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How the Relentless Robert Caro “Turns Every Page” in Pursuit of Powerful Prey

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2019

Since 1976, Robert Caro has been writing a multi-volume biography of former US President Lyndon B. Johnson — the first volume is called The Path to Power. In this absolutely fantastic piece he wrote for the latest issue of the New Yorker, Caro details some of his thoughts and strategies about writing and research that have served him well as he’s pursued the topic of power for more than 50 years. Here he writes about what his editor told him at an early stage in his career:

He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

“Turn every goddam page.” Caro is a living national treasure and that’s as close to a superhero origin story as you’re going to get in journalism. Over and over, he applied that strategy to his later writing, first in the masterful The Power Broker and then in the pursuit of the truth about LBJ among the boxes and boxes and boxes of papers at the Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.

I had decided that among the boxes in which I would at least glance at every piece of paper would be the ones in Johnson’s general “House Papers” that contained the files from his first years in Congress, since I wanted to be able to paint a picture of what he had been like as a young legislator. And as I was doing this — reading or at least glancing at every letter and memo, turning every page — I began to get a feeling: something in those early years had changed.

For some time after Johnson’s arrival in Congress, in May, 1937, his letters to committee chairmen and other senior congressmen had been in a tone befitting a new congressman with no power — the tone of a junior beseeching a favor from a senior, or asking, perhaps, for a few minutes of his time. But there were also letters and memos in the same boxes from senior congressmen in which they were doing the beseeching, asking for a few minutes of his time. What was the reason for the change? Was there a particular time at which it had occurred?

Caro’s recounting of this tedious research is somehow thrilling, like a slow motion All the President’s Men, Spotlight, or The Post. Set aside some time to read the whole thing…it will be time well spent. I can’t wait for Caro’s Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing to come out in April.