Robert Caro explains what makes him tickHistorians in the News
tags: Robert Caro
When did you start to gravitate to the kinds of large nonfiction projects that would define your career?
I loved being a reporter. I loved finding out about how things really worked and trying to explain them in my stories, and I became more and more interested in politics because I was starting to feel that it was important to explain political power. The paper assigned me to cover this bridge that Robert Moses wanted to build. The bridge was supposed to run from Oyster Bay to Rye. I can’t remember the details, but it would have required something like six more lanes on the Long Island Expressway just to handle the traffic. And the bridge itself would be so big that the piers on which it crossed Long Island Sound would have disrupted the tidal flow and caused pollution.
The bridge was still years away, but there was some minor measure, a bill or appropriation or feasibility study, perhaps, pertaining to it that Moses needed to keep the project moving forward. I went up to Albany, I saw Governor Rockefeller, I had a long session with his counsel. I saw the assembly speaker, a guy named Tony Travia, and I saw the president of the state Senate, Joseph Zaretzki. They all understood that this bridge was just a terrible idea.
So I went back and told my editor, The bill is dead. And then a couple of months later, a friend in Albany called me and said, Robert Moses was up here yesterday. You better come back up. And I drove back up there and walked into the assembly chamber just as they were approving the bill by a huge majority.
See, before that, I had written articles on politicians, investigative pieces, and I had won a couple of journalism awards. They were really minor awards, but when you’re young and you win any award, you think you know everything. So I thought I was accomplishing my purpose, which was to explain political power to my readers. But driving home from Albany to Roslyn that night, all the way I kept thinking, Everything you’ve been writing is bullshit, because everything you’ve been writing is based on the belief that political power comes from the ballot box, from being elected. Here was Robert Moses, a guy who was never elected to anything, and he came up to Albany for one day and changed the entire state government around, from the governor to the assembly. How did he have the power to do that? You have no idea and neither does anybody else. I said to myself, If you really want to explain political power, you’re going to have to understand that. So I decided to apply for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to study urban planning, and I got it. I was taking a course taught by two professors who had written a textbook on urban land-use planning, and they were explaining why highways get built, where they get built, and they were explaining it as if it were a mathematical equation, and with every class, they added a couple of factors—population density, grade elevations, things like that. Totally rational. I would sit there diligently taking notes, and then one day I suddenly said to myself, This is all wrong. They don’t know why highways get built where they’re built, and I do. They get built where they’re built because Robert Moses wants them built there. ...
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