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Working: Book Review

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (2019), Robert Caro. Taking a break from his fifth and last volume on Lyndon Johnson, Caro wrote this short work, something of a mini-memoir (he says a major memoir will be forthcoming). This book is worthwhile on several fronts. First is the insights on both Robert Moses and LBJ based on his research for these books. Then the whole research/writing process (not one I will duplicate, but I respect his process). He points to his interest in understanding power. Moses had immense power in New York politics without being elected to anything. "The power in a democracy comes from being elected. Yet here was a man, Robert Moses, who had never been elected to anything, and he had enough power to turn around a whole state government in one day ... and you, Robert Caro, who are supposed to be writing about political power and explaining it, you have no idea where he got this power ... neither does anybody else" (p. 13). Caro admired Moses for his vision of what could be built in New York, but had an overall negative view. He destroyed people's home and lives, mainly poor people (power people could fight Moses and win). I take a more positive view of Moses; Philip Tetlock would consider him a hedgehog, single-minded; he got things done, impossible things for mere mortals. There are bridges, roads and parks that probably would never have been built without Moses. Ethical dilemmas are everywhere. Moses with a touch of empathy probably would have been better, but compassion typically is lacking in powerful people. Moses seems to have started out attempting to clean out Tammany Hall patronage from the City's civil service, but ended up dishing out "a king's ransom in legal fees, public relations retainers, insurance premiums, advance knowledge" (p. 28)... to ensure the Democratic political machine's cooperation. "He was the greatest builder in the history of America" (p. 33). He evicted hundreds of thousands of people, mainly poor to allocate resources "to the benefit of its middle, upper-middle, and upper classes" (p. 34). "To really show political power, you had to show the effect of power on the powerless" (p. 60). He promoted highways over mass transit. He also apparently compiled incriminating information of city officials, which he leaked it they opposed him.

LBJ was the most successful Senate Majority leader (1955-60) perhaps in 100 years and effective on multiple fronts as president--then Vietnam. Why? This was another form of power Caro wanted to analyze.

One of the most interesting perspectives was his in-depth analysis of LBJ's childhood. Seven biographies had been written and all viewed his childhood glowingly ("portable journalists" not interested in the full story). Caro thought this would be an easy topic to research and write quickly. It turned out, that view was wrong. LBJ was a jerk as a child, teenager and college student ("unscrupulous and quite ruthless person, disliked and even despised," p. 104), but it took him a long time to document this. [This is also the point I gave on the Path to Power, he was a jerk and I got tired of reading about it.] Key point is how much history must be like this; a cursory review suggests one thing (which might get written up in the history books), while reality was something else. Lincoln's early bios were something like this, glowing reports of a self-taught rail-spliter and totally honest shopkeeper--becoming a part of American myth.

Particularly telling on the importance of money was Caro's search for why Johnson suddenly had power in late 1940 as a junior representative. Brown and Root (big engineering company, later part of Halliburton) arranged for rich Texas oil men to send Democrats through the Democratic National Committee money ($5,000 each, the maximum allowed) and give LBJ full credit. He got influence and therefore they got influence (at this time to maintain the oil depletion allowance)--"clear evidence of the use to which economic power could be put to create political power" (p. 96). Brown and Root also received big federal contracts. [There was also the connection to House Speaker and Texan Sam Rayburn.] LBJ was suspected of fraud to win the 1948 senate election based on "Duke of Duval" George Parr reported an additional 200 votes. Caro found the eye witness to prove the fraud.

"Interviews: silence is the weapon, silence and people's need to fill it" (p. 137). In Congress, LBJ voted against every civil rights bill, including anti-lynching bills. Then passed the civil rights acts (see p. 172). Why is not completely clear.

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