To immerse oneself in Robert Caro’s heroic biographies is to come face to face with a shocking but unavoidable realization: Much of what we think we know about money, power and politics is a fairy tale. Our newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable newscasts are filled with comforting fictions. We embrace them because the truth is too messy, too frightening, simply too much.
In a 1997 speech on the topic, Ben Bradlee attributes our problem to official lying. “Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print…. ‘The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night…. That is a lie.'”
But the problem is much larger than Bradlee allows. Caro demonstrates how this colossal structure of deceit clouds the historical record. The unelected Robert Moses exercised a dictatorial power over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for nearly half a century. He uprooted communities and destroyed neighborhoods using privately run but publicly funded entities called “public authorities,” whose charters he personally wrote. Before the publication of The Power Broker in 1974 (1,246 pages, after having been cut by 40 percent to fit into a single volume), no book or major magazine article existed on the topic. Caro’s obsessive exhumation of Moses’s career transformed our understanding of the mechanics of urban politics. And yet even today the media proceed as if it’s simply a matter of campaigns, elections and legislation.
The true face of our money-driven political system is buried so far beneath the surface of our public discourse that almost nobody has any incentive to uncover it. With a meager $2,500 advance to sustain him, Caro sold his house and nearly bankrupted his family; his wife, Ina–a medieval historian–went to work as his full-time researcher. When I asked why he did it, he got a little choked up about the sacrifice of Ina’s career and how much she had loved their old house. Finally he said he had no idea. The Caros’ combination of intellectual independence and professional dedication inspires comparisons with another great marital partnership: that of the late, great Izzy and Esther Stone. (Can anyone imagine what Izzy would have come up with if he had committed virtually his entire career to smoking out the truth about just two powerful men?)
Caro’s new book, Master of the Senate, volume three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, forces us not only to rewrite our national political history but to rethink it as well. What Caro is doing here is something we rarely see attempted in any medium: His aim, as he once explained to Kurt Vonnegut, “is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about.”