The inspiration for the authoritative book on power in New York City came from the author’s realization that he understood nothing of it. “I spent a lot of time thinking, if you’re really interested in political power, everything you do is bullshit,” Robert Caro told us recently.
Caro, who was a reporter covering Robert Moses at Newsday in the late 1960s, took seven years to write The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a good chunk of it spent researching in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room of the main branch of the New York Public Library. Until April 7, the NYPL has a kiosk in the McGraw Rotunda one floor above the Allen Room featuring some of Caro’s primary source material.
Last week, Caro took a break from writing the fifth and final installment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson—a series he began researching 42 years ago—to talk about how his time at the library helped him during a dark period of his life, why the decisions Robert Moses made are still gridlocking New York, and what he misses most about being a newspaper reporter.
Caro's New York accent (his wife and research partner, Ina, who is also an author, is sometimes "Eye-ner") and humility cure an interviewer's jitters. He prefaces anecdotes about the exhaustive research he did on the greatest biographical series of our time with phrases like, "I don't want to bore you with this." And he largely shies away from commenting on New York City in 2016, except when we gaze out the window of his office near Columbus Circle.
"You know, these buildings are disgusting," Caro says, motioning to the luxury high-rises. "No one seems to speak out against them. You wonder what New York is going to become."
But first, Caro had some questions for us: “If you’re publishing on the Internet, do you call them readers or viewers?”
Either, I think. How do you know they're reading it?
There's something called Chartbeat—it shows you how many people are reading a specific article in any given moment, and how long they spend on that article. That's called "engagement time." We have a giant flatscreen on the wall that displays it, a lot of publications do. What you just said is the worst thing I ever heard. [Laughs]
How long do people spend reading the articles?
Most of the time it’s around 30 seconds. How long is the average blog?
Around 500 words. So they’re not even reading it! What if you spent time on a story, and did like, when I was a reporter, what was called a “long feature”? You know, a couple thousand words. Would people read that?
Sometimes. You can put a lot of time and energy into something, and it can get buried by something much smaller, or something that’s not even original. A 50-word item announcing where Robert Caro is speaking on some night could bury a 5,000 word feature. It’s somewhat of a race to the bottom— What do you mean by that?
Headlines and other tools that are used to get people to click on an article. It reduces what might be a piece of nuanced writing to the most salacious tidbit. So The Power Broker might be headlined, “Robert Moses Is A Racist Whatever.” Or—and someone did this recently—you might try something like, “The 11 Most Shocking Things In The Power Broker." It just crushes all nuance. What you just told me, I’m thinking about when I was a reporter and they were reading something of mine, and if the engagement time or whatever was two seconds, I’d shoot myself! [Laughs]
You’ve said that you were able to uncover some of your best material in The Power Broker and in your LBJ series by being incredibly thorough—"time equals truth," and "turn the page." For someone who writes on the Internet, how do you uncover truth on a weekly basis? Or an hourly basis? That’s what I hated about being a reporter. I liked a lot of—in fact, I was just talking to my wife and I said I’d give anything to take a year off and go back to being a general assignment reporter.
Why don’t you? Yeah but I’m worried I’m not gonna finish the books now. I don’t wanna waste time doing articles. I love being a reporter. But the thing I didn’t like was you were always having to write when you still had more questions in your mind. I remember that feeling.
And even when I started being an investigative reporter—one of the first stories I did, I went out to Arizona to look into something and I thought, this is a big fraud. I said I need two weeks out here. I remember they couldn’t believe that someone was asking them for two whole weeks, it was such a different world then.
As in two weeks was a long time? Yeah! It was a daily newspaper, and you wrote for the next day. When you started you did two or three articles. Then you’d do bigger stories, then you’d do one a day, but you wrote every day.
I got to be an investigative reporter totally by accident. Let’s say I was 23 and I didn’t know what I was doing. We had this managing editor who was really out of The Front Page, and he didn’t like guys from the Ivy League. They hired me when he was on vacation [Laughs]. For awhile I was the only guy in the newsroom who’d gone to the Ivy League and he didn’t talk to me for awhile. Then I did something almost by accident on an investigation that they were interested in, and he said “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could go through files like this, from now on you do investigative work.” So with my usual savoir faire, I say, “But I don’t know anything about investigative work.” He said, "We’ll put you next to Bob Greene."
We had these little tin desks, and Bob Greene weighed about 300 pounds. So when he’d sit down, Bob Greene was half in my desk. The fact is that I learned a lot from him.
I started to realize, I was doing political reporting, and I came to realize almost by accident that this guy Robert Moses had so much power. He wanted to build this bridge across Long Island Sound, and Newsday had me look into it.
Around then, I was a Nieman fellow. Ina’s mother was dying that year, so she couldn’t come up to Cambridge with me, so I don’t like to go to social things myself, and there were a lot of social things. But everybody had an office of their own, and I spent a lot of time thinking, if you’re really interested in political power, everything you do is bullshit.
You’re not saying in every story, power comes from being elected, but your whole work as a political reporter is based on the premise that power in a democracy comes from being elected. And here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything and he has more power than anyone who was elected, and he has more power than the mayor and any governor or any mayor or governor put together—look, he’s built the whole landscape of your life.
So I thought I was going to do that in a newspaper series. I was gonna need months to do this, how am I gonna get them to do months? It was just too big, I was gonna have to do a book, but I thought I’d be done with the book in nine months.
In the NYPL exhibit on The Power Broker, you’re quoted as saying, “I had been living for seven years with people saying no one would pay attention to a book on Robert Moses.” Is this because no one knew who he was? Or is it because his legacy had already been cemented? No, there was this vague knowledge. I went to Horace Mann, and the other night a bunch of us who were in the same class together had dinner. I thought I was exaggerating this, but no: when we were juniors, everybody had to write a paper on the same topic, and the topic was, “Robert Moses was the perfect example of the white knight in literature.” He was the hero, you know?
But when I started bumping into him as a reporter, you’d say, who is this guy? Nobody knows who he is. And nobody knows how he got his power. I remember there was not only not a book, but not a single magazine article that had explored the public authority as a source of political power. They just saw public authorities as things that sold bonds to build a bridge, collected tolls until the bonds were paid off, then went out of business.
No one knew he was interesting. I only knew one editor, and they gave me the world’s smallest advance. For years I was working up in the Bronx, it was before I came to the library. You work on a book for years, and if you don’t have writers around to tell you that books take years—it was sort of a terrible time, because we were broke, really broke for years. It was terrible because Moses had stopped everyone from talking to me for a long time. But it was also terrible because you felt, what am I doing? No one’s interested in this! You’re keeping your family impoverished, you know? All of a sudden you’re in a room with 10 other people who are all sort of doing the same things.
I was very moved by this [NYPL] kiosk. It reminded me of how much that library meant to me. For the first time you were in a room full of writers. This guy, James Flexner, who was an idol of mine, he came over one day and said, “How long have you been working on this?” Which was the question that I just dreaded, you know? And whatever my answer was at the time, “five years,” or whatever. He said, “Oh that’s not so long, my Washington book took 14 years!”
There was another guy in the room named Ferdinand Lundberg, nobody knows this guy’s name. Ferdinand Lundberg wrote a book in the ‘30s that was one of the greatest examples of political reporting. It’s called America’s 60 Families. This would be our one-tenth of 1 percent—it’s about how 60 families controlled 95 percent of the wealth in the United States. I came across that book as I was researching the robber barons and I thought it was the greatest book.
One day I was doodling titles, and I decided I was going to call it The Power Broker, and my first editor didn’t like that title. But I knew this was going to be the title. And I wrote it, and all of a sudden Lundberg was standing behind me. He said, “Is that the title?” And I said yes. “Don’t let them change that,” he said. So there were things that happened in that room, right at the beginning, that made everything change all of a sudden.
There were other famous writers, like Barbara Tuchman had been there, she had just left when I got there. And then there were a bunch of writers like me, who no one knew. Like, Susan Brownmiller, she wrote a book called Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, and it was groundbreaking. Susan had the next desk from me, and no one had ever heard of her either, and her editor wasn’t returning her calls. We used to make a bet, whose editor would return our call first! [Laughs]
Sometimes the bet would go on for a long time, but I still remember Susan’s feet. She wore these socks with bright horizontal stripes, and she’d stick them under this partial carrel, so they’d be sticking under my desk, and when I was writing I’d see them. So when you were writing you weren’t lonely.
Why write about individual people and not systems of power? I would be lying to you if I said I know now why. As I was writing this book, I realized—realized is probably an exaggerated word—I realized that if I did his life right, I would be explaining not just him, but how urban political power worked. Not just in New York but in all the cities of America.
Moses had done something no one else had ever done. Everyone thought power comes from being elected. He wasn’t elected, he realizes he’s never going to get elected to anything, so he’s got to figure out a way to get all this power without getting elected, and he does it. I didn’t understand it, no one else understood it, even La Guardia says to him, “Don’t tell me what to do,” or whatever the quote is, “I’m the boss, you just work for me.”
And Moses writes, and I saw this letter in La Guardia’s papers, he sends back the letter and he writes across it, “You’d better read the contracts, mayor.”
I gradually came to understand that because he had done this thing, that no one else had ever done, gotten all this power without being elected, if I could find out how he did it and explain how he did it, I would be explaining something that no one else understood and I thought they really should understand, which is, how does power really work in cities? Not what we’re taught in textbooks, but what’s the raw, bottom, naked essence of real power?
I’m writing this book, and I suddenly say, God, this isn’t really a biography, this is a book about political power. I said I’d love to do the same thing with national power. Who’s the one guy who did something that no one else did? The thing that got me about Lyndon Johnson wasn’t him being president. It was about him being Senate Majority Leader.
In your lifetime or in my lifetime, the Senate has never worked. Around the Civil War you have Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, but after the Civil War, until Johnson becomes majority leader, which is like, 90 years, the Senate is the same mess it is today. Exactly. People think it’s different, but it’s the same.
Johnson becomes Majority Leader, for five years, ‘55 through ‘60, the Senate really works. The Senate writes the bills. It’s his civil rights bill, not Eisenhower’s. He leaves, and it’s so dramatic!
He did something like Moses, that no one else did, so if I could just find out how power in the Senate works, I could just explain it to people. In a democracy you want to explain to people how power works.
I really wanted to do [The Power Broker], but I never thought I’d get to do another book, all I wanted to do was get back to a paycheck. I just wanted to go back to Newsday, and it seems like every few months an editor who liked me went to the New York Times, or died, or whatever.
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
You write that in 1955, the Triborough Authority and the Port Authority had enough money to build “a whole new LIRR,” build new tunnels underneath the Hudson River, build the Second Avenue Subway, build another tunnel across the East River for the Second Avenue Subway, and extend the subway down Nostrand Avenue. Instead Moses used it all on roads. We’re sitting here in 2016 and still talking about building tunnels underneath the Hudson, about the Second Avenue Subway, about problems and delays on the subway and the LIRR. What have we learned or what have we not learned from The Power Broker? You just said it [Laughs] better than I’ve heard—that’s exactly right. He had enough money, because the Port Authority really did what he wanted even though he wasn’t the head of it.
Whenever you drive out on Long Island, you just sit in these traffic jams on the LIE or wherever, you really say, “It didn’t have to be like this.” It would have been so easy to fix it.
All these things that we’re trying to get done today—we go to Paris almost every year, and it seems almost every couple of years there’s a new Metro line to a new neighborhood. How do they do that? No one even talks about it here! When they talk about congestion pricing, you say, but you’re not giving people a good alternative. You gotta give them a good alternative.
An alternative to congestion pricing—what would that look like? I don’t know. I would listen to Moses, and think, boy is he smart. He thinks in terms of things you never even knew existed, that’s really what I mean.
Why is New York still such a car-centric city? Why haven’t we learned those lessons that you spent years accruing and putting into print? This will take a minute to explain. In a way, it’s very hard to change it now.
You take Long Island—when he’s building the LIE, Long Island isn’t developed. Suffolk County is nothing but potato farms. The eastern half of Nassau is pretty much a farming area. And portions of the Queens, the northeastern portion is just farms. Everybody is saying to him—it’s not hindsight—people were saying to him at the time, so if you build this road, the minute you build it out to make an exit, you’re gonna have development there. They said the thing to do was build it with a light rail line, down the center. If you do that, it’ll be like the old towns of Long Island, like Great Neck and Port Washington. They’ll be little apartment houses near each exit, and the people who want to go into New York by train will have that option. People who want to use cars can still use cars, but a lot of people will take the train. If you don’t do that everybody’s gonna have to take cars.
In addition to that, land was really cheap. If I remember this, the right-of-way he was buying for this was 200 feet. And they said, but all you need for two light rail lines happens to be an extra 40 feet. So whatever the amount was, if you just add 4 percent more, you can add a light rail line. He was determined not to allow mass transit. He wouldn’t put the light rail in.
They said, if you won’t put the light rail in, at least buy the right-of-way, because now if you do that we’ll have the land to have the light rail line and every 10 miles or so we can add huge parking fields. If you don’t do that, they said, no one will ever be able to buy it because it’ll get too expensive.
Moses was a real genius, he didn’t want that to happen in the future. He engineered the footings of the LIE to be too light for anything but cars, so you can’t ever put a light rail there. He condemned Long Island to be this car-centered place.
So when I say that one man not only shaped New York but shaped it for centuries to come, because now how can you overcome that? All the people who live in northeastern Queens, or Co-op City in the Bronx, and all of Suffolk and a lot of Nassau County, they’re condemned to use cars. It’s not easy to use mass transit. Moses came along with his incredible vision, and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.
I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.
Then he had this quote, and I can still hear him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.
We used Jones Beach a lot, because I used to work the night shift for the first couple of years, so I’d sleep til 12 and then we’d go down and spend a lot of afternoons at the beach. It never occurred to me that there weren’t any black people at the beach.
So Ina and I went to the main parking lot, that huge 10,000-car lot. We stood there with steno pads, and we had three columns: Whites, Blacks, Others. And I still remember that first column—there were a few Others, and almost no Blacks. The Whites would go on to the next page. I said, God, this is what Robert Moses did. This is how you can shape a metropolis for generations.
See, I was learning all this stuff. Now it sounds like I know it. But I’m learning this stuff one thing at a time.
How did you get the detail that Moses built wrought-iron monkeys on the Harlem Comfort Station, and how do you go about reporting that as evidence of Moses’ racism? When Ric Burns was doing his New York documentary, he didn’t believe me! He had me in a van with him and he took me to a lot of places and interviewed me. And I said to him, don’t you want to go to that comfort station? And he said something, I don’t remember what it was, that he indicated that it wasn’t true. So I said, let’s just drive over there! I understand it’s been taken down.
But you know I don’t remember the answer to who told me that. Someone told me about it, and I went and looked. [Ed. There is no individual note for this passage, but “confidential sources” are cited for this section]
His racism—he was the most racist human being I had ever really encountered. I still remember him, he had this gesture. When I interviewed him he was already 78 or 79, but he had immense physical power, and this gesture, which I can’t even really do. [Caro loudly slams his open palm down on his desk.]
He took some call, and he hung up the call, and he just—[Caro slams his palm down again.] The quote is somewhere in there, but he says, “They expect me to build playgrounds for that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.” I couldn’t believe it. He had no apology at all.
How did interviewing Moses in person shape how you wrote about him, versus writing about LBJ, whom you never spoke to? Well, I really wish I had met Lyndon Johnson. You’re constantly sorry that you didn’t. With Moses it helped me understand him, because he was so unapologetic. Also, you understood the other part of him, which is this genius he has.
I’ve been interviewed so many times I’ve probably said everything I’m saying to you at one point or another over the last 40 years. [Laughs]
He had this huge map, and when he would get excited and talk to you, he would jump up, he used these yellow pencils with erasers, and he’d have one in his hand. He’d say, the Mosholu Parkway, which he wanted to build, which would have destroyed the character of another swath of the Bronx. But to listen to him, he’d say, “Can’t you see? The highway goes here, we can have the parks here, and then we’ll have housing here,” and you saw that this guy thought in terms of an entire—and so many of the early things he did were masterpieces, like Jones Beach.
He’d say something like, “Well it was 8 to 7 against us in Ways and Means but the swing vote was Stevens of Cattaraugus County and Stevens had in house in a mortgage and the mortgage was the First Citizens Bank of Rochester. The way you got to the First Citizens Bank of Rochester—” he remembered everything! They weren’t really interviews. You’d ask him a question and he’d answer for like, three hours or something.
I remember thinking to myself, you’ve got to find a way to be fair to him, to show this genius, to show that he can think in a way that maybe no one else thought, where he sees Connecticut, Westchester, Long Island, New York, as one canvas, and he’s drawing on it!
Will it take a Robert Moses type person to undo what Robert Moses did? It’s this idea of collectivist power versus the power of a single person. Political scientists are always saying I’m too believing in the Great Man Theory. If you take the particular great man, he shaped New York. New York is to this amazing extent what he envisioned, and what he built.
Would we have a Civil Rights Act today if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t been there in 1964? See, you need both things, you need the heroism of the blacks to create this movement, to create national attention, to sacrifice themselves and all. But you also need someone who can turn that into laws.
When Kennedy’s assassinated, Lyndon Johnson says the first thing we oughta do is pass the civil rights program, we’ve talked about it for a hundred years, it’s time to write it in the books of law. To write it in the books of law. The more I would talk to senators—I tried to talk to all the senators that I could who were alive, and all their top staffers—the more you talk to them, the more you say, this was never gonna get passed. The southern senators controlled the committees.
So you really do think, if there’s someone really almost unique—I mean there’s only one comparison that I know of to Moses and that’s Baron Haussmann. As for Lyndon Johnson, I don’t think we have someone with the legislative genius like that.
What about someone like Dick Cheney? He created an awful lot of power for himself. Well, I haven’t examined his past.
Governor Cuomo fancies himself a bit like Robert Moses—he’s going to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge, expand the Javits Center, and build a train for La Guardia, but where’s Moses' soaring ambition there? I remember I was once on the dais with Donald Trump. This was a long time ago, this is before he became really famous. He said something to me like, “Why would you write a book about someone you didn’t like?” Then there was some quote, it was like, Trump is going to be the next Robert Moses. And someone asked me about that, and I said he’d have to build at the rate he’s building now for the next 200 years to equal Robert Moses! [Laughs]
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
What is your Internet consumption like? Well, I don’t have email, I have a computer now. I had to take notes in the Johnson Library on a computer, but I write in longhand.
But if you wanted to read an article in The New York Times or The New Yorker or whatever, you don’t go online, you get a physical copy? Sorry, I do. [Laughs]
You never used a recording device for any your interviews— “Never” isn’t true, almost never.
Why? That sounds incredibly difficult to accurately transcribe someone’s words while also thinking of good questions to ask. You have to say, when I was a reporter, there weren’t recording devices. A lot of old reporters had a shorthand. I can get every word of an interview.
Lady Bird Johnson, she wanted to record me, I guess she thought I would misquote her. But I said she could do it if I got a copy of her transcript. I took my notes and did what I usually do, in my steno notebooks, and my rule is I type them up that night. There was something she was talking about where I wanted every word, and I checked it against the transcript and I had every word.
When I was your age, that was how you did it. You know, I went to see Spotlight, I miss being a reporter so much, I went right back and saw it again! [Laughs] And I really want to see it again. Did you ever see All The President’s Men?
Yeah. I love all of those—you know there’s another movie, called The Paper. Jason Robards plays the owner, Robert Duvall is this editor very much like the editor who I said didn’t want to hire anyone from the Ivy League, and Glenn Close is the managing editor and Michael Keaton is the young reporter who wants to get off this tabloid and go over to the New York Times. It’s a great newspaper movie. In fact I just talked myself into getting it on Netflix.
If you read profiles of Robert Caro, there’s always a tinge of sadness that by devoting yourself to writing about someone else’s life, you’re almost missing out on your own. It’s this vision of Robert Caro alone with his typewriter and his steno pads. Is there a sense that you’re writing this last LBJ book in a vacuum? [Pauses] No. No, because however boastful it is to say, you’re aware that these Johnson books have sold an awful lot of copies; that people are reading them. Years ago, they did some survey and it showed that something like 231 colleges were teaching The Power Broker. With The Power Broker, it’s like, people just sort of know now, why the bridges are so low. People are always saying to me, oh we drove out, how many bridges did he do like that?
Or the Tavern on the Green—people are constantly saying to me, is that the playground that Moses wanted to pave over? I hear that a lot, actually. You see people for 40 years, and you see people still reading the book. It just makes you feel good.
OK so what has that sort of authorial power revealed about you? Well, I’d better get it right! [Laughs] You do feel, you know, you’d better get it right. I do feel that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.