conversations of historic consequence—including the 13 days in October 1962 when his top advisers, assembled as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (or ExComm), discussed what to do about the nuclear missiles that the Soviets were erecting 90 miles off the coast of Florida. These tapes have long since been declassified and publicly released, so we know exactly who said what at those sessions. And these hard facts are, in crucial ways, different from the story that Caro (along with, to be fair, many other historians) tells.

The crisis began when U.S. spy planes detected Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba, as well as the construction of missile-launchers at secured sites on the island. At first, JFK and his advisers figured they’d have to bomb the missile sites—until they calculated the complexities and risks, at which point Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggested a naval blockade of the island as a way to buy time and give Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev a chance to reverse course. After 13 days of shrewd diplomacy, a deal was struck, and the missiles were withdrawn.

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images.

In the 50 years since, the story and the lessons of the crisis have gone through a fascinating evolution.* In the first phase, as reported by JFK’s favored columnists (and formalized in the books by palace guards, speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s Kennedy and White House gadfly Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days), JFK won the confrontation through sheer threat of force. As one of the advisers was quoted as saying, “We went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians—and they blinked.” (This quote, like much else in these accounts, was pure fiction.)

In the second phase, starting in 1982, on the 20 th anniversary of the crisis, some of JFK’s top advisers—McNamara, Sorensen, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and others—confessed, in a article for Time magazine, that Kennedy had made a secret deal: Khrushchev would take the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, and Kennedy, six months later, would take America’s very similar Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. It had always been known that Khrushchev offered such a deal, but the earlier accounts—including Sorensen’s book, and many other books based on it—had reported that Kennedy rejected it. In fact, the advisers now said, Kennedy accepted it, but told both the Russians and the handful of his own advisers whom he let in on the secret never to tell anyone. (The advisers decided to break their silence because they knew the Kennedy Library was about to release the tapes.)

The third phase began in 1987, with the release of the first tape transcripts, which revealed that the advisers had omitted one key fact in their now-it-can-be-told article for Time: They had all vociferously opposed the trade. JFK stood alone on making a deal with the Soviets—and, in the end, was redeemed.

For inexplicable reasons, most popular histories of the crisis (and a few academic ones as well) have not incorporated this last revelation. They have neglected, misread, or ignored the evidence that has been out there for the last 25 years.

And now Robert Caro joins that crowd.

In Caro’s account of the crisis, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general and president’s brother—once a mean hawk—took a sensitive, dovish turn when facing the abyss, a turn that, over the next few years, humanized his attitude toward politics more broadly. And, in this account, Lyndon Johnson reveals his hawkishness so blatantly that he lost all favor with President Kennedy.

Caro’s analysis of LBJ’s hawkishness is misleading his depiction of RFK’s dovishness is untrue.

On RFK’s alleged change of heart, Caro cites two bits of evidence. First, during a discussion about scenarios for bombing the Soviet missile sites, Bobby passed a note to Jack, saying, “I know now how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.” Second, at a session on Oct. 19, just a few days into the crisis, Bobby drops his earlier support for an air raid, saying, “For 175 years, we have not been that kind of a country. A sneak attack is not in our tradition.”

The Tojo note is attributed to Sorensen’s book and, like much else about the crisis in that book, is almost certainly fiction. [Update, June 7, 2012: The note is real. Read the explanation below.] Historians at the JFK Library have avidly searched for that note they cannot find it. As for the comment about a “sneak attack,” the key word is “sneak.” Robert Kennedy had problems with a sneak attack, not with an attack. Six days after this session, on Oct. 25, he made the distinction explicit, saying that it might be a good idea to warn Soviet personnel at the Cuban site “to get out of that vicinity in 10 minutes, and then we go through and knock [out] the base.”

Caro does not quote this remark.

In fact, at the same Oct. 19 meeting where he spoke up against a “sneak attack,” RFK also said, “It would be better for our children and grandchildren if we decided to face the Soviet threat, stand up to it, and eliminate it, now. The circumstances for doing so at some future time were bound to be more unfavorable, the risks would be greater, the chances of success less good.”*

Caro does not quote this line either—which, by the way, RFK made after the disavowal of a “sneak attack,” meaning that if Bobby’s heart softened with that comment, it hardened again just minutes later.

At another meeting (also missing from Caro’s account), when a Soviet ship seemed about to break through the American naval blockade and some of the president’s aides talked about ordering crews to board the vessel, RFK said, “Rather than have the confrontation at sea, it might be better to knock out the missile bases as the first step.”

On the last day of the crisis, when Khrushchev offered the Cuba-for- Turkey trade, Robert Kennedy argued against the deal. “I don’t see how we can ask the Turks to give up their defense,” he said. “God, don’t bring in Turkey now. We want to settle [Cuba first],” he said later on. JFK sent his trusted brother Bobby to the Soviet ambassador to accept the deal, though not in writing. But even then, he did so reluctantly. Talking casually with McNamara after the ExComm session, as the tape runs out, Bobby says, “I’d like to take Cuba back. That would be nice.”

From start to finish, and on several occasions, RFK can be heard on the tapes, and read in the transcripts, arguing not only for an air attack but for an air strike followed by an invasion of the entire island of Cuba. Sheldon Stern, the library’s former chief historian, who has studied the tapes and transcripts more thoroughly than anyone, writes in his forthcoming book The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myth versus Reality: “RFK was one of the most consistently hawkish and confrontational members of the ExComm.”

The same can be said of Lyndon Johnson, who, the few times he did speak up at the ExComm meetings, was (as Caro accurately quotes him) brutally bellicose, calling the president’s patience—his failure to meet Khrushchev’s forceful gestures with immediate force—a sign of “weakness” and “backing down.”

But, except in tone, Johnson was no more hawkish than Bobby Kennedy—and, especially on the last day of the crisis, no more hawkish than nearly all the advisers at the table.

When President Kennedy says he’s disposed to take Khrushchev’s missile trade, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, protests (you can hear his voice on the tape, quivering), “I think we should tell you … the universal assessment of everyone in the government who’s connected with alliance problems: If we appear to be trading the defense of Turkey for the threat in Cuba, we will face a radical decline.”

McNamara, a key moderate, the advocate of the blockade at the start of the crisis, is an all-out hawk by its final days, arguing—in a bit of crazed logic rivaling Dr. Strangelove’s—that we should remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey but only after we attack the Soviet missiles in Cuba. (For the full, jaw-dropping quote, taken from the official transcript of the session, which Caro seems not to have read, click here.)

Many histories of the crisis, especially those written before the tapes were released, portray the ExComm sessions as a struggle between the hawks and the doves. But by the end of the crisis, there were no hawks and doves there was only President Kennedy, who favored making the trade with the Russians, and everybody else, who loathed the idea. (Near the end, just one adviser, George Ball, who became the house dissident on the Vietnam War during LBJ’s presidency, sided with the president.)

Bobby Kennedy may have transformed himself later, after his brother was assassinated, but Jack Kennedy emerges as the lone fount of wisdom in the tapes and transcripts.

Caro misses this fact. The day before Khrushchev offered the Cuba-for-Turkey missile trade, he sent the White House a different proposal: He would remove his missiles from Cuba if Kennedy vowed never to invade Castro’s island. When the missile-trade deal came across the line the next day, many of JFK’s advisers—including RFK—suggested that he accept the first letter’s offer and simply ignore the second letter. The books by Sorensen and Schlesinger contend that JFK did precisely that.

Caro, citing those two books (and interviews he conducted with both authors), writes that the president “kept postponing his decision” on whether to take their advice. In fact, he did nothing of the kind. The moment Khrushchev’s second letter came over the wire, JFK said, “To any man at the United Nations, or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade.”

Kennedy let his advisers—RFK, McNamara, Bundy, Dean Rusk, and others—rail against the idea for a while, then said, calmly, “Now let’s not kid ourselves. Most people think that if you’re allowed an even trade, you ought to take advantage of it.”

This discussion was taking place on a Saturday morning. The Joint Chiefs had drawn up a plan for striking the missiles—with 500 air sorties—and mounting an invasion the following Monday. JFK mused, “I’m just thinking about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so … 500 sorties … and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take the missiles out of Turkey. And we all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that’s what’s going to happen in NATO … when we start these things and the Soviets grab Berlin, and everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, this Khrushchev offer was a pretty good proposition.’ ”

Even so, the advisers railed against the idea. Finally, Kennedy sent Bobby to meet with the Soviet ambassador and take the deal.

John Kennedy is the real hero of the Cuban crisis, but Caro misses this because he follows Sorensen and Schlesinger too closely (something he explicitly doesn’t do in other chapters of this book). He even credits Secretary of State Dean Rusk with devising the idea of telling the Soviet ambassador that the United States would remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in six months, as long as the deal isn’t publicized. In fact, this was John Kennedy’s idea.

Sorensen and Schlesinger, of course, idolized Jack Kennedy. But given the politics of the early ’60s, JFK wanted to put forth the word that he’d stood up to the Soviets with strength, that he hadn’t made a deal. After a while, they came to believe their own myth.

Caro’s depiction of the crisis fits into the two main strands of his book’s broader narrative: the burning hatred between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and Johnson’s growing isolation within the Kennedy administration. He writes that, after Johnson’s bellicose display in the ExComm, JFK cut him off even more than before. That may be true, but if it’s because of Johnson’s stance in the crisis, JFK should have distanced himself from Bundy, McNamara, and the others as well.

I would argue (and here we do get into interpretation, even speculation) that JFK did just that. Over the course of his brief presidency, he came to realize that the smart men all around him weren’t as smart as they seemed. The Bay of Pigs taught him not to believe everything the CIA told him. Discussions about the Laos crisis (during which the Army urged an invasion, the Air Force called for air strikes, and the Navy advocated sending in carriers) taught him that the generals were often self-interested. And the Cuban missile crisis taught him that his brain trust of civilian advisers had their shortcomings, too.

One of JFK’s deep failures was not letting LBJ in on this emerging wisdom. Kennedy told only seven of his advisers that he’d taken the missile-trade deal Johnson was not among them. Maybe he was going to take Johnson off the ticket in ’64 (Caro makes a convincing case on grounds quite apart from the Cuban crisis), but he was murdered before then—and Johnson inherited not the real lessons of the crisis but the tale that Sorensen (ironically, at JFK’s behest) invented.

In his 1988 memoir Danger and Survival, McGeorge Bundy recognized that hushing up the missile trade had pernicious consequences: “We misled our colleagues, our countrymen, our successors, and our allies” into believing “that it had been enough to stand firm on that Saturday”—a false lesson that JFK’s successors applied, with delusional confidence, in Vietnam.

Volume 5 of Caro’s series will deal mainly with Johnson and Vietnam, and I’m afraid that his treatment of the Cuban missile crisis in Volume 4 sets the stage for more false lessons. My suspicion, inferred from what really happened in those ExComm meetings, is that JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam—or at least would not have escalated so deeply. The lesson isn’t that Johnson marked a departure from Kennedy’s men it’s that, when it came to questions of war and Communism, JFK himself was departing from the views of Kennedy’s men. It would have been good—it might have made a big difference in world history—if Johnson had known that. And, for the life of me, I don’t understand why Robert Caro made the same mistake.

(For more on the sources of the JFK tapes, and other studies of the crisis, some of which Caro used, many of which he didn’t, click here.)

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro. Knopf.

Update, June 7, 2012: I need to set the record straight on the longstanding claim that, during the Cuban missile crisis, Robert Kennedy wrote a note to President John Kennedy, saying, “I know now how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.” In the column above, I charged that the claim was “almost certainly fiction,” citing historians at the JFK Library who have searched for this note in vain. Well, my source for this—Sheldon Stern, the library’s former chief historian—turns out to be wrong. RFK did indeed scribble this note to his brother, on Oct. 16, 1962, the first day of the crisis a facsimile has long been on display at the library’s exhibition on the crisis. (For a view, click here and scroll down to the second-to-last document.)

This mistake does not alter my point, which is that RFK was consistently hawkish during the crisis, not dovish, as Caro contends. Despite this memo, Bobby repeatedly advocated bombing the Soviet missile sites and invading Cuba. His Tojo reference inspired him to oppose only a “sneak” attack at one point, he suggested giving Khrushchev 10 minutes’ warning before attacking. Still, on the note itself, I am guilty of the same lapse as Caro on the broader points: I should have checked out the claim myself rather than rely on someone else’s recollection. (Return to the updated sentence.)

Corrections, June 1, 2012: This article originally referred to “the 60 years” since the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article originally misquoted Robert Kennedy saying, “The circumstances for doing so at some future time were bound to be more favorable” when he said circumstances would be more “unfavorable.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)


Watch the video: An Evening with Robert Caro


Comments:

  1. Kaden

    Ideal

  2. Mira

    Wonderful, very funny thought

  3. Jedidiah

    I hope they come to the correct decision. Don't despair.

  4. Beldene

    Wow compilation !!!!!!! Fabulous!



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