Robert Allan Caro (born October 30, 1935) is an American journalist and author known for his celebrated biographies of United States political figures Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson.
After working for many years as a reporter, Caro wrote The Power Broker (1974), a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, which was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. He has since written four of a planned five volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1982, 1990, 2002, 2012), a biography of the former president.
For his biographies, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography, the National Book Award, the Francis Parkman Prize (awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that “best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist”), two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the H.L. Mencken Award, the Carr P. Collins Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, the D.B. Hardeman Prize, and a Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Life and career
Caro was born in New York City, the son of Cele (née Mendelow) and Benjamin Caro. He “grew up on Central Park West at 94th Street. His father, a businessman, spoke Yiddish as well as English, but he didn’t speak either very often. He was ‘very silent,’ Caro said, and became more so after Caro’s mother died, after a long illness, when he [Caro] was 12.” It was his mother’s deathbed wish that he should go to the Horace Mann School, an exclusive private school in the Riverdale section of The Bronx. As a student there, Caro translated an edition of his school newspaper into Russian and mailed 10,000 copies to students in the USSR. He graduated in 1953. He went on to Princeton University, where he majored in English. He became managing editor of The Daily Princetonian, second to R.W. Apple, Jr., later a prominent editor at The New York Times.
His writings, both in class and out, had been lengthy since his years at Horace Mann. A short story he wrote for The Princeton Tiger, the school’s humor magazine, took up almost an entire issue. His senior thesis on existentialism in Hemingway was so long, Caro claims, that the university’s English department subsequently established a maximum length for senior theses by its students. He graduated cum laude in 1957.
According to a 2012 New York Times Magazine profile, “Caro said he now thinks that Princeton, which he chose because of its parties, was one of his mistakes, and that he should have gone to Harvard. Princeton in the mid-1950s was hardly known for being hospitable towards the Jewish community, and though Caro says he did not personally suffer from anti-Semitism, he saw plenty of students who did.” He had a sports column in the Princetonian and also wrote for the Princeton Tiger humor magazine. He was a Carnegie Fellow at Columbia University and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
Caro began his professional career as a reporter with the New Brunswick Daily Home News (now merged into the Home News Tribune) in New Jersey. He took a brief leave to work for the Middlesex County Democratic Party as a publicist. He left politics after an incident where he was accompanying the party chair to polling places on election day. A police officer reported to the party chair that some African-Americans Caro saw being loaded into a police van, under arrest, were poll watchers who “had been giving them some trouble.” Caro left politics right there. “I still think about it,” he recalled in the 2012 Times Magazine profile. “It wasn’t the roughness of the police that made such an impression. It was the—meekness isn’t the right word—the acceptance of those people of what was happening.”
From there he went on to six years as an investigative reporter with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. One of the articles he wrote was a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay, championed by Robert Moses, would have been inadvisable, requiring piers so large it would disrupt tidal flows in the sound, among other problems. Caro believed that his work had influenced even the state’s powerful governor Nelson Rockefeller to reconsider the idea, until he saw the state’s Assembly vote overwhelmingly to pass a preliminary measure for the bridge.
“That was one of the transformational moments of my life,” Caro said years later. It led him to think about Moses for the first time. “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.'”
The Power Broker
Caro spent the academic year of 1965–1966 as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. During a class on urban planning and land use, the experience of watching Moses returned to him.
They were talking one day about highways and where they got built…and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: “This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.”
To do so, Caro began work on a biography of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, also a study of Caro’s favorite theme: the acquisition and use of power. He expected it would take nine months to complete, but instead it took him until 1974. The work was based on extensive research and 522 interviews, including seven interviews with Moses himself, several with Michael Madigan (who worked for Moses for 35 years); and numerous interviews with Sidney Shapiro (Moses’s general manager for forty years); as well as interviews with men who worked for and knew Moses’s mentor, New York Governor Al Smith.
His wife Ina functioned as his research assistant. Her master’s thesis on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge stemmed from this work. At one point she sold the family home and took a teaching job so Robert would be financially able to finish the book.
The Power Broker is widely viewed  as a seminal work because it combined painstaking historical research with a smoothly flowing narrative writing style. The success of this approach was evident in his chapter on the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, where Caro reported the controversy from all perspectives, including that of neighborhood residents. The result was a work of powerful literary as well as academic interest.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Following The Power Broker, Caro turned his attention to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro retraced Johnson’s life by temporarily moving to rural Texas and Washington, D.C., in order to better understand Johnson’s upbringing and to interview anyone who had known Johnson. The work, entitled The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was originally intended as a trilogy, but is projected to encompass five volumes:
- The Path to Power (1982) covers Johnson’s life up to his failed 1941 campaign for the United States Senate.
- Means of Ascent (1990) commences in the aftermath of that defeat and continues through his election to that office in 1948.
- Master of the Senate (2002) chronicles Johnson’s rapid ascent and rule as Senate Majority Leader.
- The Passage of Power (2012) details the 1960 election, LBJ’s life as vice president, the JFK assassination and his first days as president.
- In November 2011, Caro announced that the full project had expanded to five volumes with the fifth requiring another two to three years to write. It will cover Johnson and Vietnam, the Great Society and civil rights era, his decision not to run in 1968, and eventual retirement.
Caro’s books portray Johnson as a complex and contradictory character: at the same time a scheming opportunist and visionary progressive. Caro argues, for example, that Johnson’s victory in the 1948 runoff for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate was only achieved through extensive fraud and ballot box stuffing, though this is set in the practices of the time and in the context of Johnson’s previous defeat in his 1941 race for the Senate, the victim of exactly similar chicanery. Caro also highlighted some of Johnson’s campaign contributions, such as those from the Texas construction firm Brown and Root; in 1962 the company was acquired by another Texas firm, Halliburton, which became a major contractor in the Vietnam War. In addition, Caro argued that Johnson was awarded the Silver Star in World War II for political as well as military reasons, and that he later lied to journalists and the public about the circumstances for which it was awarded. Caro’s portrayal of Johnson also notes his struggles on behalf of progressive causes such as the Voting Rights Act, and his consummate skill in getting this enacted in spite of intense opposition from Southern Democrats.
Among sources close to the late president, Johnson’s widow Lady Bird Johnson “spoke to [Caro] several times and then abruptly stopped without giving a reason, and Bill Moyers, Johnson’s press secretary, has never consented to be interviewed, but most of Johnson’s closest friends, including John Connally and George Christian, Johnson’s last press secretary, who spoke to Caro practically on his deathbed, have gone on the record”.
Caro’s books have been published by Alfred A. Knopf, first under editor in chief Robert Gottlieb and then by Sonny Mehta, “who took over the Johnson project – enthusiastically – after Gottlieb’s departure in 1987.” Gottlieb, five years Caro’s senior, suggested the Johnson project to Caro in 1974 in preference to the planned follow-up to the Moses volume, a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia that was then abandoned. The ex-President had recently died and Caro had already decided, before meeting with Gottlieb on the subject, to undertake the Texan’s biography; he “wanted to write about power”. Gottlieb has continued as editor of Caro’s books since leaving Knopf and excerpted Volume 2 of the Johnson biography at The New Yorker when he was editor in chief there.
For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, and has won virtually every other major literary honor, including the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize.
In October 2007, Caro was named a “Holtzbrinck Distinguished Visitor” at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany but then was unable to attend.
In 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama, the highest award in the humanities given in the United States. Delivering remarks at the end of the ceremony, the President said, “I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I’m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics.” In 2011, Robert Caro was the recipient of the 2011 BIO Award given each year by members of Biographers International “to a colleague who had made a major contribution in the advancement of the art and craft of real life depiction.”
Caro has described his wife, Ina Caro, as “the whole team” on all five of his books. She sold their house and took a job teaching school to fund work on The Power Broker and is the only person other than himself who conducted research for his books.
Ina is the author of The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France (1996), a book which Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called, at the presentation of her honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from The City University of New York in 2011, “the essential traveling companion… for all who love France and its history.” Newsweek reviewer Peter Prescott commented, “I’d rather go to France with Ina Caro than with Henry Adams or Henry James. The unique premise of her intelligent and discerning book is so startling that it’s a wonder no one has thought of it before.” Ina frequently writes about their travels through France in her Paris to the Past blog. In June 2011, W. W. Norton published her second book, Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train (2011).
The Caros have a son, Chase, a disbarred lawyer, and three grandchildren. Chase Caro was sentenced to 2.5 to 7.5 years in prison by County Court Judge Susan Cacace after pleading guilty to grand larceny. Caro has a younger sibling, Michael, who is now a retired real estate manager.
Pop culture references
In The Stepford Wives (2004), Nicole Kidman‘s character attends a book club meeting with the Stepford wives and attempts to discuss the third volume of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, but the group chooses to review a book of Christmas crafts.
In the last episode of season one of the U.S. TV series House of Cards, a copy of The Passage of Power can be seen lying on the desk of protagonist Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey).
In the television series The Simpsons, the episode “Treehouse of Horror XVI” features the character Lisa seen reading Master of the Senate in the vignette “Bart A.I.” Caro later guest-starred on the episode “Love Is a Many-Splintered Thing“.
- Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. 1974. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0394480767). ix + 1246 pp. + xxxiv pp.: illus.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. 1982. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0394499735). xxiii + 882 p. + 48 p. of plates: illus.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. 1990. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0394528352). xxxiv + 506 pp.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. 2002. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York. (ISBN 0-394-52836-0). xxiv + 1167 pp.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. 2012. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York. (ISBN 978-0-679-40507-8). 752 pp.
- Zinsser, William Knowlton (ed.), Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-48617-3