How a Harvard speech inspired Robert Caro’s new guide to reckless abuses of political power

The story of Robert Moses: The man who made New York
The story of Robert Moses: The man who made New York
Image: AP Photo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“I don’t like to give progress reports to be perfectly honest with you,” historian Robert Caro tells Quartz when asked about the progress of the hotly anticipated final volume of his series of biographies on Lyndon Johnson. “It’s already long. But it’s not nearly done and I’m sort of buried in doing it at the moment.”

Buried or not, Caro took the time to record a new audiobook, exclusively for Audible.com. It’s called On Power, and it stems from lectures Caro has given recently on Johnson, and Robert Moses, the man who, although he was never elected to public office, and was reviled and feared by many, left his unmistakable thumbprint all over New York’s infrastructure, and who Caro wrote about in The Power Broker, and the lessons Caro learned about politics and wielding power in researching those larger than life men.

At just under two hours, On Power is breezy and even funny at times. It’s also full of anecdotes and insight that only Caro, who probably knows Johnson and Moses better than they knew themselves, can offer. It should be required listening for anyone seeking, in these turbulent times, a way to reconcile how power is wielded and what we can all do as individuals to stand up to the reckless abuse of it.

Here’s an exclusive clip from On Power, followed by our conversation with the author.

Quartz: How did On Power come about and why were you taken with the idea of doing it as an audiobook, rather than a written book, and, especially, reading it yourself?

Caro: Well, the way it came about was last September the Nieman Foundation sponsored a three day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize up at Harvard. They asked me to give a speech there. So I gave it and, as I often do when I give a speech, I felt that I’d said something worth thinking about. But of course then as soon as your give your speech it disappears, and that’s always been sort of frustrating for me. But at the end of the speech an executive from Audible Originals came up to me and he asked, “How would you feel about recording it?” And I thought it was a great idea, and so they transcribed it for me to read. But it only came out to be about 47 minutes. They asked if I was giving any other speeches and, as it happened, I was giving one the following week to the New York Society Library. So they recorded that and we put them together with a little bridge, because they’re both on the same topic, political power, so that’s how it came about. As for reading it, you know, someone else records my books; an actor with a better voice. I have a New York accent, of course, but Audible wanted me to read it myself, which I did. And I’m happy with the way that it came out.

I think there’s a lot of charm to it. One of the things that I liked about it, also, is that you crack yourself up sometimes. So it’s very endearing to hear you chuckle about these things you experienced, especially as a young reporter, when you read them.

Well, you know, a number of the anecdotes really go back to when I was young, when I was writing speeches for the New Brunswick (New Jersey) Democratic party. It was actually fun and moving to remember some of those things. You forget them for decades, and suddenly they’re there in your mind again. So I liked doing this. It was a new experience.

Did you mention in your Neiman Speech the story about the Harvard professors who were writing the very complicated equations on the board in the lectures you attended while there as a student about how bridges get built and roads get built, when you realized to yourself that that’s not actually how it gets done at all? Because you knew already that it was somebody like Robert Moses who really makes projects like that happen.

Well, I don’t know about that. But as you say, I was sitting there diligently taking notes, because I thought I was there to learn more about urban planning, and I thought, “Gee, they don’t know why highways get built where they get built.” I did because of my experience as a reporter. It’s because Robert Moses wanted them to be built. That’s really why I set out to write The Power Broker, although it didn’t all come to me in that moment. But when it did, I wanted the book to make people understand not what you learn in textbooks about government in America and power, political power in America, but the reality; the raw naked reality, if you want to call it that, of how power really works in cities. That didn’t come to me all at the moment but as I was doing this book I felt that if I did it right it would show those realities. Because we’re taught in textbooks that power ultimately comes from votes in a ballot box, and from being elected. But Moses was a man who was never elected to anything and yet he had more power than anyone who was elected in New York City or New York State. He had more power than any mayor and more than any governor. In fact, he had more than any mayor or governor combined, and he held that power for 44 years. So I thought that if I could help to figure out where he got his power from and explain it, then I’d really be adding something to our understanding of political power.

There’s a section fairly early in the audiobook where you’re going for a drive, and they’re all roads that were built as a result of Moses’ power. And as you tick off the names of the roads you keep saying “which he built, which he built, which he built.” It made me think, whatever we think personally about Robert Moses and the way he did things—because he was by all accounts an awful person—that he certainly got things done, and with our infrastructure falling apart, and legislators seemingly not able to get any meaningful legislation or projects through, perhaps there’s a role for somebody like Robert Moses.

Well, the quick answer to your question—“Do we need someone like Robert Moses?”–I would say no. He caused such immense human hardship, many times when he did not have to. It was a use of power that ruined the lives of people where there was really no reason to, except that they didn’t have power and he did, so he could run over them.

On the other hand, as I tried to show in the book, we do need someone with vision. You know there are very few people who saw this immense vision that Robert Moses had. Put it this way, in each of his twelve offices he had a huge map. There’s a picture of one of his offices in The Power Broker, and the map takes up a whole wall. And when I was interviewing him–when he was 78 or 79, but had boundless energy–he’d jump up with his pencil in his hand and he’d start sketching in the air, saying, “Can’t you see, we’ll put a highway here to Fire Island that’ll hook up back to Long Island there.” He saw this entire Metropolitan Region–New York, Long Island, Westchester, and the parts of New Jersey near New York City–as one picture and he was uniting it all. Because he had that vision and he put that energy behind all of his work.

So Robert Moses’ don’t come along very often, and you need the genius of a Robert Moses, and I tried to show that in the book. But you also can’t let someone like that have power, unfathomable power, with no check on him, because look what happens. I think his career is an example, among other things, of what happens when you give power with no check on it to somebody.

But gaining that power for Moses and Lyndon Johnson is a large part of what motivated them, too.

Yes, but you know, power reveals. I repeat over and over again Lord Acton’s axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But as I’ve done these books I really have to say that that’s not always true—that sometimes power can cleanse. I’m thinking of people like Al Smith and Sam Rayburn. They turned into something better as a result of the power they gained. They had great aims and that’s what they used their power for.

On the other hand, what I explore in On Power is that power reveals when someone is climbing to get power and he has to conceal what he wants to do because if people knew it they may not want to give it to him. Then once they get power they do what they want, and then you see, like in the case of Lyndon Johnson, in the episode that’s in the audiobook, as soon as he is elected to congress he transforms the lives of his constituents for the better. That’s two hundred thousand people in the Texas Hill Country. By using the power of the New Deal Rural Electrification Act to transform their lives, via an act of real political genius, he made a huge impact. But he couldn’t have said that’s what he planned to do in his campaign. But he remembered his mother having to pull water up from their well, and how hard it was, and how hard she worked, and he swore then that if he ever got the power to change things that he would. So he got power as a young congressman, 29 years old, and he immediately set out to do that and succeeded.

So you see, one of the things I wanted to preserve in this audiobook is that I want people to remember that power isn’t always bad. Today we look at government as a bad thing; as something that’s always interfering with our lives. But government also has the power to also transform people’s lives for the better, and I think this audiobook had examples of that.

There’s an anecdote about Lyndon Johnson toward the end of On Power, where he wanted to get Kennedy’s civil rights legislation passed, but he knew there was a tax bill holding it up on the floor of the Senate. He needed three votes, but he was told he couldn’t get them. But after three phone calls, he got all three. That’s not just power from control or fear, but knowing what buttons to push and having remarkable political skill. And yet there was all this turmoil to come during his presidency that he was completely inept at handling.

The episode that’s in On Power that you’re referring to, well, I can tell you how miraculous it was, because I heard it on the tapes of the phone calls. George Smathers, one of his men in the Senate, said, “Well, the bill is dead in the Finance Committee. We lost three senators, we can’t possibly get it out.” Johnson knows that if they don’t get it out of committee right then that the Civil Rights Act is dead. And you hear him say to his operator, “Line them up for me.” And he gets these three senators, and Abe Ribicoff says that he promised his constituents, and he’d lose face with them if he changed his vote. Johnson says to him, “Abe, you save my face today and I’ll save your face tomorrow.” Ribicoff knows Lyndon Johnson is a very good guy to have on your side, and a really bad guy not to have on your side. They used to say about him, “Don’t cross LBJ, he never forgets.” So yes, it’s a moment of sheer political genius. He knows how to appeal to each senator.

And yet the country outside the White House and outside the corridors of power and Washington is really starting to come apart at the seams not long after that, regardless of those skills.

Well, it comes apart at the seams when Johnson starts to escalate the Vietnam War. That’s right. But his domestic legislation—Medicare, Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Act, 60 separate education bills—all of them are a result of his political genius.

Have you thought much about how, and Moses too, but I’m thinking about LBJ specifically, when he was in his element dealing with Sam Rayburn–the famous photos of him towering over Rayburn, pointing at him and laughing and cajoling him—but it was actually much more subtle than that. When he was in his element, he really was in control. But when he was dealing with generals and the Pentagon, during the escalation of the war, and he was dealing with things that were out of his realm, he tended to make almost always the wrong choice. Whether it was ego or whatever, when he had the power he was great at it, and when he didn’t have the power he faltered sort of miraculously and the level of it was just stunning. Have you thought about that at all?

Well, of course I think about that. You know, this audiobook On Power really shows both sides of it: The immense power of government to hurt people with poor decisions, or with the use of power without the regard for human consideration, while also showing the power of government to transform people’s lives for the better via the immense power of government.

On this tape I talk about how my wife Ina and I moved to the Hill Country of Texas to see the effect of the New Deal’s social welfare programs, of liberal programs. Because if you do it in cities, there’s so many other considerations–economic considerations, social considerations, whatever–but there, you had this isolated part of America, cut off from the rest of America, Lyndon Johnson’s 10th congressional district, the Texas Hill Country, which he said was like a tabula rasa. And you could see the effects of these programs quite plainly. We looked at it and talked to a lot of the people that were still alive, or were there, and were able to find out once and for all and show the power of government, and how it works, or it didn’t work.

There’s an interesting anecdote early on in On Power, where you’re a cub reporter and they put you with Bob Green, the dean of your paper’s investigative team, and you have to go interview a state senator about kickbacks. And your editor said, “When you go in there. I don’t want you to sit together. I want one of you to sit over here and one of you to sit over there, so it’s almost like tennis, and he has to look from one end of the room to the other constantly.” And it struck me that, in every role that we have in life, whether it’s people who work in an office or us as interviewers, or certainly in politics, we all have certain levers of power that we can use in situations we encounter. Do you ever think of that, when employing you’re interviewing technique? It’s not on the level of Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson, but we all have our own levers of power, in a way?

I don’t think I think of it quite that way. I think when I’m thinking about Moses and Johnson, in regards to your very good question about interviewing, you just think you have to find some way to get the information you need, whether it’s in an interview or going through papers. You really feel it’s your job to get the information.

You’ve now defined these two figures with these biographies. Your series of books on Johnson has been a monumental task, but you’ve given us an understanding of this person that we would not have had otherwise. Do you ever stand back from it and realize that you’re now able to give talks, or do this audiobook, and that you have a perspective on power that probably very few people have?

Well, that’s a good question. I think I’m going to try to answer it sort of obliquely. The answer is that as you learn about these things you figure out what you really want people to know. Like passing the Civil Rights Act. Why couldn’t Kennedy get it done? You know, the bill was basically dead when Kennedy was killed. How did Lyndon Johnson pick it up so fast and get it through? Well, of course, part of it is that there was sympathy for Kennedy. But then you realize the Senate Finance Committee chair, Harry Byrd, well, he didn’t have much sympathy for Kennedy, and he was really against civil rights. So I didn’t know how Johnson possibly could have done what he did. But when you begin to see from the papers down there at the Johnson Library… You know, you can learn almost anything if you stay and go through files long enough. So in the Johnson Library they have the tally sheets for each vote taken. They’re long strips of paper, with the then 96 names down the center, with a little blank line beside each senator. And you see Johnson had one each day, and you see him changing the votes one by one. And you say to yourself, “How did he do that?” And you realize that if you can find out how he did this and can tell people about it, that’s something that will make our democracy better because we’ll understand more about it. I’m not quite answering the question you asked, but I don’t think of it in those terms, either.

That’s okay, I’ll give you an easy one. What would Robert Moses think of the Triboro Bridge being renamed the RFK Bridge?

Well, I’m afraid Robert Kennedy is a hero of mine, but the Triboro Bridge with the name Triboro, that’s a vital part of New York City’s history. It’s really the project that bound the city together. And it was bound together at a time when no one thought that that bridge could be made reality. So historically I hate to see that name disappear. It’s like taking part of New York’s history away, and that’s how I feel about that I’m afraid.

You know, you’d really like people to think about those things. The history of New York is fantastic, and the shaping of the City by Robert Moses, both for good and for ill, is fantastic. It’s a fantastic story and I feel that understanding it would make people understand more about some really basic things about how power works in cities and in their democracy. And that’s what this audiobook is really about. It’s about the effect on people of power, both good and bad. I say we don’t think what political power is every time we get a health insurance bill paid by Medicaid, but that’s political power. Lyndon Johnson got Medicare passed. The day he became president, he’s flown back to Washington, and he’s lying in bed and he can’t sleep. He asks three of his aides to come in and sit around the bed and he starts talking, and one of the things he said was, “There are things on the table now that we’re on the table when I came to congress 30 years ago.” Truman’s health bill, he calls. He says, “I’m going to get Harry Truman’s Health Bill through.” Truman had tried. Kennedy tried. But Lyndon Johnson gets it through. People think we just have Medicare. Well, we don’t just have Medicare. We have Medicare because Lyndon Johnson pushed it through.

So you’re working on your final volume about Lyndon Johnson. Now that you’ve read this book, rather than have an actor read it, as you have in the past, do you think you’d consider reading it yourself this time?

Would I consider reading it? Well, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, to tell you the truth. I think the feeling is that the guy who does read them is very good. You know, I’ve never listened to the Johnson audiobooks, because I don’t want to hear my words my sentences and someone else’s rhythm. So I certainly would consider it, but I don’t know what I would decide. Let me put it this way: No one has asked me.