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.

- biographer Robert Caro

Caro is one of my few heroes, so I can’t help toying with the (admittedly facile) notion that I can be like Caro if I start wearing a coat and tie every day.

It might even work. Not because the coat matters. Not because the tie matters. Ritual matters. Any clothing could serve as my daily reminder that there are sentences to write, that there are imaginary people to make real, that there is work to be done.

This brings us to Tin House blog’s "Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers: Part Two" and the writing wear of essayist Chloe Caldwell:

There’s a mirror above my desk, so sometimes I put on a trucker hat and/or bright lipstick, so I can imagine I’m someone else. It makes me braver.

Therefore, be it resolved that I will sit down to write each day wearing a coat and a tie and a trucker hat and bright lipstick.

* Back when I was a newspaper reporter, KUOW invited me to come on the radio and talk about transit policy. Until I heard my voice played back, I had literally no idea how often I say “you know.” I say it a lot. So I wince for Caro when the NPR transcript shows him using “you know” four times in 76 words, but I also take secret pleasure — OK not secret if I’m blogging about it — that the master and I lean on the same verbal cane.

"I know you’ve been worried," she said. "You don’t have to worry anymore."

Last month, because he has a great knack for knowing what I’ll want to read, my dad emailed me a link to the Robert Caro profile Chris Jones wrote for Esquire. I’ve been so absorbed in reading one of Caro’s books that I managed to forget to read the profile. Until yesterday. David Dobbs sent me a message, summing up Jones’ piece as “So so so so good.”

And so I read it. It’s splendid. I’m tempted to pay it the highest compliment I can think of: that it manages to be worthy of Caro. But that may not be quite right. While it’s a gorgeous profile, any profile strictly worthy of Caro would — perversely — require hunting and hunting and hunting for the least sympathetic details of Caro’s life. Maybe Jones tried. Maybe he tried hard. Here, as Jones writes, is how a journalist would have tried even harder:

How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?

Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. “As the circles grew outward,” Caro says, “there were people who’d only met him once. He wasn’t going to be able to get to them all.” Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert’s relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp’s social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.

"So that’s how," Caro told Gottlieb.

"Every step of that story is by all ordinary standards insane," Gottlieb says today. "But he didn’t say any of it as though it were remarkable. We’re dealing with an incredibly productive, wonderful mania."

I love that part. Two other passages really hit me. Both deal with propping Caro up during those bleak times when the publishing world still saw his “incredibly productive, wonderful mania” as a pointless obsession with a doomed book.


Block after block he walked, past 96th Street, 110th, 126th, 168th. Had he made a terrible mistake? Had he written a bad book? Caro felt trapped: in too deep to abandon his book, too far away from finishing it to continue. Ina remembers receiving her husband that night, ruined. Her anger is still in her voice today: “I was livid,” she says. “I just thought they’d treated him miserably.” They sat down and talked into the night. “He’s such a beautiful writer,” she says. “I just always felt everything would work out.”

And this:

Nesbit, today one of the principals of Janklow & Nesbit, sits in her sunlit office, and the iconic names of her clients jump out from the shelves: Michael Crichton, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Jeffrey Eugenides. But she can still remember sitting down to read those first five hundred thousand words of Robert Caro’s.

"I thought, Who’s Robert Moses?" she says. "I was young and hadn’t been in New York City that many years. I didn’t really know who he was. And then I started reading the manuscript, this incredibly compelling narrative about this man I knew nothing about. He came alive."

She turned the last page and made two phone calls. The first was to Caro. He remembers it as one of the great moments of his life. “I know you’ve been worried,” she said. “You don’t have to worry anymore.”

Those might be the most wonderful words I’ve ever heard attributed to an agent.

"dignity was a luxury in a fight with Lyndon Johnson"

The ongoing pleasure of reading Robert Caro’s masterful Means of Ascent inspired me to post something sincere but (arguably) goofy on Twitter this morning: “Just in case my tweets control the future, I think HBO should do a miniseries on LBJ’s 1948 Senate race.”

Why do I want to watch a miniseries about a campaign that pitted the helicopter-flying, weekly-poll-taking, good-name-smearing, slick-radio-spot-buying Congressman Lyndon Johnson against the drive-from-town-to-town-and-shake-hands-with-folks simplicity of revered ex-Gov. Coke Stevenson? I could answer that with any number of excerpts from Caro, but I’ll limit it to three.

This …

Sometimes the reaction of such targets of opportunity to the totally unexpected roar from the sky and the abrupt descent upon them of the weird-looking machine was not one of unbridled enthusiasm. In East Texas, for example, a dozen cotton-choppers, seeing the Flying Windmill suddenly wheel and head for them, dropped their hoes and ran in terror for the shelter of a nearby wood. Such reactions did not, however, deter the candidate. The helicopter was too fast for the cotton-choppers; before they could reach the wood, it was above them. As they froze in their tracks, he shouted down over the microphone: “Hello, down there! This is your friend, Lyndon Johnson, your candidate for the United States Senate. I hope you’ll vote for me on Primary Day. And bring along your relatives to vote, too.”

… Nothing in his path could escape. Was there an isolated farmhouse ahead? In the midst of a peaceful farm setting—wife in her kitchen, baking, perhaps; farmer milking under a tree—the S-51 would suddenly swoop with the Pratt & Whitney roaring. “The chickens thought it was a bird coming down to get them,” Busby recalls. “They would go berserk, flying up and hitting the fences.” Cows would gallop awkwardly away in panic …

And this …

Never before had there been a campaign in which the same phrases were drummed into voters’ consciousness so constantly all through June and July. “Secret deal”? Perhaps Coke Stevenson felt he wouldn’t dignify the charge by denying it. But dignity was a luxury in a fight with Lyndon Johnson, a luxury too expensive to afford. Perhaps Stevenson had too much pride to deny the charge. Pride was a luxury that an opponent of Lyndon Johnson could not afford. Once Johnson found an issue, true or untrue, that “touched,” he hammered it—until people started to believe it.

And finally, this scene from Johnson’s protracted battle against an especially big kidney stone:

… when (speechwriter Paul Bolton) entered the apartment, the Congressman was standing in the middle of the living room, “mother naked—obviously sick, and obviously he had been shot full of painkillers.” He began to rant, his arms flailing. Lady Bird was attempting to soothe him, and to get him dressed for the speech, but with little result. “I was aghast,” Bolton recalls. “I was scared half silly.” During the few minutes before Lady Bird shooed the speechwriter out, Johnson kept saying he was determined to give the speech, but Bolton remembers that he did not believe that was possible. The speechwriter drove to Wooldridge Park “very much in turmoil.” But then, right on schedule, Lyndon Johnson’s car pulled up to the park and the Congressman got out. … He didn’t merely walk onto the stage, which had been cleared of everybody except his wife and his mother (both dressed completely in white); he ran onto it, “head thrown back,” Bolton recalls, “hands in the air,” flung his Stetson into the crowd with a carefree, sweeping gesture; “he was a great figure of a triumphant warrior going to war.”

Here’s what I want you to do. Go over to Amazon, even if you hate Amazon. Find the Kindle edition of Robert Caro’s Means of Ascent, even if you hate Kindles. Click “Send sample now.” You won’t need a Kindle to read the sample.

The free sample matters because it includes Caro’s introduction. Caro’s introduction matters — to me — because it might be the most effective opening I’ve ever read to a nonfiction book. At least, that’s what seemed true Saturday when I read it for the first time. It’s also what seems true now.

Great writing solves problems. Here’s the problem Caro solved with his introduction: How can a writer prime today’s readers and tomorrow’s readers to understand and feel how electric it was when LBJ stood before a joint session of Congress in 1965 and spoke the words “And we shall overcome”?

Caro solved that problem. He solved it majestically.

Getting ready to write a post about one of Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies, I visited the site for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, noticed that it’s possible to see Johnson’s daily appointment diary from 1959 to 1969, pulled up the 3/16/1965 entry, and was amused to see the parenthetical note at 5:47 p.m. that explains why a president who wanted to meet with his defense secretary needed to settle for meeting with his deputy defense secretary:

(had asked for Secy McNamara, but found that he was playing squash)

UPDATE (a few minutes later): The best part turns out to be that I only found this historical nonevent because I searched on the wrong date. I meant to search 3/15/1965, the day LBJ spoke on voting rights to a joint session of Congress. My brain, it seems, was playing squash.

Getting ready to write a post about one of Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies, I visited the site for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, noticed that it’s possible to see Johnson’s daily appointment diary from 1959 to 1969, pulled up the 3/16/1965 entry, and was amused to see the parenthetical note at 5:47 p.m. that explains why a president who wanted to meet with his defense secretary needed to settle for meeting with his deputy defense secretary:

(had asked for Secy McNamara, but found that he was playing squash)


UPDATE (a few minutes later): The best part turns out to be that I only found this historical nonevent because I searched on the wrong date. I meant to search 3/15/1965, the day LBJ spoke on voting rights to a joint session of Congress. My brain, it seems, was playing squash.

The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller.

- from’s "Most Anticipated: The Great 2012 Book Preview" 

Both hands shot up to the sides of my head when I read this. Amazement. Joy.

Caro has shouldered such a monumental task. Sometimes I worry that no single human can complete it. Considering that I don’t know Caro, I think more often than is reasonable about his health and about the care he takes when crossing streets. 

Caro’s previous LBJ volume is one of my favorite books. I continue to believe that its tenth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters should be read by anyone who blogs, tweets, uses Facebook, or posts comments online.

None of the body parts customarily referred to as “private” were private when the parts were Lyndon Johnson’s.

- Robert A. Caro in his superb Master of the Senate

From lower on the same page:

"Crude," says Representative Richard Boiling of Missouri. "Crude. Barnyard. Always scratching his crotch and picking his nose in mixed company. I’ll never forget—one time he had some injury—hernia or something—and even with the girls present in his office he pulled his pants down to show it. And he’d sit at his desk, and it wouldn’t matter if there was a woman there—he’d pull up his scrotum while talking. We men used to be a bit embarrassed."

Then, a few paragraphs later, there is this:

Johnson began summoning Jones to take dictation from him while he was sitting on the toilet. “At first,” Latimer says, “L.E. attempted to stand away from the door, but Johnson insisted he stand right over him. L.E. would stand with his head averted, and take dictation.” As both Latimer and Jones understood, the tactic was a “method of control”—employed to humiliate Jones, and make him acknowledge who was boss. Years later, Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter who had begun working for Johnson, was summoned to the President’s bathroom in the White House. Watching Johnson, “apparently in the midst of defecation,” staring at him “intently, looking for any sign of embarrassment,” and “lowering his tone, forcing me to approach more closely,” while “calculating my reaction,” Goodwin realized that he was being given a kind of “test.” Goodwin passed—and so had many of the staff members to whom Johnson had given the same test during his years in the House of Representatives.

These passages have been on my mind since the cornered Rep. Anthony Weiner stopped denying that he sent explicit self-portraits to strangers. Weiner is not LBJ. LBJ is not Weiner. Still, it’s worth remembering that icky congressional behavior wasn’t invented in 2011.

My love affair with France began when Bob quit his job on Newsday to write his biography of Robert Moses. He told me to start planning a trip to France that we would be able take that very spring. He thought it would take him nine months to finish his book. He simply couldn’t imagine anything taking him more than nine months to write. But it actually took him seven years, and we were broke for most of those years – totally broke. I remember during that time, Bob had dinner with his first editor at a cheap Chinese restaurant on the west side of New York. During that dinner he asked his editor if he could have the second half of his $5,000 advance. His editor refused. He told my Bob: “No one will ever read a book about Robert Moses and I am not prepared to alter the terms of your contract.” He had been Bob’s friend at Horace Mann and at Princeton. We were living in the Bronx at the time and Bob walked all the way home. He didn’t know how to tell me that we weren’t getting any money. Luckily, that man (who happens to be the only person I have ever hated) was shortly replaced by Robert Gottlieb who has been Bob’s wonderful editor ever since.

- Ina Caro, from her Tumblr Paris to the Past, marking the birthday of The Power Broker, a book that has never gone out of print in 37 years.

It’s worth remembering the rest of the slog to publication. This is from The Paris Review:


When I first handed in the manuscript of The Power Broker it was over a million words. With the technology of that time there was a limited number of words you could fit between two covers and have what they call a manageable trade book—something like seven hundred thousand words, around thirteen-hundred pages. Bob didn’t want to do the thing in volumes. He told me, I can get people interested in Robert Moses once, but not twice. So we had to cut three hundred thousand words. That’s like cutting a five-hundred-page book out of a book. It’s not easy. I would come into Knopf in the morning, day after day, and Bob was running the company, but he would shut the door of his office and we would work on the manuscript all day. Late in the afternoon when I left, there would be a line of people outside his office, waiting for him. I remember there was a point near the end when we thought we were done, but it turned out someone had miscounted. Bob called the next week and said, Bob, I have some bad news. We have to cut fifty thousand more words. It was a terrible thing.


It took a year. The Power Broker was Caro’s first book, and he had worked on it for eight years in isolation, just him and his wife. It was agony for him to cut it. It was painful for me, too, because I loved the material. I could have read twice as much, but I couldn’t print twice as much.

I’ve thought a lot about that last bit: “I could have read twice as much, but I couldn’t print twice as much.”

Kindles and iPads shatter the old “couldn’t print twice as much” rationale for giving the world so much less than what Caro wrote. Along with my tiresomely repeated wish to be able to buy Caro’s work by the chapter, I hope e-books will make it possible for us to read a more comprehensive version of The Power Broker. To be absolutely, completely clear, though, that is much less important to me than wishing for Caro to have all the time, money, and health he needs to finish the final volume of his LBJ bio.

My total immersion in Robert Caro’s masterpiece about LBJ’s Senate years led me to Google the name of Sen. Paul Douglas. That yielded this 1951 cover story in Time. Fascinating glimpse of a moment when America was wrestling between isolationism and a global challenge to the USSR.

A taste …

This week Paul Douglas, a burly man in a rumpled grey suit, stepped on to the Senate floor to speak his mind in the Great Debate. The Senate listened with respect. In his 58 years, Paul Douglas had been a college professor, a nationally known economist, a reforming member of Chicago’s city council, a Quaker and pacifist. In 1942, at the age of 50, he had become a World War II marine.

A couple of things: 1) I can’t say enough great things about the aforementioned Caro book. It’s massive, but it’s the best course on 1950s American history I’ve ever experienced. 2) Sen. Paul Douglas was a remarkable figure. This Time piece is well worth reading. It’s not short, but it’s miniscule compared to the 1,232-page Caro book.