How the greatest political biographer works

Robert Caro is the author of one of the great political biographies – his 4 ( eventually  to be 5) volumes on  President Lyndon Johnson, works of quite extraordinary thoroughness famous for the huge amount of research he and his wife Ina ( his  only researcher)  carried out.

This book is a collection of previously  published  and new pieces and also covers how he wrote ( it took 7 years) his quite extraordinary biography of Robert Moses – the never elected, but immensely devious and uncaring  official who build 627  miles of roads on New York  and its suburbs  as well as 7 major bridges.


There is a very powerful piece about how he decided to write about the effect of one of Moses’s expressways – a road which displaced meant the demolition of 54 apartment blocks – whereas an alternative route would have mean the demolition of 6.   Moses could have slightly changed the route and affected far less people – but that would have displeased  powerful Democratic politicians who  secretly owned a building which would also have been demolished.


An example of Caro and his wife’s dedication to their craft  is that in order to understand what LBJ’s upbringing in the very poor Texas Hill Country  was like , they went to live there for 3 years  – which also meant they built far better relations with LBJs relatives  who began to tell them what  his upbringing was really like – and how many of the stories about LBJs upbringing  were falsified and what he was really like.


This is really a book for those who have enjoyed his  biographies and what to understand  how get gets his extraordinary results. It might also be of interest to aspiring journalists  and biographers – though I  imagine some may find it rather depressing  to realise the extraordinary commitment the producing work of the quality of Caro’s requires.


If anyone wants to sample Caro’s work I would recommend  the 2nd volume on LBJ Means of Ascent   which focuses on how he won  his Senate seat –  in part by persuading  Texans that his opponent ( the totally reactionary Coke Stevenson , was secret communist) and  then by simply stealing the  few hundred votes he needed to actually win.  Despite that it’s a book anyone interested in running a successful election campaign should read !

To buy the book (or to go to Amazon) click here

Author: Simon McGrath

I am a Liberal Democrat Councillor for Dundonald Ward in Merton, Secretary of the London Lib Dems and the English Party rep on the Federal Board. You can contact me at :

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