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From LBJ to Robert Moses: Robert Caro on Writing About Political Power & Its Impact on the Powerless

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Robert Caro is always working. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner published his first book, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” 45 years ago and has spent the decades since meticulously chronicling the life and times of Lyndon B. Johnson. The result is four sweeping volumes that total more than 3,000 pages and offer an unprecedented window into the inner world of one of the country’s most influential presidents. And he’s not done yet—Caro is currently writing the fifth and final installment of the collection. Robert Caro has been described as “the greatest political biographer of our times,” but to reduce his work as simply biographies of great men misses the point. Caro uses both Moses and Johnson to show how political power works. Robert Caro has just released a new book—by far the smallest volume in his collection—titled “Working.” It offers an inside look into the author’s meticulous research and writing process. We speak with Robert Caro in our New York studio.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to one of the nation’s most celebrated writers, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro. He’s out with a new book titled Working, that gives an inside look at his remarkable research and writing process. And it does appear that Robert Caro is always working.

Forty-five years ago, he published his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Over a seven-year-period, he conducted over 500 interviews for what turned out to be a 1,200-page book looking at how Robert Moses reshaped the nation’s largest city, New York. The Modern Library would later name The Power Broker as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century, along with such works as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

And Caro hasn’t stopped working since. For the past 45 years, Robert Caro, with much help from his wife Ina, has been researching the life and times of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, from his childhood in Hill Country, Texas, to his time in the White House. Four volumes have been published so far: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power. They total more than 3,000 pages. Robert Caro is now writing the fifth volume, looking at Vietnam, the Great Society and President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.

Robert Caro has been described as “the greatest political biographer of our times” and “America’s biographer-in-chief.” But to reduce Caro’s work as simply biographies of great men misses the point. Caro uses both Moses and Johnson to show how political power works. Caro writes that by focusing on Robert Moses, he was able to explore, quote, “the realities of urban political power, power in cities, [power] not just in New York but in all the cities of America in the middle of the twentieth century.” With LBJ, Caro helped expose how national power works in the Senate and the presidency. Robert Caro once told Kurt Vonnegut, quote, “What I’m trying to do, is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about,” he says.

Well, with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, who today is joining us from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we’re spending the hour with Robert Caro.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Robert.

ROBERT CARO: Great to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 55 years ago. In fact, it would be 55 years ago in July that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And go back a few months before that, when Lyndon Baines Johnson, standing next to a blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy, would be sworn in as president. He could have taken on any issue at that point, becoming president. Warned by many in his inner circle, “Don’t do the Civil Rights Act. Don’t lose the South,” he moved forward. Describe for us—set the stage and the place. Talk about LBJ’s decision to go this route.

ROBERT CARO: Four days after the assassination, he has to give an address to the joint session of Congress. He’s not even in the Oval Office yet. He’s still working out of his private home in Washington. Three or four of his speechwriters are sitting around the kitchen table trying to draft a speech. And at some point Johnson comes down wearing a bathrobe and asks them how they’re doing. They say, “Well, the only thing we’re all sure of is don’t make civil rights a priority. If you anger the Southerners who control Congress, they’re going to stop your whole legislative program, like they did Kennedy. It’s a noble cause, but it’s a lost cause. Don’t fight for it.” And Lyndon Johnson says to them, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for then?” And, of course, in his speech, he says, with all the Southern senators sitting in a row in front of him, “Our first priority has to be the passage of the civil rights bill.”

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the battle that ensued? You particularly focus on Richard Russell, and you pit these two—well, they pitted themselves against each other.

ROBERT CARO: Well, Russell—you know, Johnson convinced the Southern senators—for 20 years before 1964, every vote that he made was on the side of the South. He not only supported every Southern bill and opposed every civil rights bill, but he was a Southern strategist. And Russell took him under his wing. Richard Russell was the most powerful figure in the Senate. He was the head of the mighty Southern Caucus. You have to understand, Amy, in that year—I forget the—I may have the numbers wrong here, but approximately right—of the 16 great standing committees in the Senate, 11 were chaired by Southerners or their allies. They had all the power in the Senate. And Russell raised Lyndon Johnson up to the position of majority leader. It was him who really put Johnson in.

So, I would speak to some of the Southern senators. And I asked one of them—I remember Herman Talmadge, who was actually dying when I finally got to talk to him. He was the senator from Georgia. Finally talked to me, and I’m asking him about this, and I said, “Well, what did Lyndon Johnson convince you should be the relationship between white men and black men? What did he believe?” Talmage said, “Master and servant.” And I said, “So how did he make you believe that?” And Talmadge, who was a sharp man and proud of his sharpness, said, “He talked to me all the time. I thought we were friends. I thought I knew what he really believed.” So I said, “Well, how did you feel when Johnson gave the speech saying our first priority must be the civil rights bill? How did you feel sitting there as he stands there saying this?” Talmadge said—there was this long pause—finally, he says to me, “Sick. I felt sick.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robert Caro, what then changed Johnson and made him such a proponent of the civil rights movement?

ROBERT CARO: Well, I’m not sure that anything changed Johnson. You see, it may be that he believed the same thing all along, but he concealed it for 20 years. You know, why do I think Lyndon Johnson truly believed in civil rights, that it wasn’t a political thing? Because when he was 20 and 21 years old, he went to college; it was a college he called the poor boys’ school. He didn’t have enough money to continue. He had to drop out between his sophomore and junior year and teach school. And he taught in a school in a little town down near the Mexican border in Texas, in what they called “the Mexican school.” I wrote about that. No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared. He was so insistent that they learn English—he thought that was the crucial thing—if, at recess, he heard boys shouting in excitement on the baseball diamond in Spanish, he’d run out and spank them on the spot. Girls, he gave a tongue lashing to.

Now, all this time later, he has concealed this. Now he becomes president. He has the power. You know, we all learn Lord Acton’s axiom, “All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m not sure that, as a result of my work, I believe that. What I really believe, I believe that power does not always corrupt. Sometimes power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal. When you get enough power so you can do what you want, then people see what you wanted to do all along.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you know, I was interested in your new book, Working, and obviously some of the stuff that you have in here is a distillation not only of what you learned in the bigger books that you wrote but also the process by which you learned them. You talk about the rise of power of Lyndon Johnson, and you center on this moment in October of 1940, when it appeared to be that Johnson really, as a young member of Congress, begins to gain much more influence and power. And you were fascinated to try to understand what had happened in October of 1940 to suddenly catapult Johnson into a key figure. And you end up discovering this whole connection that he developed to the oil barons of Texas and the funding of the Democratic Party. I’m wondering if you could talk about that?

ROBERT CARO: Yes, it was quite—you see, he’s been in Congress only three years. He’s 32 years old. He has no power. And then, all of a sudden, after the month of October 1940, just before the election, he’s the guy, you see in the files, senior congressmen asking for five minutes of his time. So I said, “What happened during that five months?” At that time I was talking to a notable Washington fixer, a very ebullient wheeler-dealer in Washington for decades, named Tommy the Cork. He used to call me “kid.” So, I said, “What happened in October 1940?” I remember Corcoran said to me, “Money, kid. Money. But you’re never going to be able to write about that, kid.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because Lyndon Johnson never put anything in writing.”

Well, Corcoran was only partly right: Johnson hardly ever put anything in writing. But as I’m going through the papers in the Johnson Library, there are two amazing documents. One is a telegram from Brown & Root, the huge Texas oil contracting and dam building firm for whom Johnson is getting a federal contract, saying to Lyndon Johnson at the beginning of October 1940, “Lyndon, the checks are on the way.” And the money that is being sent to him—unprecedented amounts of money—is for him to distribute to congressmen, because Lyndon Johnson is a genius. He doesn’t have any power, but he realizes there is one thing he has that no other congressman has. He knows two groups of people. He knows the Texas oilmen and contractors who need favors from the federal government, and he needs—and are willing to pay to get it, to give campaign contributions, and he knows the Northeastern, Northern liberal congressmen who need money for their campaigns. He arranges that all this money be given through him, and that creates power.

And there is a list that I found in the Johnson Library that was just remarkable. You know, we wonder: How do you prove that economic power has such an effect on political power, that economic power creates political power sometimes? You see it all in this list. The list is typed by one of Johnson’s secretaries. There are two typed columns. In the left column is the name of the congressman who’s asking for money. In the center column is how much money he’s asking for—small amounts, tiny amounts by our standards: “Lyndon, need $450 for poll watchers,” “Lyndon, $700 will give me a round of last-minute advertising.” But in the left-hand column—left-hand margin, next to the congressman’s name, there is, by each name, something in Johnson’s handwriting. Sometimes he writes—if he’s giving the congressman all the money the guy has asked for, he writes, “OK.” Sometimes, if he’s giving him part of it, he writes, “OK,” and the amount: “OK, 300,” “OK, 500.” But sometimes he writes, “None.” He’s not giving him anything. And sometimes he writes, “None, out.” And I asked his longtime assistant John Connally, “What did it mean when Lyndon Johnson wrote, 'None, out'?” And Connally said to me—I’ll never forget his tone—he said, “That guy was never going to get money from Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson never forgave, and he never forgot.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of two books, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and The Years of Lyndon Johnson. His most recent best-selling book is titled Working. We’re speaking with Robert Caro for the hour. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “We Shall Overcome,” live recording of the late folk legend Pete Seeger singing at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Pete Seeger was born 100 years ago this Friday, May 3rd, 1919. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, who’s joining us from Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he teaches. Our guest for the hour is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro, won the prizes for two books, one on Robert Moses, one on President Johnson, though he’s actually written four on President Johnson and writing a fifth, and now has a new book out called Working. As we listened to that break, Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome,” talk about Lyndon Johnson hearing that song outside the White House.

ROBERT CARO: He’s hearing it. You know, in those days, we had Martin Luther King marching in Selma. The marchers, the pickets, the civil rights movement believed Lyndon Johnson wasn’t fully on their side. They heard his Southern accent. They are singing it on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White—you can hear it, you know, in the family dining room at the White House. On the night that he goes to Congress to deliver his speech on the Voting Rights Act, as the car turns out of the White House onto Pennsylvania Avenue, the pickets are there, just pressing almost up to the car. And among the things they’re chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, just you wait, see what happens in ’68.” And they’re singing “We Shall Overcome.” Johnson is sitting in the back of the car. Three aides are facing him. He doesn’t even look up. He’s turning the pages. But I asked one of the aides, who knew Johnson; I said, “Did he hear them?” He said, “He heard.”

He goes to Congress and gives this speech in which he adopts the key line, the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome,” as “our” anthem. He says, “It’s not just Negroes who have to overcome. We have to overcome our prejudice. And we shall overcome.” When Johnson’s car comes back to the White House, I wrote, the pickets were gone.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an audio recording of a phone call between President Lyndon Johnson and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. This is from January 15, 1965, as they’re discussing the Voting Rights Act, that would be—Johnson would sign off on.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters. That will answer 70% of your problems.


PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: If you just cleared out everywhere, make it age and read and write. No tests on what Chaucer said or Browning’s poetry or constitutions or memorizing or anything else.


PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: And then you may have to put them in the post office, let the postmaster—that’s a federal employee that I control, who they can say is local, he’s recommended by the congressman, he’s approved by the senator. But if he doesn’t register everybody, I can put a new one in.


PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: And it’s not an outside Washington influence; it’s a local man. But they can just all go to the post office like they buy a stamp. Now, I haven’t thought this through, but that’s—that’s my general feeling. And I’ve talked to the attorney general, and I’ve got them working on it. I don’t want to start off with that, any more than I do with 14-B, because I wouldn’t get anything else.


PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Do you—and I don’t want to publicize it. But I wanted to—that’s—I wanted you to know the outline of what I had in mind.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Yes. Well, I remembered you mentioned it to me the other day at the White House. And I have been very diligent about making this statement.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Well, your statement was perfect about the vote’s important, very important. And I think it’s good to talk about that. And I just don’t see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam but he can’t vote in the post office.


AMY GOODMAN: That was, by the way, that conversation, 1965, was on Dr. King’s birthday at the time. The Voting Rights Act would be signed August 6, 1965. That was Johnson speaking to Dr. Martin Luther King. And I wanted you to comment on their relationship. I once was speaking to Harry Belafonte and said, “When you get on in years and can’t remember your almost daily conversations with Dr. King, you can just apply under the Freedom of Information Act to the FBI to get the transcripts of all the conversations you had.” Robert Kennedy, Johnson’s attorney general, had King wiretapped. Talk about that relationship and what Lyndon Baines Johnson did in signing both the Civil Rights Act and, one year later, the Voting Rights Act.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, in the tape you just played, the most significant line was the first two lines that Johnson said. He says, basically, “If you make it easier for Negroes to register, 70% of your problem is solved.” Johnson believed that if they, black people, were given the right to vote, they could take care of a lot themselves. They would start electing their own officials. They would start to change America. So he’s saying to King, “The thing that I’m concentrating on is that you can register just as easy as going into a post office. If we give them the power to vote, they’ll have the power they need.”

You know, Martin Luther King, for a long time, didn’t trust Lyndon Johnson. You know, he didn’t fully—he didn’t believe he fully believed it. When Johnson gives his speech and says, “We shall overcome,” Martin Luther King is down in Selma. He’s listening to it on television in the living room of one of his supporters. And when Johnson says, “And we shall overcome,” they turn around and look at Dr. King, and it’s the only time, they say, they ever saw him cry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robert Caro, to go back to your approach to writing and researching, especially in this age when everyone or most of the young people get their information and their news from Twitter and Facebook posts and relatively short articles that they might read online, you actually moved with your wife to Texas to be able to really get into the subject matter of LBJ and his role in history and where he came from. Could you talk about your approach to spending years, often, just writing one book?

ROBERT CARO: Well, on the research—you know, I write pretty fast, although no one believes that. It’s the research that takes the time. The particular thing you’re talking about, moving to the Hill Country, I thought we wouldn’t have to do that. There were already, as I recall, seven biographies published. They all had chapters on his youth that depicted him a certain way. But I’m trying to get a little more detail, just so I can write better couple of chapters myself. And I realize I’m talking—the people in the Hill Country then, it was a land of such loneliness, such poverty, that’s, for me, coming from New York—I said to Ina, “You know, I’m not understanding these people. I’m not understanding their mores. I’m not understanding this country, the Hill Country. And therefore, I’m not understanding Lyndon Johnson, because this is what he came out of and shaped.” So, I said, “We’re going to have to move down there and get to know these people.” Ina, who loves Paris, who writes books on French history herself, said, “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” But we moved down there.

You know, interestingly, when you talk about why it’s hard to get these people to talk to you, they mistrusted journalists, because when Johnson was president, journalists would come down for three or four days, or maybe even a week, and go back and write these series of articles on what the Hill Country was really like. I’ll tell you what the Hill Country was like. You’d go to interview some person who was alive who knew Lyndon Johnson in high school, now is old. And the directions would be something like: You drive out of Austin for 47 miles; you watch for the cattle guard on your left; you turn left there, and you go on this rutted, unpaved road for like 30 miles; at the end of it is a house with a person with the information you need. You say, “I haven’t passed a house for 30 miles. Who does this person talk to? Does she have any friends?” It’s a different—they’re very wary of strangers. And I wasn’t getting people to talk to me at all. So, as soon as we moved down there, as it happens, as soon as they realized someone had come to stay, in trying to understand them, they would tell me what Lyndon Johnson was really like as a young man, which was very different from anything that had been depicted before.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about moving there with Ina, your wife.


AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about her role—


AMY GOODMAN: —which you have extolled, her role in your work. I mean, everything from, when you moved to Hill Country, how she gets to befriend this taciturn woman who was an important source for you, turning up with homemade fig jam she made herself, that opens up the people to speak. But it’s more than the jam. It is the research. It is your trusted fellow researcher, partner in all of this.

ROBERT CARO: Yes. You know, Ina is the only—you know, you look at other biographies, and at the end, in the acknowledgments, they might name three or four, or more, researchers who helped them. I found that there’s only one person besides myself that I’ve ever been able to trust to do my research, and it’s Ina. She is a wonderful researcher. She is also a historian in her own right. You know, in her high school yearbook, says her ambition is to be historical researcher. So, we’ve spent a lot of months and even years of our lives in the Lyndon Johnson Library going through papers.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for a moment, and then we’re going to come back to continue this discussion and also talk about Robert Moses—


AMY GOODMAN: —the man who you wrote the book about, The Power Broker. Robert Caro, the twice Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and The Years of Lyndon Johnson; his most recent best-selling book, Working. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” Pete Seeger singing live on the CBS show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. The song was initially censored from the original broadcast, but then, under enormous pressure, CBS gave in. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re spending the hour with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro, who’s out with a new book called Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the Master of the Senate, about Lyndon Johnson, and, before that, he wrote—he won the prize for The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Robert Caro, I’d like to turn to The Power Broker. I’ve often said over the years to all of my friends in journalism, as well as the students I’ve taught, that you really cannot understand modern urban America without having read The Power Broker. It is really the Moby-Dick of nonfiction writing in America in terms of its epic approach and analysis of how power is wielded and how cities are shaped. Could you talk about how you first decided to write about Robert Moses, perhaps the most powerful unelected official, never elected to any office, in the history—in the modern history of New York, and really had influence in cities across the country?

ROBERT CARO: Well, I was a reporter for Newsday, an investigative reporter. So, I had won a number of minor, really minor—believe me, really minor—journalistic awards. But when you’re young and you win anything, you think you know everything about, and I thought I really understood political power.

Robert Moses wanted to build this bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay. You know, he built these bridges across Long Island Sound. He built the Triborough, the Bronx-Whitestone, the Throgs Neck. Now he wants to build the Rye-Oyster Bay Bridge. Newsday assigns me—I was then, whatever, 24, 25—to look into it. And I discover it’s this really terrible idea. It would have generated so much traffic, the Long Island Expressway would have needed 12 more lanes just to hold the cars, and the piers of this bridge would have had to be so big that they would have caused tidal pollution in Long Island Sound. I went up to Albany. I saw the governor, Nelson Rockefeller, his council, the assembly speaker, the president of the state Senate. Everybody understood this was a terrible idea. I write this story saying the idea is dead. I go on to something else.

About two weeks later—I have a friend in Albany—he calls me, and he says, “Bob, you ought to come back up here. Robert Moses was here yesterday.” So I said, “Oh, I don’t think so. I think I took care of that bridge.” He says, “Well, Robert Moses was up here yesterday. I think you ought to come back.” I come back. I speak to the same people—the governor, the assembly speaker, etc. They all think this is now the greatest idea in the world, and, in fact, the state is going to pay for the initial stages of it.

And I’m driving back to Long Island, and I remember it was 163 miles. And I’m thinking, “You know, you think you know what political power is. You don’t have the faintest idea what it is. You think you’re in a democracy, and political power comes from being elected from the votes that people cast at the ballot box. Here’s a guy who was never been elected to anything, and he had more power than anyone who was, more power than any mayor, more power than any governor, more power than any mayor and governor combined. And he held his power for 44 years. And with hit, he shaped all New York City. And you, Robert Caro, don’t have any idea where this power comes from.” And I also realized, neither does anybody else. That’s when I decided to do The Power Broker.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in Working, you talk about also the impact that Moses had on the neighborhoods of the city—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and really redesigning many of New York City’s neighborhoods. And you say at one point, “He shaped the city physically not only by what he built but by what he destroyed. To build his expressways, he evicted from their homes 250,000 persons, in the process ripping out the centers of a score of neighborhoods, many of them friendly, vibrant communities that had made the city a home to its people. To build his non-highway public works, he evicted perhaps 250,000 more.” Perhaps half a million people were displaced by the public works of Robert Moses.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, many people don’t think about the impact. The destruction of communities in the ’50s and ’60s then led to the rise of crime in the ’70s and ’80s in many of these same neighborhoods.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, what you’re talking about is when I decided that my books had to be different than what I thought they would be at the beginning. I came to realize that if I wanted to write about political power the way I wanted to write about it, I would have to show the effect of power not just on those who wield power, but on those on whom it’s wielded, on the powerless; show what government can do for people, for good, but also to people, for not good.

And what I did was I decided to take one mile of the 627 miles of expressways and parkways that Robert Moses built, and show the human cost of that one mile—to do that, I think he had evicted 15,000 people for this one mile; it’s a mile of the Cross Bronx Expressway in a neighborhood called East Tremont—and find the people who had lived there before. Now, before, this was a lower-middle-class community, largely Jewish, but a lot of Irish and German in there. These people were not well-off, but as long as they had a community and neighborhood where they knew had all their friends and neighbors, they had something. I had to find them. Finding them wasn’t easy, because they were scattered all over the four winds. It’s like the tsar issuing an edict in Russia. I think of Anatevka every time I see Fiddler on the Roof, the little town of Anatevka. These people, I found them in Co-op City, in small apartments, in the housing projects, living with their relatives.

And when I would come back and write my interviews, I saw that I was writing one word over and over: “lonely.” I was asking people, “What’s life like now?” And over and over again, they would say, “Lonely.” They had lost their neighborhood, their sense of community. And this is the human cost of what—part of the human cost of what Robert Moses did.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to 1953. The TV program Longines Chronoscope interviewed Robert Moses. This is the anchor William Bradford Huie questioning Moses.

WILLIAM BRADFORD HUIE: Of course, to build these roads, you have to move a lot of people’s homes, don’t you, sir?

ROBERT MOSES: Yes, especially in urban communities, in urban and suburban communities. That is one of the big problems.

WILLIAM BRADFORD HUIE: Could you give us any indication of how many homes would have to be moved in building the New York Thruway?

ROBERT MOSES: Well, the New York Thruway is—I would say three-quarters of it is in open territory where there’s no problem. The other one-fourth, I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t know how many.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Robert Moses in 1953. And I was wondering if you could comment on what he’s saying, and also the building of Jones Beach, the access to Jones Beach, what Robert Moses intended—people of color, poor people not being able to get there. Talk about this, Robert Caro.

ROBERT CARO: Well, I’ll talk about the Jones Beach first. You know, Jones Beach is, on the one side, the wonderful side of Robert Moses. He creates the world’s greatest bathing beach in Long Island. There was no place for the masses of New York City, by which was meant, then, white, middle-class people. The automobile age was just flowering. It was the 1920s. And he’s creating Jones Beach. It’s an act of great inspiration.

But he doesn’t want poor people, and, in particular, poor people of color, to use Jones Beach. So what he does—poor people in the 1920s and '30s don't have automobiles, so the only way they can get to Jones Beach is by mass transportation. So he takes care of the railroad side of that very easily: The Long Island Rail Road wants to build a spur to Jones Beach, he just says no. But they can also get out there by bus. He doesn’t want to take any chances of that, so the parkways out there—first, he has legislation passed that buses can’t use the parkways, which are the only way to Jones Beach. But then, as his chief aide once said to me, Amy, he said, “You know, the commissioner”—they called him the commissioner—”the commissioner knew that legislation can always be changed. You can’t change a bridge when it’s up.” So, if you drive out to Jones Beach, you see along the Southern State and the Meadowbrook parkways, the roads to Jones Beach, “clearance”—there are 173 of these bridges—”clearance, 13, nine inches,” “clearance, 10 feet,” because buses needed 14 feet of clearance. So people couldn’t get there in buses.

One of the revelatory moments of my life and Ina’s life, I wanted to see how this affected over the decades. So now I’m doing The Power Broker. It’s not 1930 anymore, when he opened it. It’s now, let’s say, 1970, 40 years later. There’s one big parking lot in Jones Beach with four underpasses that people use to get to the beach. We stood there. I had a pad. And I said whites, Latinos, blacks. And to this day, one of the moments that shaped my career as a biographer was the rage, really, that kept building in me as you had all these things for the white people, the number, hardly any for the Latinos and even less for the blacks. You said, this is what public works, public policy does to the powerless, to poor people, and how long the effect of it lasts.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robert Caro, you mentioned that many people called him the commissioner.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to get back to this issue of how he was able to effect so much dramatic change in New York City through basically the skillful use of what’s known as a public authority to circumvent the elected bodies of government. And he was basically the chair or the sole member of so many little-known public authorities. How he wielded that power, if you could talk about that?

ROBERT CARO: Yes. You know, Robert Moses was a political genius. As I said, looking into him, I realized how little I knew about how political power worked, how he knew everything. He thinks he’s going to get elected to something. He runs for governor of New York state, and people don’t like him, and he loses by what I think is still the largest majority anyone ever lost by a state election in New York. He thinks he’s going to be mayor of New York. He’s not going to be mayor of New York. He realizes he has to get power to build these great public works, these huge public works, somewhere.

He takes a yellow legal pad and goes into a little room next to his office and sits there by himself and drafts legislation which basically create public authorities in the modern form. Before that, they were just entities that sold bonds to build a bridge or a tunnel, collected tolls until the bonds were paid off, and went out of existence. He created legislation that said these authorities will never go out of existence. And as long as he is head of the authorities, he’s going to have the power of the authorities. And these authorities, of course—you know, for about 30 years, if you were paying a toll at any bridge or tunnel in New York City, you were basically paying it directly to Robert Moses. He had more money to build things than the city did.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the building of Lincoln Center, this cultural mecca, and what it destroyed? And talk about the communities of color that lived in that area.

ROBERT CARO: Well, when you look at Lincoln—you know, this is why The Power Broker is a very complicated—was a complicated book to write, because there are these two vividly different sides of Robert Moses. One is this genius that can conceive of huge public works. The other is this absolute disregard to what happens to the human beings who lived there before, and also the shape in which they’re built.

When you look at Lincoln Center today—you said, before, there, it was low-income, but not a slum, but a thriving low-income neighborhood, which was simply wiped out for Lincoln Center. But what got me about Lincoln Center was that part of this Lincoln—the front part of Lincoln Center is wonderful. Go to the back wall of Lincoln Center. That’s the wall that looks out on what’s left of the neighborhood that had been there before, a poor neighborhood. It’s blank. There are almost no entrances to Lincoln Center. It’s turning its back on New York City, on the poor people of New York City.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Robert Caro, I’d like to ask you, in the little time we have left, about your writing style. I mean, your books are always very vivid and descriptive, but some of your sentences go on for pages. Could you talk about whether you consciously write these amazingly long sentences?

ROBERT CARO: Well, I don’t do that consciously. The answer to your question is a quick one: No. They just seem to—sometimes they seem to come out that way. Some people say I write too many very short sentences. I’d like to think that means I write contrasting sentences.

AMY GOODMAN: And you write longhand, and then you type? I don’t mean into a computer, but into a typewriter?

ROBERT CARO: Yeah, yes. I write my first few drafts in longhand on a legal pad, and then I use a Smith Corona Electra 210.


ROBERT CARO: Oh, it’s to slow myself down, Amy. I think I write too fast. I want to make myself think things through. And I find if I write it in hand, it’s a little bit slower, so I think a little bit more.

AMY GOODMAN: You are a testament to the need for journalists at newspapers, when we see staffs being cut, the level of investigation that you need to investigate power and give voice to the powerless. We want to thank you so much for being with us. We will do Part 2 and post it online at democracynow.org. Robert Caro, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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