Robert Caro to speak at Davidson College Feb. 26

02/15/2013 12:00 AM

02/13/2013 11:35 AM

Robert Caro was at work in his New York office when I telephoned recently, and this was no surprise at all.

Because even though Caro has won two Pulitzers and a bundle of other prizes, and even though “The Passage of Power,” the fourth volume of his acclaimed Lyndon Johnson biography, was published less than a year ago, he has another book to write, and he is past deadline. Years past deadline.

Caro, 77, who’s speaking at Davidson College on Feb. 26, is writing the fifth and final volume of his LBJ biography, which begins as Lyndon Johnson takes over the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

“There were originally supposed to be three of them,” he explains of the LBJ volumes, “then it became four of them, and now there are going to be five of them. And each of them has taken years longer than I thought.”

This is the story of Caro’s life.

Caro figured he could write his first book, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” in nine months. It took seven years and nearly bankrupted him.

But what makes Caro slow to publish is also what makes him one of the nation’s great historians. Once he starts researching, one thing leads to another. In the end, by interweaving subplots and tangents, he offers not just a biography, but a panorama of the times.

“The thing becomes so much huger than you had ever thought of when you started,” he says. “That’s happened with every one of my books.”

Evoking time and place

Take “The Power Broker.” At its core, it’s the story of a brilliant young urban planner whose initial government reform attempts fail because he doesn’t understand politics. He gradually learns to wield power, but, in the process, morphs from idealist to tyrant.

Caro sets this transformation against a rich history of 20th-century New York. David Halberstam called the work “surely the greatest book ever written about a city.”

For the past month, I’ve been listening to a recording of “The Power Broker” during my commute. It’s more than 1,300 pages in print. The audio version is 66 hours. I will still be listening when spring arrives, but I figure my time will be well spent. If not for Caro, how would I have learned about the neglected state of New York’s Central Park Menagerie during the Depression, when its animal residents included several dozen canaries, a senile tiger, a puma with rickets, a semi-paralyzed baboon and “in a cage between the mountain lions and leopards, an Airedale”?

It’s Caro’s fanatical research and reporting that produces such wonderful details. While researching “The Power Broker,” for instance, he unearthed long-stored papers of New York Gov. Al Smith, the man who brought Moses to power in the 1920s.

“I was opening envelopes,” he says, “and as I opened them, they just crumbled in my fingers, because no one had opened them in all those years.”

Ground-level reporting

When he wanted to understand Johnson’s early political career, Caro spent days in the Texas hill country.

For his final Johnson volume, he plans to visit Vietnamese villages that were bombed during the U.S. Operation Rolling Thunder campaign. America’s bombers flew so high, Caro says, that villagers had no warning. He doesn’t know what today’s villagers will tell him about the attacks.

“I have to go to Vietnam,” he says, “because for one thing, you don’t know what you’re going to find.”

When he speaks at Davidson, Caro says he’ll talk about how Johnson assumed power following Kennedy’s assassination.

“In watching Lyndon Johnson grab the reins of power with such a sure hand and steady the nation and get it through the crisis and turn it on a new course,” Caro says, “you see the true potentialities of presidential power as exercised by a master.”

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