In a superficial telling, Robert A. Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Power Broker” and what will soon be the fifth and final installation of his magisterial “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” resembles many modern historians of note; He, as the subtitle of his latest book, “Working,” plainly states, “researches, interviews, and writes.”

There is a difference between Mr. Caro and his peers, however. For what renders him one of the finest chroniclers of American life specifically and political power generally is the profound, measured manner in which he moves through this time-honored historian’s equation. “Working” offers a glimpse, in vignette form, of this process.

Capturing Mr. Caro’s method in full would require many pages. It would likely take — a future project he alludes to — a memoir. But in the interest of space and time, parameters Mr. Caro has spent a career usefully ignoring, allow me to provide a short example.

In 1978, the Caros moved to Hill Country, Texas, a place, only a few decades prior, fairly described by the historian as “impoverished, remote, isolated,” The relocation was made with a purpose. Mr. Carobelieved the only way to understand the boyhood and young manhood of Lyndon Johnson was full immersion in the place of his upbringing.

Here, I want you to stop, for a second, and reflect on this decision. Three years after the resounding success of “The Power Broker,” a sordid history of Robert Moses, one of the most powerful and influential (unelected) men in New York City history, in an effort to live the early life of his latest subject, Mr. Caro moves to Texas. This fact alone is testament to the thoroughness with which he treats his enterprise. But more interesting, I think, is where the effort took his researches. For, as Mr. Caro notes,

“I realized I was hearing what the lives of the women of Hill Country had been like before, in the 1930s and ‘40s, the young congressman Lyndon Johnson brought electricity Lives of bringing up water, bucket by bucket, from deep wells, since there were no electric pumps; of carrying it on the wooden yokes — yokes like those that cattle wore of all the tasks that made these women old and bent (“bent” being the Hill Country word for “stooped”) before their time.”

To get these women to tell their story, most of them unaccustomed to talking with strangers, Mrs. Carowould act in an unofficial capacity as the historian’s emissary, gift of fig preserves in hand. As relations warmed, discussions became more robust and “moments of revelations — of shock, really” came. Mr. Caro describes one such moment that began as a challenge posed by a hitherto reserved subject: “You’re a city boy. You don’t know how heavy a bucket of water is, do you?” And so, Mr. Caro is invited to the well to pull water. He feels the heaviness of the burden, imagines the strain of the woman, alone, without aid, felt dozens of times a day. Suddenly, a bare fact on the number of gallons each person on a farm used in a day (40 gallons) found in an Agricultural Department study, took on a visceral meaning.

As Mr. Caro put his own roots in the Earth from which his subject once grew, he realized “he was hearing a story of a magnificent kind of courage, the courage of the women of the Hill Country, and, by extension, the women of the whole American frontier.” During his book tour, Mr. Caro would recall over and again, women approaching to say “I’m so glad you wrote that chapter. My mother used to try to tell me how hard her life had been, but I never really understood.” Later, the refrain would change to “My grandmother used to try to tell me ” Today, Mr. Caro notes “there is no one left to tell the daughters and the granddaughters.”

He reflects, “The women who lived that life, a life before electricity — millions and millions of them — of course are almost all dead, and they can’t tell their story to their descendants If in even small measure I told it for them, these women of the American frontier, and in order to accomplish that, ‘The Path to Power’ took a couple of years longer to write, well — so what?”

This, for me, is the power, humane and civilizing in its application, of Mr. Caro’s understanding of history. Analyzing and explaining power, political power to be more exact, is at the heart of each of Mr. Caro’s projects. But it is not the story of a phenomena as it exists in one towering figure alone; it involves, in ways great and small, each of us. And thus, the willingness to chase down every lead, interview every player, or draw water, if you like, from every out-of-the-way well, is what distinguishes, and what will continue to singularize Mr. Caro as the finest living American practitioner of his craft.

Image from Shutterstock

Featured Publications