Tag Archives: Robert Caro

Working by Robert Caro

Summary

  1. Caro recounts his writing and research process and also gives some additional background on his excellent biographies on Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Moses. What Caro ultimately set out to do was explain how things really happened, shedding truth into political power, how it is amassed, and how it can be used
  2. I recommend listening to this book on Audible since you get to hear Caro’s unique voice telling his own story. Super captivating

Key Takeaways

  1. Caro’s Writing Process
    1. Caro never discusses his work before he publishes or else he finds that he gets bored with it and loses his voice
    2. Caro never set out to write biographies of great men – he wanted to illuminate the times they lived in and the political power that impacts everyone and everything
    3. He always loved figuring out how things worked and explaining them
    4. Caro does all his research before he starts writing. He then writes by hand and then uses a typewriter to type it. He triple spaces though so he has enough room to make edits and at the end, often there are no typed words left.
    5. He starts each day re-reading what he wrote he day before 
    6. Some vital interview questions are “What did you see?” and “What did you hear?” He asked this question so often that people would get angry with him but eventually this helped him get a feel for their experience 
    7. Imagery is important, rhythm is important, word choice is important. You have to make the reader see and feel
    8. You begin researching first by reading the big books, then the big newspapers/magazines/articles, and then the small local newspapers and articles 
    9. He would always try to help the reader see what he was figuring out. For example, he heard that Johnson was the hardest working president of all time but in order to get that across to the reader, he figured out that the chauffeur spent the most time with him. It took months to track him down but eventually he did and this helped Caro get the details he needed – how long LBJ worked, what he did on the trips, who he talked to, what he did, etc. This helped the reader see and feel how hard Johnson worked 
    10. Caro says that he cannot start writing a book until he has thought it through and can see the whole thing in his mind at one time.  He turns the whole book into 1, 2, or 3 paragraphs and this can take weeks. That is the outline he uses to build the book out of. He then does an outline for each chapter, basically the message he wants to get across without any supporting evidence. He says this is a very nasty time and that he’s in a really bad mood in this process. When you distill down a book like this, it becomes a whole lot easier 
    11. He never knows when the writing is going well. He’s learned that it’s very dangerous to get confident
    12. He sets a 3 page quota per day. He doesn’t always hit it but he says that if you don’t have a quota that you’re just fooling yourself 
  2. Background
    1. Caro was hired as a joke at Newsday because the boss didn’t want to hire kids from fancy private schools (Caro went to Princeton). However, one day Caro got a lead about how some free land in New York would be used and did such a great job that his boss Alan Hathaway told him, “never assume anything and turn every page, every goddamn page”
    2. He learned that when you need some information you do whatever it takes to get it
  3. Robert Moses
    1. Robert started working on The Power Broker about Robert Moses when he was about 29. Money was really tight for about four years after that.
    2. He became intrigued by Moses when he was working on a paper about a new bridge that didn’t make any sense yet it was being built because Moses wanted it to. Moses had convinced the rest of the New York State government that it should be done this so amazed/disturbed/impressed Caro that he chose to spend his career writing about political power
    3. Goes deeply into his time and research on Moses. He spent over 5 years writing the book, speaking to everyone who was willing, reading everything available, and painting a true picture of Moses and time in office
  4. LBJ
    1. The Browns were key contributors to Lyndon Johnson and Caro needed them in order to make his book. The older Brown brother had died and the younger one was putting up monument in his honor. They were unwilling to give interviews but after Caro noticed all the monuments, he told the surviving Brown brother that nobody would ever remember his brother unless he talked to him about Lyndon Johnson and their involvement. This opened up the doors and gave Caro all the information he ever needed
      1. Talk about understanding human nature and incentives!
    2. Caro moved down to Texas Hill country for three years in order to show the residents there that he was serious. This helped open them up and gave him the details and context for Lyndon Johnson‘s youth that he never would’ve gotten otherwise
    3. Believes there is no truth only facts and the more facts you get the closer you can get to this ideal of truth
    4. LBJ was shaped by the Texas Hill country, the hard lifestyle, and by his father’s bankruptcy. The father overpaid for land, lost it all, and this sense of humiliation and insecurity really shaped him
    5. One of LBJ’s most vital skills was vote counting, knowing how the Senate would vote. He was willing to see reality as it was, not being overly optimistic 

What I got out of it

  1. Amazing insight into one of the best biographers of all time – his research and writing process and just how dedicated he is towards getting towards the truth. Turn every page, every god damn page!

The Power Broker by Robert Caro

Summary
  1. The incredible, multi-dimensional story of Robert Moses who helped shape New York through its parks, highways and more by wielding untold of power for an unelected official. Robert Moses build more parks than any man alive, shaped the political structure of NY in his day and achieved so much but he also caused many of the structural declines, congestion and urban decline which plagues NY today. Moses was able to align the incentives of some of the country’s most powerful men and institutions (banks, labor unions, contractors, insurance firms, the media and even the Church) to achieve his goals. He was extraordinarily conceited and hard headed but is perhaps the most prolific builder in history. Moses was able to power through governors and other political machines until he came up against Nelson Rockefeller as governor who was perhaps the only man as ruthless as he.
Key Takeaways
  1. Robert Moses swam at Yale until he threatened to resign and the captain took him up on it
  2. Moses yielded unwieldy power as NY park and construction lead. He saw solutions where other men didn’t and was responsible for much of how NY’s parks look today and for its general layout. He built the vast majority of highways, bridges, public housing, private housing, playgrounds, and more. Hardly any project built during his tenure was done so without his approval
  3. Was a staunch believer on promotion through meritocracy and was the ultimate idealist and optimist. Considered self and convinced the public that he was the antithesis of a politician and was able to even fight off FDR. However, this was more legend than fact and he was very inefficient with his projects. He used economic power towards political ends  He focused corruption and it became so powerful that it took the whole city off of its democratic bias. Fought against patronage and bribes
  4. The longevity of Moses’ power was unbelievable. From 1924-1968 he wielded almost absolute power in NY with hardly any governor or mayor ever challenging him. No other public official has come close to building nearly as many public works as Moses. He was America’s greatest builder and during this time most states had no state parks, few roads and highways. He had the greatest influence on the look and layout of American cities than any other person. He had to move hundreds of thousands of people in order to build his projects, very often the poor. His projects were predominately for the rich And this lead to social strife, lack of housing (although he built more housing than anyone else) and congestion which clogged the city
  5. Moses had the power of an emperor and lived like one with scores of people at his beck and call. He destroyed dozens of men’s political dreams who dared challenge him in some way
  6. Certain aspects he looked to publicize and others he kept very secret
  7. Power is a drug and Moses was one of its largest users
  8. Family were German Jews and he got his ruthlessness from his grandmother and mother. His mother was especially fond of building projects which she helped with while working for settlement projects. He was his mothers favorite, read a lot and very broadly, wrote poetry, was a loner
  9. “Before government can become humanitarian it must become businesslike.”
  10. Before he was in a position to do anything, he already had the vision of how to reform NY from highways to tennis courts. Vision like few others and from a young age was the most able man to take on the task of civil service reform. He did not care at all for money, he simply wanted to see his ideas come to fruition. He was impatient, self assured, very bright and arrogant. His years of civil service reform and standardization lead to zero results as he didn’t adequately take into account greed, self interest and power
  11. By age 30, Moses had no full time paying job, had see none of his research implemented, had a family that was struggling to survive but that all changed once he became Mrs. Moskovitz chief of staff. She was one of the most effective and powerful women in NY government and quickly taught Moses how to actually get things done
  12. A deep, lifelong and fruitful relationship between Moses and governor Smith lead to a lot of reform. Smith turned Moses from idealist to practicalist, willing to sacrifice in order to bring about real change
  13. Moses was one of the best bill drafters and was able to sneak in some legal jargon so that he could take robber barons land legally even if they didn’t want to sell. However this wasn’t even enough and he broke the law but had such strong public opinion behind him that he didn’t get into too much trouble. He started building the park during trials in order to sway the Judge to not waste public money. He eventually won and gained much confidence and political experience through these lawsuits
  14. The congestion, pollution, heat and more creates the perfect storm for a public who desperately needed places to escape the city and cool down. Moses was always on the side fighting for parks which to the public made him inherently on the good side
  15. Moses had incredible vision and was extraordinarily multi dimensional. He knew law, engineering, politics, statesmanship, architecture, psychology and more. He drove his people harder and further than anyone else would. He was an incredible leader who could motivate his men, make them feel like they’re part of something huge and have a good time doing it
  16. Much of what Moses did could not have been achieved without Governor Al Smith. Smith was a visionary and a masterful politician who lead New York through a difficult period and made it one of the most revolutionary and prosperous states
  17. Moses was extremely efficient with his time. Holding meetings in his car, having a desk with no drawers so problems couldn’t hide
  18. Perhaps more than any other quality, Moses’ ability to pick and organize men set him apart and allowed him to achieve what he did
  19. A key way to convince people is to keep your arguments simple. Among his other great abilities was to delegate completely and sell men his grand vision and purpose
  20. Moses and FDR had bad blood due to competing for parks and Moses appropriating rich, powerful men’s land in order to build these parks. When FDR became governor of NY, he wanted to oust Moses but couldn’t as the only way to do so was through charges and public opinion was so strong of Moses
  21. The public parks such as Jones Beach were so successful that the entire nation and even foreign countries visited and were amazed by the size and attention to detail. Almost as many people visited the New York State parks as all other national parks combined. Amazing use of human psychology by making people feel bad for littering by having college kids pick up trash with their hands and having loudspeakers saying “thank you for helping keep our parks clean!”
  22. Ran for governor but lost to Lehman in 1934 due to popularity of new deal and his unwise public attacks
  23. LaGuardia became mayor and kept Moses in power which hurt his relationship with FDR who was now president. Moses regained the favor of the public as it became public that he was trying to be ousted by FDR which they didn’t approve of
  24. LaGuardia’s and Moses’ relationship was kept private as it would have hurt his political reputation. “The Little Flower” helped improve NY’s politics morally but was a very difficult man to work for
  25. Moses was a natural bully and like most bullies, if you stand up to them they will usually back down and respect you more for it
  26. Authority is delegable. Genius is not. Moses was trying to do too much too fast and sacrificed quality
  27. Moses built almost no parks or recreation centers for black citizens in black neighborhoods
  28. Worked at improving congestion through Triborough bridge, Long Island Parkways and more but most of the time it actually increased congestion
  29. Riverside Drive was Moses’ lifelong dream and he had to be amazingly creative and resourceful to come up with the more than $100m to make it a reality. Unfortunately he gave people in cars most of the riverside view as the road was closer to the water than the actual park. Also, he didn’t put much money or attention at all to the parts of the park in poorer areas which was not unusual for Moses
  30. Moses was so ruthless he cut his brother out of his mother’s will and almost never spoke to him or his sister. He convinced everyone his brother had committed some heinous crime though nobody knew what he supposedly did
  31. Moses was money fair and power hungry. Every relationship, appointment and dealing he made would somehow help him gain influence over people or the process to get his vision in place. Few realized what he was doing until it was too late. He was a discrete power broker who often held sway over governors and mayors and often wielded absolute power.  He was a master of aligning multiple powerful people’s or group’s interests behind his vision to accomplish it
  32. Hospitality was one of Moses’ most potent tools. He used he psychological edge of being host very effectively. More deals got done at his brunches, dinners, plays and other events than at city hall
  33. Moses rigidity in only building roads instead of other modes of transportation like subways meant ever increasing congestion – stealing hundreds of hours per person per year and making the whole experience intolerable
  34. Moses’ aura of invincibility lifted some during the Battle of Central Park when he tried to convert part of the park into parking for a high end restaurant. Wealthy, white mothers took on the battle and it was one of the first time in decades that Moses had to back down. After further quarrels with free Shakespeare plays in Central Park further eroded his public image in the late 1950’s but his power was still totally intact as the mayor couldn’t fire him and many still relied on the purse that only Moses had access to
  35. “New money buys things, old money calls in favors.” Referring to Rockefeller family power
  36. Moses’ power began declining once Nelson Rockefeller became governor and eventually lost his role as head of the Parks Commission as well as others. However, the 1965 World’s Fair got him back some of his power But not his popularity. His antagonism annoyed many foreign governments and hardly any major powers ended up being involved. He created a sense of controversy around the fair rather than mystique and wonder. Moses also made the press his enemy which only hurt his image and the World Fair’s
  37. At the age or 79, after 44 years of power, Rockefeller was able to outmaneuver Moses and strip him of what Moses held most dear, power. He was allowed to remain on staff and be in charge of one project but this was merely a pity gesture to a man who was used to have tens of millions at his disposal and dozens of projects
What I got out of it
  1. Amazing portrayal of a man I had never even heard of! Moses achieved so much but also caused many of the problems which plague NY today and will likely plague it for the foreseeable future