David Remnick Talks with Robert Caro about “Working”

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Robert Caro is a historical biographer unlike anyone else writing today, with the Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, and other honors to prove it. But to call his books biographies seems to miss the mark: they’re so rich in detail, so accurate, and at the same time so broad in scope, that they’re more like epics of American history. David Remnick sat down with Caro at the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, New Jersey, on the occasion of the publication of “Working,” a volume of Caro’s speeches and other writings. They covered Caro’s early years as a newspaper reporter, his determination to tackle a project—the rise to power of Robert Moses—that no one had accomplished, and finally his chronicle of the life of Lyndon Johnson. Caro has completed four volumes on Johnson, with a fifth, covering the Presidency, in the works. Remnick asks about Caro’s singular method of interviewing in depth, and Caro describes his interview with Sam Houston Johnson, the president’s brother, which Caro conducted at the National Park Service’s Lyndon B Johnson Boyhood Home historic site. “I took him into the dining room,” Caro recalls, and told Johnson to sit where he had sat as a child. “I didn’t sit where he could see me . . . . I sat behind him. So I said, ‘Now tell about these terrible arguments your father used to have with Lyndon at the table.’ At first it was very slow going, you’d have to keep prompting him. But finally he was just shouting it out: ‘Lyndon you’re a failure, you’ll always be a failure. And what are you, you’re a bus inspector!’ And I felt he was back in the moment. So I said, ‘Now Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again those wonderful stories you told me before, that everybody tells about Lyndon Johnson.’ And there was this long pause. And then he says, ‘I can’t.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he says, ‘Because they never happened.’ And without me saying another word, he starts to tell the story of Lyndon Johnson, which is a very different story of a very ruthless young man.”

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