We had to write a short story every two weeks, and I was always doing mine at the very last minute; I seem to recall more than one all-nighter to get my assignment in on time. Yet Professor Blackmur was, as I recall, complimentary about my work, and I thought I was fooling him about the amount of preparation and effort I had put into it. At that final meeting, however, after first saying something generous about my writing, he added: “But you’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.”
I will never forget that night. It was the first time I had ever gone through files. The official met me at the front door and led me to a room with a conference table in the middle of it, and, on the table, high stacks of file folders. And, somehow, in a strange way, sitting there going through them, I felt at home. As I went through the memos and the letters and the minutes of meetings I could see a pattern emerging of the real reason why the agency wanted the field to become a civilian airport: because executives of corporations with offices on Long Island, who seemed to be quite friendly with FAA officials, wanted to be able to fly in and out of Long Island in their company planes without having the inconvenience of driving to Idlewild or LaGuardia Airports. I kept looking for a piece of paper on which someone came right out and said that, but I didn’t find one; everything I could find on paper talked around that point. But between all the pieces of paper, I found sentences and paragraphs that, taken together, made the point clear. I found enough to demonstrate that. There are certain moments in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files, making them yield up their secrets to me. And here was a particular and fascinating secret: that these corporate executives were persuading a government agency to save them some driving time at the expense of a poor kid getting an education and a better chance in life. Each discovery I made that helped to prove that was a thrill. I don’t know why raw files affect me that way. In part, perhaps, because they are closer to reality, to genuineness. Not filtered, cleaned up, through press releases or, years later, in books. I worked all night, but I didn’t notice the passing of time. When I finished and left the building on Sunday, the sun was coming up, and that was a surprise.
Finally he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.” I responded with my usual savoir faire. “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.
So I drove up. I’ll never forget this. I walked into the press room to find a stack of press releases from Robert Moses announcing that a “study” of the bridge, an obvious first step toward its construction, would begin immediately—with the participation of the state. And now, when I went back to the same officials who had assured me they were firmly against the bridge, I found there had been a change in their position. They were now firmly for it. I remember I drove home that night, and all the way down from Albany to our house on Long Island—it was 163 miles—I kept thinking, Everything you’ve been doing is bullshit. Underlying every one of my stories was the traditional belief that you’re in a democracy and 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 he’s had this power for more than forty years, and you, Bob Caro, who are supposed to be writing about political power and explaining it, you have no idea where he got this power. And, thinking about it later, I realized: and neither does anybody else.
Three of the editors took me to the Four Seasons or some other fancy restaurant, and basically said they could make me a star. Bob Gottlieb at Knopf said, “Well, I don’t go out for lunch, but we can have a sandwich at my desk and talk about your book.” So of course I picked him.
Now, the parkies—these guys in their green Parks Department uniforms, we called them parkies then—they didn’t know what I was doing there, exactly, but they vaguely knew it was something that the commissioner, as they all still referred to him, wouldn’t like. So whenever we went out—if we went for lunch, or if we both went out to the bathroom or something—they would unscrew the light bulbs. It would be pitch-black when we got back. After a while Ina and I would arrive in the morning, and I’d have a packet of four light bulbs in my attaché case.
Interviews: silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for myself, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SUs” there.
I remember rewriting that introduction endless times. For instance, Moses built 627 miles of roads. I said, Come on, that’s just a bare statement of fact—how do you make people grasp the immensity of this? And I remembered reading the Iliad in college. The Iliad did it with lists, you know? With the enumeration of all the nations and all the ships that are sent to Troy to show the magnitude and magnificence of the Trojan War. In college, the professor kept talking about Homer’s imagery, Homer’s symbolism, et cetera in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I would be sitting there thinking, Look what Homer does with the ships! Not that I would ever think of comparing myself with Homer, but great works of art can be inspiring as models. So in the introduction to The Power Broker, I tried listing all the expressways and all the parkways. I hoped that the weight of all the names would give Moses’ accomplishment more reality. But then I felt, That’s not good enough. Can you put the names into an order that has a rhythm to it that will give them more force and power and, in that way, add to the understanding of the magnitude of the accomplishment?
Getting that boiled-down paragraph or two is terribly hard, but I have to tell you that my experience is that if you get it, the whole next seven years is easier. When you have it, it’s so comforting, because you’re typing away, and you can look over—it’s usually stuck on the wall right there, but I don’t want you to see it, actually. I put it away. I don’t like anyone to see my notes. But you can look over there and say, You’re doing this whole thing on civil rights—let’s take Master of the Senate—the whole history of the civil rights movement. Is this fitting in with those three paragraphs? How is it fitting in? What you just wrote is good, but it’s not fitting in. So you have to throw it away or find a way to make it fit in. So it’s very comforting to have that.