Robert Caro on Understanding a President Through the Rooms He Occupied

Photo: AP Images

There are facts in journalism, but there are other truths hidden in the room. In this 2016 Paris Review interview with James Santel, Robert Caro, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, gives a masterclass on how to report on a subject’s behavior, his environment, his breath, and the cushiness of his couch:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts. The more facts you get, the more facts you collect, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. The base of biography has to be facts.

That’s especially true when it comes to describing Johnson, whom I met only once, only very briefly. With Johnson, if you went around on my interviews with me, in every interview probably, I’m asking—let’s say Joe Califano, one of Johnson’s aides—So if I were standing next to you in this scene in the Oval Office, Joe, what would I see? They never understand. They kind of hesitate—they don’t know what I mean. And I would say, Was he sitting behind the desk or was he getting up to walk around? And they might say—and this actually happened—Well, he jumped up from that desk all the time because he had the wire tickers over there. He had these three wire tickers, and he’d go over to them every few minutes to look.

So I would ask, But what were you seeing? How would he look at the wire tickers?

“Well, you know, it was interesting, it was like he couldn’t wait for the next lines to come, so he’d open the lid, and he’d grab the paper with two hands, as if he was trying to pull it out of the machine.”

So you keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get ­angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again.

If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people. Eventually, a lot of people tell you about his bad breath. And the couches—if he wanted something from you in the Senate cloakroom, Johnson would take you over to sit on the couches. So I’d ask, What was it like sitting on those couches? And people would say something like, He’d be towering over you, leaning over you.

Read the interview

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