Regular readers of Saturday Odds & Sods are already aware of my Robert Caro obsession. I usually like post to pieces about and by him there. I thought it was time to let my inner fan boy shine on a school day. I don’t have an apple for the teacher but I do have some unsyrupy thoughts about Caro.
I first heard about Robert Caro from a Gore Vidal review of The Power Broker. I read the book and was enthralled by this, unknown to me, story. As a baseball history buff, I was particularly interested to learn that Robert Moses was one of the reasons the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Walter O’Malley had an inner city Brooklyn site in mind for a new ballpark that would be accessible to public transit. Moses wanted a more car-friendly location and insisted that the Dodgers move to the site where Shea Stadium was later built. O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles instead.
One of the reasons I’m so drawn to Caro’s magisterial Years of Lyndon Johnson series is that he’s such a great storyteller. Who else would talk to LBJ’s high school and college friends as a way of illuminating his style as a politician? A typical biographer/reporter would talk only to the “important people.” I was raised to believe that how one treats the “little people” is more revealing of one’s character. Caro gets that as did David Halberstam before him.
Anyway, Robert Caro recently sat for an interview with David Marchese for the New York Times Magazine. I was particularly interested in how he used Georgia Senator Richard Russell to explain the South and Civil Rights:
So there’s this character, Senator Richard Russell. He’s fascinating because he’s so smart, he’s so learned. In foreign affairs he’s like a consul of Rome. He sees the whole world, you know? But he’s this son of a bitch.
And a racist. Yes. Here’s how I boiled that book down: I said that two things come together. It’s the South that raises Johnson to power in the Senate, and it’s the South that says, “You’re never going to pass a civil rights bill.” So to tell that story you have to show the power of the South and the horribleness of the South, and also how Johnson defeated the South. I said, “I can do all that through Richard Russell,” because he’s the Senate leader of the South, and he embodies this absolute, disgusting hatred of black people. I thought that if I could do Russell right, I wouldn’t have to stop the momentum of the book to give a whole lecture on the South and civil rights. What I’m trying to say is that if you can figure out what your book is about and boil it down into a couple of paragraphs, then all of a sudden a mass of other stuff is much simpler to fit into your longer outline.
Caro declined to be drawn into a discussion of the Trump presidency*. I’m glad: I want him to live to publish the final book in the LBJ series. Discussing Trump is bad for one’s health. Believe me.
While running a search on the NYT web site, I learned that late night funnyman Conan O’Brien shares my obsession with Robert Caro. His dream as a chat show host is to have Caro as a guest. I can’t resist posting the full NYT link because the image is such a hoot:
Here’s one of many money quotes from the Conan piece:
Mr. O’Brien was insistent that Mr. Caro’s team has been nothing but polite in sending its regrets. In fact, a few years ago, Mr. O’Brien received a signed copy of “The Path to Power” with the inscription: “To Conan O’Brien. From A Fan — Robert A. Caro.”
The gift only confused matters.
“It just cracks me up,” Mr. O’Brien said. “It’s like the White Whale writing Ahab a note, saying, ‘Hey, man. We’ve got to get together. I’m a fan!’”
So, Mr. Caro, be well and finish that book. When it’s done, cut Coco some slack and grant him an interview. Then I can write a post titled When Caro Met Coco.