Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Robert Caro and working hard.

There is a small gaggle of writers at my agency who have taken on the modern-day 12 Labors of Heracles. We're not cleaning the Nemean Stables, or slaying the nine-headed Hydra, but we have made our way through Robert Caro's four-book series on Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Caro, in my humble opinion, is the world's greatest living historian. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards along the way. Caro, now 83, has completed four volumes of his anticipated volumes on LBJ. And there are Caro-istas all over the world who are hoping he finishes number five before he's called to the great typewriter in the sky.

In early December, it was announced that Caro is coming out with a new book in April. You can preorder the new book here.

The reaction among many Caro fans has been similar to my brother's. "Why is he wasting his time on this, and not finishing LBJ?"

Yesterday morning, my digital issue of "The New Yorker" arrived and in it was a longish excerpt from Caro's new book, "Working." Not LBJ #5. You can read it here, though there may be a paywall.

Like most of Caro's writing this grabbed me by the metaphorical lapels. Section I: "Mr. Hathway" starts like this:

In 1959, when I went to work for Newsday, on Long Island, the paper had a managing editor named Alan Hathway, who was an old-time newspaperman from the nineteen-twenties. He was a character right out of “The Front Page,” a broad-shouldered man with a big stomach that looked soft but wasn’t. His head was shiny bald except for a monklike tonsure, and rather red—very red after he had started drinking for the day, which was at lunch. He wore brown shirts with white ties, and black shirts with yellow ties. We were never sure if he had actually graduated from, or even attended, college, but he had a deep prejudice against graduates of prestigious universities, and during his years at Newsday had never hired one, let alone one from Princeton, as I was. I was hired as a joke on him while he was on vacation. He was so angry to find me there that during my first weeks on the job he would refuse to acknowledge my presence in his city room. I kept saying, “Hello, Mr. Hathway,” or “Hi, Mr. Hathway,” when he passed my desk. He’d never even nod. Ignoring me was easy for Mr. Hathway to do, because as the low man on the paper’s reportorial totem pole I never worked on a story significant enough to require his involvement.

Later, after Caro gets a lucky break and lands a major story, he is summoned into Mr. Hathway’s office.

I ran into June [Hathway’s assistant] just as I entered the city room; motioning to Alan’s office, she told me to go right in. Walking across the room, I saw, through the glass window, the big red head bent over something he was reading, and as I entered his office I saw that it was my memo.

He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. 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 goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

That advice—‘turn every page,’ and ‘never assume anything,’ seemed to make sense to me—a mere advertising copywriter. They tell me what I so often tell myself: work hard, work harder, and work still harder.

Caro, more than any other writer I have ever encountered works hard. I once heard him tell this story. He realized, when he was writing the fourth volume of his LBJ books, that he had interviewed every one of the people in the famous photograph of LBJ’s inauguration aboard Air Force One, on the flight back to Washington from Dallas.

Then it hit Caro.

He had failed to interview one person. He flew off to interview the photographer.

Turn every page.



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