Caro Writes Alone Among Bookshelves, Filing Cabinets

Originally published on May 1, 2012 6:59 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The writer Robert Caro has spent about 35 years writing about President Lyndon Johnson and he still isn't done. As we heard on the program yesterday, Caro has come out with his fourth book on Johnson's life.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Years ago, one reviewer noted that Caro's research was so exhaustive that his book on Johnson's youth in Texas described the average annual rainfall in the Texas hill country in the years before Johnson was even born.

ROBERT CARO: And that's a complementary statement. I mean, that particular thing was a very significant thing.

INSKEEP: Significant because the hill country was dry, so farmers were poor. And the Johnson family's poverty affected his outlook all his life.

GREENE: Robert Caro's new book, "The Passage of Power," records the moment when Johnson became president of the United States. He was vice president elevated in an instant when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.

INSKEEP: A famous photo shows Johnson's hurried swearing in aboard Air Force One. Characteristically, the author has been researching that moment for years. We talked about his long, long dig for information as we sat among the bookshelves and filing cabinets at the New York office where Robert Caro works alone.

CARO: It's very easy to fool yourself that you're working, you know, when you're really not working very hard. I mean, I'm very lazy. So for me, I would always have an excuse, you know, to go - quit early, go to a museum, you know. So I do everything I can to make myself remember this is a job. I keep a schedule. People laugh at me for wearing, you know, a coat and tie to work...

INSKEEP: So you didn't put this on for me. You would - if you were here alone in the office all day, you would have the coat and tie on the same way?

CARO: Well, I - I think I take the coat off when I'm actually - I'm actually - yeah, but I do. And, you know, this office is just for working. So I keep a - every day I write down how many words, you know, like Hemingway - like I mean many writers use the device. And I use that device. Because I'm probably lazier than most, I use a number of devices.

INSKEEP: Your wife has been your researcher for all of your books?

CARO: Yes.

INSKEEP: When I had mentioned that to people, people ask a lot of questions, one of them being - is he still married?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARO: Well, we've been married, and Ina, you know, has written two books of her own, terrific books on France. And she's working on a third one right now. But she is the only person I've ever been able to trust to help me on my research.

INSKEEP: What do you mean, only one you've been able to trust?

CARO: Well, basically I have to look at everything myself. I mean I was that way as a reporter.

INSKEEP: You mean every document, every paper.

CARO: Yeah. But then I realized, you know, you couldn't really do that, you know. Ina says I've looked at everything in this huge file. You know, then no matter how hard it is, she has looked at every page, and she knows if she comes across something I didn't tell her to look for, if it's important or not.

INSKEEP: When I look around this office, I think everything in this office is something that could have existed 30 years ago, and with the exception of that printer, everything in this office could have existed 50 or 60 years ago. Tell me about that. I mean, is that conscious, is that deliberate?

CARO: Well, I write in long hand. You know, my first three or four drafts, you can see, are on legal pads in long hand. And then I go to a typewriter, and I know everybody's switching to a computer. And I'm sort of laughed at. You know, everyone says you could do it faster. However, I'm not sure that in my case that faster is better. So...

INSKEEP: Somebody - a little bit of inside information here. Somebody said to me, if you want to send an email to Robert Caro, you will have to send it to his wife's email address.

CARO: Yeah.

INSKEEP: 'Cause you don't have one.

CARO: No. But I use - you know, it's not that I never - I have a computer here.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

CARO: Because the Johnson Library won't let me use a typewriter anymore. They say it's too loud and it bothers the other people. So I took my notes on the computer, and I also use - I did go on the Internet - you want to do interviews. You know, is the guy still alive.

I just had that - you know, the photographer who took that picture of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in is Cecil Stoughton. People had told me that Cecil Stoughton was dead, and I, like an idiot, had accepted that. I don't usually do it. I'm not quite sure why - I always usually look it up. But somehow I didn't.

I said, God, I don't have enough detail on this, you know, because there weren't enough people. Most of them are dead. And now we have a national telephone directory. So Ina looked it up and said, no, there's a Cecil Stoughton down in some town in Florida.

So I called him up and I said - his wife answered. I said, Mrs. Stoughton, my name is Robert Caro, I don't if you know who I am, but I'm writing books on Lyndon. She says, Cecil has been waiting for you to call.

Now, if you read that scene in this book, as I hope you will, you'll see Stoughton talking about why he put Johnson where he did and Lady Bird where he did. He had a lot more detail on that scene.

INSKEEP: There are times in this book where you quote someone you have interviewed, and I'm reading the name, and I think about it for a moment and I realize this guy has been dead 20, 25, 30 years. What is it like when you have to - I mean you started out as a newspaper guy, you know, deadline tonight. What's it been like to sit on this material for 30-some years until you're ready to put it out there?

CARO: Well, that's a weird feeling. And it's a weird - you know, it's - well, George Christian, who doesn't like - let me say he is not an admirer of my work - I knew I needed him, 'cause he was Johnson's last press secretary. So he was there at moments that were very important to me, and he had refused to talk to me.

And then he did call, and he'd like me to come to see him. You know, I had heard that he had had lung cancer, and that it had come back, and that he had decided not to have the chemotherapy again, because he didn't want to have it again. He was just going to die.

So when I went to see him, he was a very sick man. He had this machine, this oxygen machine with a mask, and he had to make a lot of use of the machine. And he got tired. And then he finally said to me, you'll have to get the rest of it from someone else, Bob. This is all I can do. And then he called for - I think he called for a driver. And a short time later he died.

And I've had that, you know, before, where you feel that the human life span is my biggest obstacle in doing this. But you have to get to these people, you know, and the last of them are getting very old.

INSKEEP: Robert Caro, thanks very much.

CARO: I thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Robert Caro's fourth book on President Lyndon Johnson is "The Passage of Power." It takes readers up through the beginning of Johnson's presidency. He says he has one more book to go. He is 76 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.