Reprinted with permission from HAMPTON SHORTS; Fiction Plus from the Hamptons and the east end; volume IV 1999.
One fine summer day, Barbara Stone and I arrived at the home of Kurt Vonnegut in Sagaponack. We had called Kurt, earlier; and asked to interview him, whereupon he said, “I’d rather interview Bob Caro.” Needless to say, we were extremely pleased when Caro agreed. Caro is the author of magisterial biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, and the interview promised to be most interesting.
Kurt greeted us in his beautiful 19th century house and in his bare feet (of which more later). As the interview progressed it grew sort of naturally into a dialogue; and, as it moved along, neither Barbara Stone nor I could help sticking our noses and our questions in; which is in our tradition at round table interviews.
And, during a break in the proceedings, Barbara persuaded Bob Caro to remove his shoes. Which is why you have before you a photo the two very distinguished “barefoot boys with cheeks of tan.” —Daniel Stern
KURT VONNEGUT I’ve never written a biography:-I’ve never been that responsible a writer-and you, Bob, have never written a novel. Are we in the same trade?
ROBERT CARO Well, if we are we’re certainly coming at it from opposite directions. My books are very long, and yours are-
VONNEGUT -minimal, very short on fact. But I was wondering, here you are, you have devoted your working life, essentially your soul, to the life, particularly, of Lyndon Johnson. Does this do anything to your mind, or to your soul, do you think?
CARO Well, I would put it more actually in terms of Robert Moses. When I was starting to do my first book, The Power Broker, maybe a year into it, I realized that I wanted to do something very different with biography than what I felt biographies had been doing before. I came to see that I wasn’t interested in simply writing the life story of the man, Robert Moses, or of the man, Lyndon Johnson. I came to see that I wasn’t really interested in writing a biography to tell the story of a famous man. I realized that what I wanted to do was to use biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times-particularly political power. I was interested in political power because in a democracy, political power shapes all our lives. We were taught in Political Science courses that in a democracy power basically comes from the ballot box, from elections. But Robert Moses was never elected to any- . thing. And yet for almost half a century, forty-four years, he exercised more power in New York City and New York State than any official who was elected-more than any mayor, more than any governor. So I felt that if I could somehow manage to find out the sources of Moses power-I had no idea at the time of what they were-if I could find out what his power consisted of, and how he got it and how he used it, I would be explaining something that needed explaining: not the theoretical, Political Science course, version of power, but the reality of power, its true essence. So about a year into the book, my idea of what I was doing changed. ..considerably.
VONNEGUT You already laid a foundation for a study of him and what he was doing because you were a New Yorker, right? You were a reporter for Newsday?
CARO That’s right.
VONNEGUT And so you had seen the neighborhoods, saw the people who were affected, by the highways and bridges.
CARO No, I never had. But I saw something else–or, rather, I saw what I didn’t see, had never seen. I was a young reporter, and Moses was then a great figure. But no one really understood where, what his power came from, okay? So you’d sit in the Newsday city room and you’d type, “City Park Commissioner Robert Moses” and you’d say, to yourself, “What does that have to do with the fact that he’s building the Long Island Expressway”. Or you’d type, “Triboro Bridge Authority Chairman Robert Moses” and you’d think, “what does that have to do with the fact that he’s building these great power dams up at Niagara and on the St. Lawrence river?” And what was a public authority anyway? There was at this time not one examination in any adequate depth, not one book or magazine article on the public authority as a source of political power. We just thought that a public authority was something that decided to build a bridge or a tunnel. It floated the bonds to build the bridge and it collected the tolls until the bonds were paid off and then it went out of existence. Yet somehow Moses had used these authorities to stay in power for almost half a century. So you had to start on square one and try to find out how they had become a source of political power–of vast political power, really.
DAN STERN Who was his Medici, who was his patron?
CARO Al Smith. When he talked about Al Smith, his whole voice changed, you know, he loved Smith. And when Smith was old, Moses never let an afternoon go by without being in touch with him.
VONNEGUT During the Depression they called the Empire State Building Al Smith ‘s last erection.
STERN That was meant as a compliment. After all. How often did you meet Robert Moses?
CARO Seven times.
VONNEGUT How did he move from idealist to power broker?
CARO Al Smith came along to help. When he was a young reformer, Moses had these great dreams and he didn’t understand that you needed power to realize them. One day he and Frances Perkins were going to a picnic in New Jersey. As their ferry is pulling away from Manhattan, they’re looking back at this ugly mud flat with trains going along it and dense smoke, and Frances Perkins hears this young man standing beside her suddenly say, “Frances, couldn’t this waterfront be the most beautiful thing in the world?” And she says, in her oral history, “All of a sudden it came pouring out of him, how you could have this great highway going uptown along the water-that’s the West Side Highway-next to it you have this park-that’s Riverside Park-and if you covered the tracks with the highway you wouldn’t have the smoke,” and, she continued, “the thing that got me was he had it all figured out-the exact locations of the tennis courts and the 79th Street Marina. He was 24 or 25 years old, he was a researcher for a municipal reform organization, he was really a professional nothing, a very low level employee, and yet he had thought out in his mind what is today the whole western shore of Manhattan Island-Riverside Park and the West Side Highway-down to the last detail.”
BARBARA STONE A visionary.
CARO Exactly. So I feel that the first three or four hundred pages of The Power Broker are about a hero. How he changed from an idealist to the power broker-that to me was the dramatic change of the book.
VONNEGUT It was an interesting time in the history of our country. The Great Depression, and there were these people-I’m thinking of David Lillienthal and the Tennessee Valley Authority with these enormous projects. I mean, you think Cheops Tomb and what the pharaohs did is something, well, Lillienthal and Moses did-rebuilding-really radically changing the course of rivers.
CARO Yes, the New Deal changed the face of America.
VONNEGUT So, on to the rest of your work. We were talking on the phone about the idealistic period in Lyndon Johnson’s life, when he was a teacher of poor children. And this was so appealing about the man. Did he turn mean?
CARO Well, he didn’t turn anything, you know. Johnson’s character was formed during this really terrible youth that he had. It was formed for the better and for the worse, and the thing that you are talking about, this strain of compassion for the poor-particularly the poor whose skins were a different color than his-he always had this empathy for Blacks and Hispanics and for poor people. The thing you’re talking about is when he was 21 years old and he was teaching Mexican-American kids down in this little town near the Mexican border called Cotula. I think I wrote, “No one had ever cared if these kids learned or not. Lyndon Johnson cared.” And for the rest of his life he would talk about hearing the trucks-you know, they were migrant laborers, they would work in the cotton fields-so often at 4 a.m. he would hear trucks pulling out into the streets of the Mexican neighborhood, and he’d know they were taking his kids away to work all day. And of course that follows all the way through, so when he’s President he becomes the great civil rights President. But at the same time, the compassion was sort of always entangled with his intense ambition which also comes out of his youth-his ruthless ambition, his desperate need always to win.
BARBARA STONE Bob, this is a huge book. Would one call this a book? It’s really a series of books, isn’t it? Where did you start?
CARO With Johnson, you had to start from the beginning. At the time I started to do this book there were already seventeen biographies of Lyndon Johnson, and they all contained material on his youth. Ina and I were going down to Texas to work in the Johnson Library, and I said, “Well, I’m not going to have to do any extensive research on the youth, but I don’t think any of these books are written very well. There’s no sense of place, no atmosphere. I just need to get some more details, some more color, so in the evenings and on the weekends when the library was closed, I would drive out to the Hill Country, you know, to get some color on his youth. Johnson died so young, he was 64, that at the time when I started this book everyone was alive. The kids who went to high school with him, the kids who went to college with him, the men and women who, when they were young, formed his first political machine-they were also alive. If you went out to Johnson City and you said Lyndon’s best boy- hood friend was Truman Fawcett, well, Truman Fawcett still lived there, in the same house. And Lyndon’s first girlfriend was Kitty Clyde Leonard, now she was Kitty Clyde Ross, but she still lived in Johnson City. You could talk to these people and ask them about his youth, and I began to realize that I was hearing something totally different from the stories that had already been told.
VONNEGUT You mean the other sources, books on Johnson, had it all wrong.
CARO Not all wrong, but there were basic, significant elements to the story of his youth that were obviously different from the youth that had been depicted in earlier biographies. I couldn’t put it all together into a coherent picture because the people out there in Texas are very different from New York. They were ranchers and farmers-very honest people, but very close-mouthed and very suspicious of city people. If you found the right question to ask them, they would always give you an honest answer, but they wouldn’t volunteer a lot. The people would say, “Well, some of that didn’t really happen, you know,” or “Well, there’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to tell you what it is-you shouldn’t tell bad things about a President.” I began to get the feeling that something was drastically and basically wrong with the legend, but I didn’t really pick up on what they were trying to tell me.
STERN How about family members?
CARO Well, at that time I was interviewing Lyndon’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson. You know you’d think that his brother, well, this guy really knew what was going on, and you want to get him to talk, but he was one of these people that’s so full of bravado that a lot of it wasn’t true, everything was exaggerated. One day, however, I did the following thing. I had already interviewed Lyndon Johnson’s brother four or five times, but the interviews were unproductive, or, to be more exact, they were very unreliable. In the first place Sam Houston Johnson drank a lot. He also talked with a bravado that made you rather distrustful of what he said. And when I would try to check out the various stories that he told me, too often they weren’t true. I decided not to use anything that he had told me.
BARBARA STONE What happened when you stopped trying?
CARO I didn’t see him for, let’s say, three years. And then one day I was walking around Johnson City and suddenly Sam Houston was coming toward me. He stopped to talk and you immediately saw a difference in him. It turned out that he had cancer. He’d stopped drinking. But more than that, when you talked to him, he was calmer. He had become very religious, and was just a calmer, more serious kind of man. And I decided to try him again. What I really wanted most to know by this time was the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and his father. I had been getting all these hints about it, but I knew no one else knew what it was because Lyndon Johnson devoted all his story telling power to making sure that no one knew the true story of his youth. I thought of away that I felt might get Sam Houston’s memory going and more accurate. The National Park Service had created-re-created-the Lyndon Johnson boyhood home. I mean, right down to the furniture and everything in the house.
VONNEGUT Did family still live there?
CARO No, but I had talked to Lyndon’s relatives and they said everything was exactly like it was when they grew up. So I got permission to take Sam Houston in there after hours when it was closed and there were no tourists in there. We went in at about five or six o’clock at night. And I had him sit down at the dining room table. It was a plank table, long and thin, just like the original, and Lyndon’s father and mother used to sit in chairs at the two ends. There were two plank benches and the three sisters used to sit on one side, and Sam ( Houston and Lyndon sat on the other. I had him sit in the place in which he had sat when he was a boy. And then I said to him, “Now I want you to tell me about these terrible fights between your father and Lyndon.” I wanted to put him back in his boyhood, to make him remember accurately how things had happened. At first this was very slow going. His memories came back very slowly, and there were long pauses between his sentences. I’d have to ask, “Well, then, what would your father say?” And then, “What would Lyndon say?” But gradually the inhibitions fell away, and it was no longer necessary for me to say anything. He started talking faster and faster. And finally he was shouting back and forth-the father, for example, shouting, “Lyndon, God damn it, you’re a failure, you’ll be a failure all your life.” By this time I felt that he was really in the fame of mind to remember accurately, and I said, “Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me all the stories about your brother’s boyhood that you told me before, the stories that your brother told all those years, only give me more details.” There was this long pause. Then he said, “1 can’t.” I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because they never happened.” And he started talking and basically told me the story of Johnson’s youth that is in my first volume. And after that I went back to the other kids, old people by now but then kids, who had been involved in each incident in college or in California or whatever and when I asked them about the incidents that Sam Houston had related, they would say, “Yes, that is what happened and I remember so and so.” Everything was confirmed. So when you ask about Lyndon Johnson, and whether I like him or dislike him, that doesn’t even compute in my feeling. I felt I had come to understand him. And, understanding him, I came to feel very sorry for him. He was so ashamed of his background and there was no reason to be. He was so ashamed that he made up a whole myth about his youth.
VONNEGUT I was wondering if devoting so much of your life to other people’s lives has done anything to your mind?
CARO Well, that’s a very good question. You have to push yourself into their minds. What I would say happens is that you really look at the whole person. I mean Lyndon Johnson had great empathy for human nature, and at the same time he had this ruthlessness; he was going to get what he wanted from people, no matter what.
STERN Well, you’ve said how important Robert Moses was to your life and your mind when you were quite young.
CARO I was never interested in writing biography just to show the life of a great man. I wanted, with Moses to show how power works. You asked what changed and it wasn’t a change in regard to an individual, it was a feeling about what I was trying to do with my life and work. I had been a reporter for Newsday. Among the reasons that you go into journalism, I suppose, are some rather idealistic, even foolish reasons. In my case one of the reasons was I wanted to explain how things really work, how political power really works. I had won all these minor, minor journalistic awards, and they make you think that you really understand how power works. And it was through Robert Moses that I realized that I didn’t understand at all.
STERN Tell me how you realized that.
CARO Robert Moses wanted to build this huge bridge across Long Island Sound. He wanted to build a whole series of bridges across the Sound all the way out to Orient Point. He had already built the Triboro, the Bronx- Whitestone, Throgs Neck bridges, and now he wanted to build one from Rye to Oyster Bay. And I was assigned to find out if this was a good idea or not. I forget how old I was, but let’s say I was 26 or 27. And I thought I knew everything about politics and power and you look into this thing and you say, everyone agrees this is the worst idea there ever was. I mean, the bridge, instead of curing the traffic problem, would have generated immense amounts of new traffic. I remember this-that, just to handle the traffic you had to have eight lanes of highway from Oyster Bay down to the Long Island Expressway. The Long Island Expressway couldn’t handle this traffic so you then had to solve that problem, and then the bridge was so big that it had to be carried across Long Island Sound on these huge piers. And the piers were so big that they would interfere with the tidal currents in Long Island Sound-1 haven’t thought about this in years-and would cause pollution. And of course he built the Triboro, the Bronx- Whitestone and the Throgs Neck.
BARBARA STONE No small achievement.
CARO He would have built bridges all the way out to the end of Long Island. So I wrote this series against the bridge and the paper wanted the series to win a Pulitzer Prize and in those days they felt the way to get a Pulitzer Prize was to get something accomplished, not merely to write about it. So they sent me up to Albany to “lobby” against Moses’ bridge-I had very little concept of how lobbying really worked-and I had no idea what was really going on anyway. But I interviewed all these legislators and they all agreed. They said, “Don’t worry, you know, we all understand this is the worst idea in history, there’s no chance it’s going to go through.” Right? So I turn around, I write this story, “‘ and I go back to Long Island and I had a friend up there once who worked for a committee. About a week later he calls me and he says, “You know, you better come back up.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, Robert Moses was up here yesterday.” So I said, “I don’t see where that’s going to make any r . difference.” He says, “Well, I think you better come back up.” And I went back up to Albany and I interviewed the same people and I found there had been a slight alteration in their thinking. They now thought the bridge was the best idea in the world. They authorized the bridge. I don’t know what turning points you have in your life, but for me I really think it was the 183 miles from Albany to my house on Long Island. I remember driving back home that night and thinking that it was really important that we understand this kind of political power, and that if I explained it right-how Robert Moses got it and what was its nature, and how he used it-1 would be explaining the essential nature of power. All the way down from Albany I was thinking, what are you doing with your life? You think, why are you a reporter? You’re trying to explain how political power works, here you ‘re talking to all your elected representatives and people who you thought had the power and this one man can come up to Albany and in one day change the whole state government, governor, assembly, legislature-turn them around 180 degrees. You think you understand politics, and in fact you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. And I determined then that I wanted to try to understand. I wanted to do a book. I wanted it to revolve around Robert Moses, but I wanted to use Moses’ life to show, not what we were taught in college about political power, but the realities of political power, the essence of it, how it really works. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.
STERN In other words, you ‘re fascinated as much by themes, as you are by characters.
CARO I think about the themes a lot.
STERN It’s interesting and it’s quite clear, I think. And it’s also an intersection point with certain other kinds of writers. I reviewed Kurt’s Slaughterhouse Five for the front page of the then Herald Tribune and I gave it a rave, but what I loved were the themes that were running through it. They were thrilling, where history intersects with character. And that’s what you’re doing. It seems to me maybe, but not an entirely different business. I want to ask another question of the two of you: do you ever invent dialogue? Are you ever tempted to invent dialogue?
CARO I’ve never done that, no. Anything that’s between quotation marks in my books was actually said.
VONNEGUT My daughter Lily complains because I talk too much, and that’s because I’m an actor and I’m trying out lines and it’s much better to say them out loud to hear what they sound like, but you have real people. Do you talk to yourself?
CARO I do, yes. I do, but I don’t do dialogue. I read my paragraphs out loud to hear myself the rhythm. To me rhythm is very important, and the only way I really hear the rhythm is by reading.
VONNEGUT I would do the same thing with commencement speeches, I want them to be shapely and to be fun possibly for an actor to say. Where’d you go to college?
VONNEGUT I’ve heard of it.
CARO You were the editor of the Cornell Sun, I was managing editor of the Daily Princetonian. We were also both police reporters.
CARO How long were you a police reporter?
VONNEGUT About a year with the Chicago City News Bureau. Earlier Barbara and I were talking about women’s place in society-how it has changed. Well, during the war women had been hired by the papers to fill in for the men and when the men came back from the war to get back the jobs they were legally entitled to, the women wouldn’t leave. And I don’t blame them. I thought they were so right, but finally guys who’d had jobs on the Tribune or Daily News got their jobs back so that nobody from the City News Bureau got to move up. That’s why I finally left Chicago, because there was no future. But I understood perfectly why the women would not leave.
VONNEGUT Let me ask you a question, Bob. I was on a panel with Joe Heller down in Florida. We were talking about the war mostly because that’s what we wanted to talk about, but I asked him at one point if he was disappointed about what the country has become. Because I am deeply disappointed. I was a prisoner of war with the Brits and the French and listened to all their plans for after the war, wanting justice and distribution of power in the world and that sort of thing, and Heller said that he was not disappointed-that he was unsurprised that the nation had turned out this way. Are you disappointed?
CARO I guess, in a way, I am. I think with all our riches and wealth and the fact that we don’t have an enemy now who can threaten us, we ought to be doing a lot more now with the dispossessed of the world and the Blacks and Hispanics in our own country. I don’t think we’re doing very much compared with what we could do.
VONNEGUT Well, what about your basic trade of journalism. ..What are you, sixty, now?
VONNEGUT All right, so in the past thirty years, how has journalism done?
CARO Yeah, I’m very disappointed in that. Aren’t you?
VONNEGUT I heard Ralph Nader sum up what has happened. He said that reporters have given up on their jobs and instead are causing us to focus, as long as possible, on stories like O.J. and Princess Di. But they never get around to having us consider what the real problems of the country are. S0-
CARO I would agree with that.
VONNEGUT Did you like working for Newsday?
CARO Yes, I loved it.
VONNEGUT Where did you grow up, Bob?
CARO In New York City, on Central Park West.
VONNEGUT Okay. So you don’t know anything about the rest of the country?
CARO I didn’t know anything about Texas, that’s for sure. See, you ask me did I love being a reporter. I love finding out new stuff and the reason I loved doing Lyndon Johnson was we had to go down to Texas and learn-not just Texas, we’ve all been in Houston and Dallas, you know-but the Hill Country. That was a new world. So I had to learn a new world. You know the first time I drove out of Austin, the Hill Country was this immense place, 24,000 square miles which is big enough to put all of New England and Pennsylvania into it and still have a lot of land left over. In those days it was still so empty that you could drive for miles and not pass a house or a car.
STERN How was that for a city boy like you?
CARO The first time I went out to Johnson City, after about twenty miles you were in the Hill Country. About 48 miles out, I came to the top of this rise which I think was called Round Mountain which wasn’t a mountain, it was just a ridge, and suddenly in front of me was this incredibly empty panorama stretching out literally as far as I could see. At first I thought there was nothing in it. And then all of a sudden, down below, off in the distance, I saw this tiny huddle of houses, the place where Lyndon Johnson grew up. That’s Johnson City. It was this little place of 373 people. At that moment, I knew that a city boy like me could never understand Lyndon Johnson unless I actually lived out there for a time. And a lot of other things happened, I mean, I remember his brother trying to tell me how lonely they were. Because this is a big thing in the development of Johnson’s character. Sam Houston told me that. I used to go out there at night, to a ranch near the Johnson Ranch, and sleep in a sleeping bag and there’d be nothing there when I went to bed and you’d get up in the morning and there’d still be nothing and you’d get a feeling of what it was like to grow up in such an isolated, remote, lonely place. And his brother once talked to me about how he and Lyndon used to sit on a fence that bordered a road that ran alongside of their ranch and wait for hours, hoping that just one single person would ride by so that they would have someone to talk to. All sorts of things were happening to me and people were telling me things and I finally told Ina, “You know, I’m never going to understand this guy unless we move out here.” So we rented a house outside of Austin, and for three years, let’s say six or seven months a year or something like that, I would spend all day driving from one ranch to another, just trying to learn the country and it was thrilling. We both look back fondly on that time. Ina said to me the other night, don’t you miss Texas?
VONNEGUT Do you?
CARO Yeah, because, it was this great adventure; it wasn’t really an adventure about learning about Lyndon Johnson, that was just a little part of it. It was an adventure about learning that kind of life, that world, a world that I’d had no idea of.
BARBARA STONE May I interject? Both of you are observers of human life and society, which is r the bailiwick, usually, of sociologists and anthropologists. In your college backgrounds, did you study those subjects?
VONNEGUT I’ve got a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago.
BARBARA STONE And you’ve used it.
VONNEGUT Well, you stand outside a society and a culture and realize that it is an invention and that you can improve it. Well, I like the American culture, such as it is, but let ‘s get rid of the fucking guns.
BARBARA STONE And Bob, did that appeal to you in school? Sociology and anthropology-the observing skills?
BARBARA STONE It came to you later?
CARO I don’t know that it came to me at all. I was an English student and very little of what I did in college ever turned out to have any practical use. I fell into this. I fell into that it was really an accident. The Power Broker took seven years, and a big part of that time was spent trying to figure out what I was writing about. And there wasn’t anywhere you could go to find it out. Like the book I’m working on now-the third volume of the Johnson books, it’s called Master of the Senate. I thought I knew all this stuff, you know, about how the Senate worked, and realized I really know nothing about it. So for years, when I wasn’t in Texas, we took an apartment in Washington and I would go off to the Senate and sit in the gallery for hours and hours, day after day. I was the nut in the gallery. I was the guy who sat there all day; the tourists come in and out and the reporters look over at me. You know, I don’t have a wonder- fully recognizable face-they all think I’m some Ph.D., you know, a student or something like that. Or a nut. But I feel like the Senate is a show being put on for me. I mean you sit up there, you go to committee hearings, and I was just sort of thrilled by trying to figure out how the Senate works. I really enjoy it.
STERN You both had journalistic backgrounds. How did that influence your writing?
CARO Well, I learned that what I like to do is, I mean, the big difference between journalism and writing books for me is that in journalism you never had enough time to try to get it just right, and you always had questions that you didn’t have enough time to examine fully. It was a big deal if they gave you a month for an investigative series. At the end of the month you just had more questions. The more you learned, the more questions you had. So when I set out to do a book I said, “I’m not going to write this until I’ve found out everything that I can.”
VONNEGUT I was glad to come up through journalism rather than in the English Department, and I started out, and became, an anthropologist. You tell as much as you ‘re sure of at the very beginning. And so I always do. Students will write a story where three-quarters of the way through you realize this person was blind. The truth is actually that I do write leads and I try to have news hook and I guess maybe it’s a way to entertain.
BARBARA STONE Bob, a lot of biographers and writers of non-fiction work send people out to do their research. It feels to me-from listening to you-that you are the master researcher. That you don’t rely on other people’s interpretation of anything.
CARO I would never. I have one researcher, who is my wife. She now writes her own books and she’s actually written-you can say in contrast to my books, a book everybody loved, The Road From The Past, but she is also a great researcher.
BARBARA STONE So she would be a great help?
CARO Yes, but, aside from Ina, I do all the research.
BARBARA STONE Kurt, of course fiction is imagination, but isn’t there also research that goes into fiction?
VONNEGUT There has to be. Because you can lose a reader in a blink of an eye. If a person is an engineer or chemist or an anthropologist or whatever, you spoil the whole book for that person if there’s obviously ignorance here. What’s wrong with so much science fiction is that the science is so lousy that it isn’t worth paying attention to. My brother was a distinguished scientist and I hung out more with scientists than I did with writers, so the one thing I’ve always tried to do was to get it right, make it plausible. Scientifically. How long it takes to get somewhere through space and what you ‘re likely to find there, and you have to figure whether it’s going to be plausible or not. So, yeah, I did a book called Galapagos which was about evolution and it’s used in courses now.
STERN Courses on evolution?
VONNEGUT On evolution. I was scared to death when I wrote the book because neo-Darwinists have corrected Darwin here and there but are still hanging onto evolution, but Stephen Jay Gould isn’t, of course. I have characters, human beings who, in order to survive, mutate into a sort of sea lion, because they’re rapped on the Galapagos Islands. Stephen Jay Gould congratulated me on hat. But science-fiction writers wrote for the pulps and got paid about a penny a word. When IBM invented the electric typewriter they weren’t sure anybody would really want one because regular manual typewriters were going pretty fast, and the first people to buy them were the science fiction writers for :he faster they wrote the more money they could make. But the science was horrible. Of course, there was good science fiction written by Isaac Asimov who merely had a Ph.D. in biochemistry. But, for anybody with any scientific background, most science fiction was all improbabilities, impossibilities.
BARBARA STONE So great non-fiction and great fiction almost overlap, because great non-fiction can read like a novel and interest the reader because they’re really into that person’s life-just as a fiction writer would bring you into that person’s life-and great fiction, when it’s done with the accuracy that Kurt is talking about, should read, also, like great non-fiction.
VONNEGUT Let’s just use a simple word here: truth. In Slaughterhouse Five I wanted a person who dies of carbon monoxide poisoning to be a beautiful blue, and then you know I wanted a sort of swooning with the beauty of this corpse. Well, that was a mistake and I got a letter from a doctor who said a person who is a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning is rosey and it’s often commented on how well the person looks. I got letter after letter about that for about two or three years.
CARO To my mind, the prose in a non-fiction work that’s going to endure has to be of the same quality as the prose in a work of fiction that endures. And I actually tested this out for myself. I read one hunk of Gibbon ‘s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then I read a part of War and Peace which is a grand historical novel, right, so I figured that’s the closest to Gibbon. So I would read a part of one then apart of the other. I did this all summer. And the writing in Gibbon is at the same level, you know, they don’t read at the same cadences but it’s at the same intensity and level as in War and Peace. I’ve always felt that no one understands why some books of non-fiction endure and some don’t, because there’s not much understanding among many non-fiction writers that the narrative is terribly important. I would say what we both do that is the same is the narrative. I mean history is narrative, just like your books are narrative.
VONNEGUT Or the reader will stop reading.
CARO And the readers do stop reading, you know. You say what books do we still read. If you took books in the last ten years, you say, well, David McCulloch’s Truman because it’s a terrific story-he keeps up a wonderful narrative drive. If you’ve ever judged for a literary award, you get these boxes of two hundred books and, when you start reading many of them, you say, “My God, it’s just like there’s no concern for the writing. They think the only thing that matters is the facts.” You’ve got to have the facts, and you’ve got to get them right, but you can’t forget that you’re telling a story. For example, you’re telling a story about Lyndon Johnson’s Senate campaign. That was a thrilling campaign, you follow it day by day, it really excited the whole State of Texas. If your account of that campaign isn’t thrilling, it’s false, even if it’s factually accurate-you’re not being true to that campaign. You’ve got to make the reader live through it again.
BARBARA STONE Ride around in that truck with him.
CARO Well, ride around in his helicopter, anyway. You wake up one day and say, this has got to be really written well. You learn from talking to Lyndon Johnson’s helicopter pilot, and his aides that he was desperate and frenzied during the last days of the helicopter campaign. So you say to yourself, if want to show this truly, there must be desperation in your writing, desperation and frenzy in the words and the rhythms of the words. When I was writing the helicopter section, I pinned a note to the lamp that is on the desk in front of me. The note said, “IS THERE DESPERATION ON THIS PAGE? And, for this volume, when I’m writing about a scene on the Senate floor, if I am not happy with a scene-say a scene of a vote in the Senate on an important bill-I say to myself: what aren’t I getting here? I must have written about one vote for days and I kept throwing the pages into a wastepaper basket, one after the other, and finally I said: what am I missing here? And then I suddenly realized. If you go down into the well of the Senate, you are surrounded by all these burnished mahogany desks in four sweeping arcs. It’s like a painting, and before the senators come in for the vote, it’s like a painting in which the artist has put in the background-the arcs of desks-without the figures. And then all of a sudden the vote is called, and the figures, the Senators, start coming in. So I tried to write it that way. Actually, I’m not sure I succeeded in doing that the way I wanted, but at least I can say I tried to do it the way it really was.
VONNEGUT Most people wouldn’t know whether he did the scene well or not. But you have to be an extremely good reader to appreciate what a good writer is. There are some people who are completely insensitive to good writing.
CARO You think very few readers?
VONNEGUT Yes. I was talking to Styron about this one time and he pointed out that the great novelists, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, wrote for a very small audience in a barbarous nation where almost nobody could read. And they were content with a small audience of peers. I think that’s where we are now. Look at the best-seller list in the New York Times. We’re talking about sales of a couple of hundred thousand books in a population of damn near 30 billion. How many of us are there, anyway? Two hundred and eighty million?
CARO I don’t know exactly.
VONNEGUT Well, God, I thought you were a reporter, for Christ sakes! But anyway, it’s a miniscule audience.
CARO But it’s the same audience. If you look at Dickens and Trollope who were supposedly being read by everyone-their hardcover sales were about a hundred thousand. So it’s about the same number, it’s a smaller percentage but it’s about the same number of readers.
VONNEGUT Well, it’s the only art form where the consumer has to be a performer. It’s like expecting everybody to sight-read music for the French horn and most people can’t read that well and I mean, hell, you go into an art gallery and just look, or go to a movie or a play and just look. We are the only art form where the audience has to be a performer and it’s expecting a hell of a lot of them.
BARBARA STONE One hundred thousand readers in Dickens’ time is an incredible readership.
CARO You’re right.
BARBARA STONE If that’s what the readership was. But, the readers of Dickens read him like people of today watch soap operas-sort of pulp fiction in small doses. Is there any doubt that television is the enemy of serious writers because, instead of the public reading something in depth, it allows them to catch, on a surface level, a half-hour show and they’re not getting anything of substance, but they think they’ve learned something.
CARO Yes, and if you’re writing about politics or political power, that’s the most depressing thing of all. Look at our campaigns. They think they can sell the public in these thirty-second sound-bites, and they can. So you say, well, why should I try to explain what really happened. I don’t think that’s the same with novelists.
VONNEGUT Well, one thing which seduced both of us-which is why we are, in a sense, in the same trade-is the book as an artifact. It’s virtually indestructible. When Ralph Ellison said the manuscript for his next book had burned. ..can you imagine somebody not keeping a carbon copy, but anyway-
STERN Do you use carbon?
VONNEGUT No, I used to. But, I don’t think you can buy it anymore.
CARO Sure, I buy it. I use carbon. I write in longhand and use a typewriter. I’m probably the last. Do you use a computer, a word processor?
VONNEGUT I just got an Apple Powerbook which makes editing so easy.
BARBARA STONE Do you initially make notes with a pencil?
VONNEGUT No, I don’t, because I went to an over-achiever’s high school in Indianapolis and we all learned to type. Cleveland had one, Detroit had one. Those high schools don’t exist anymore.
CARO So you wrote on a word processor from the beginning?
VONNEGUT No, I moved up to that. But the computer’s keyboard is just like a typewriter and so I’m seeing my writing right on the screen and I’ve got a printer, so when it’s printed out it’s clean. When I used a typewriter I used to re-type page after page after page. There’s a theory, and I think the theory is right, that in order to make a change you’ve got to make the whole language of the page harmonious. Well, that’s a lot easier with a computer.
STERN So it’s a good life, the life of a writer, you both agree?
VONNEGUT Well, no, almost all writers’ lives have ended badly and I never expected to put my generation to bed at the age of 75. When I lecture, I say, look at the creation of our culture, or the artistic part of it. It’s like the World War I attacks, where they blow the whistle at dawn and everybody goes over the top and practically everybody winds up grappling with the barbed wire, face- down drowning in a shell hole. I think of Truman Capote out here at the end of his life, and Kerouac at the end of his life-these are ugly ends. I’m okay, Bob’s okay, we made it through. We didn’t wind up in the barbed wire. But I’m content with our audience and, well, you see the hovel we live in, and I teach.
CARO Well, but what I worry about is “will I get to finish?”
VONNEGUT Do you have a goal? Lyndon has to die?
CARO No, well, I’ve got two more volumes. And then I want to turn the four volumes into one volume: The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
BARBARA STONE How are you ever going to do that?
CARO Actually, that might be the easiest part because what takes me so long-each of my books has taken seven years despite the fact I’m a very fast writer-is the research that takes all the time, and for one volume you don’t have to do the research-you’ve done the research. Now I sat next to a great friend of mine, James Thomas Flexner, now quite elderly, who wrote the four volumes on George Washington. He turned it into a one-volume, and while he was doing that we were both working in the New York Public Library together. I was sitting a desk near him and I watched how he did it and how fast. He was basically just going through his own work. So my hope is to do it that fast. But the last volume in the Johnson books is the presidency. And I really want to get all of the sixties in one book. I’m determined to do it.
STERN That’s going to be difficult.
CARO Yeah, but it’s one story and I’m determined to get it into one volume. And I have another book I want to do after this, so you keep thinking, “are you going to live long enough to do it all.”
VONNEGUT Well, I sure hope so.
BARBARA STONE With those huge volumes, I would think that the hard part, once the research is over, would be the editing, deciding what to leave out, to bring it down to the size where people could actually carry it.
CARO You write books like mine, Barbara, there are certain words that grate on you. “Heavy” is a word I’ve heard enough of, “long” is a word that I’ve heard often, too. Just last night I was at a dinner party and this woman came up to me and said, “I remember when my husband gave me The Power Broker and he gave it to me at the wrong time, I had just had a hysterectomy. I needed to balance it on my stomach, but I couldn’t.”
VONNEGUT I’m thinking about James Thomas Flexner again-I used to play tennis with him. The hostage crisis was going on in Iran and I said, “Jimmy, what would George Washington have done about this?” He thought a minute, and he said, “He wouldn’t have heard about it yet.”
CARO He wrote a terrific memoir. He wrote it at 91. Full of energy. It’s quite amazing.
VONNEGUT Well, with Flexner, yeah, I’d have a new book out and he would loyally go get it-they were thin, you know-and he would wonder really what the hell I did for a living: “Impossible to make a book this small, and people respect you for it!”
BARBARA STONE Bob, I haven’t read the Moses book yet, I’m sorry to say. My question is: did he come from a privileged background?
BARBARA STONE Just the opposite of Johnson, and Nixon, and Clinton, too, in a way. Do you feel that coming from the situation of poverty, or distressed childhoods, makes one fight and claw harder to make it out and make it big?
CARO I think always that, with Johnson, the boyhood formed his character. Being poor in the Hill Country, humiliated, the son of the town ‘s laughing stock-that fire was so hot that it formed him into a shape so hard it would never change. He has a hunger for power. He’s gotta get it. The first two books are really about him getting power. In the book I’m writing now, my third volume, he has power. He’s Majority Leader of the Senate, so you see him start doing wonderful things. Now in the part I just finished writing, 1957, he’s passing the first civil rights legis- legislation since the Civil War. It’s an act of sheer genius, but the character of the man does not change because he came out of that really sad, as I said earlier in this interview, poignant, terrible poverty, loneliness and humiliation. We need to cry for him, you know. I mean there are scenes that these people told me, the kids who grew up with him, where he had well, you know, when you’re 15 and you ‘re really in love, and he was in love with this girl whose name I mentioned, Kitty Clyde Ross, who was 16. When Lyndon’s father, who has been a very idealistic legislator and a fairly well-off rancher, lost all his money, he has to leave the legislature and Kitty’s parents won’t let her go out with Lyndon. To make sure that she doesn’t, when an older schoolteacher-older being about 25-wants to go out with her, they encourage it and her parents give them the car. You know, to drive around the courthouse square in Johnson City. And I talked to Lyndon ‘s two cousins who were standing with him on the courthouse square when Kitty Clyde and the schoolteacher drove by. Ava, one of the cousins, said, “You know, I cried for Lyndon, then.” And I really felt like crying. When Johnson became President he invited Kitty Clyde Ross to the White House and took her on a trip on Air Force One.
STERN So he got his sweet revenge.
BARBARA STONE He should have invited her parents.
CARO Yes. Moses was the opposite situation. What you had with Moses, and I didn’t realize this until years into this book, is that he was an artist. His office had an immense map of New York and Long Island, higher than this ceiling, and very long. And when he wanted to talk about something, he’d jump up-he always had his yellow pencils with sharp points-and he’d sweep the pencils over the maps and he’d say, “There should be a highway over here,” or “There should be a park over there.” This was an artist. This was a guy who dreamed a dream of an entire metropolitan area when he was a young, young man and spent forty-four years filling in the roads and the parks that he’d dreamed about. As you say, Moses came from wealth. But the hunger that you’re talking about, was the hunger of the artist who can’t get his dreams built. He has all these dreams, like of Riverside Park, but he has no power yet. I think I said something like, “When he came back to the state, when Smith rescued him, he came back understanding that what you needed to accomplish dreams, in public office or in public works, was power, and he spent the rest of his life trying to get it and that changed his character. You could see this character changing from then on into the Robert Moses we never forgot. But I tried also in the book to show this young idealist and what he really wanted to be which was something artistic, not just the power.
VONNEGUT If the person is an artist,. the mere frustration of not being able to practice the art is enough. There doesn’t have to be an alcoholic father-
CARO -that’s what I was trying to say.
VONNEGUT Joe Heller and I are pretty good friends, and we both concluded we had nice childhoods and what type of writer is it that would say that? His was typical Coney Island and mine was in Indianapolis and it was very interesting. God, when I think of Lyndon Johnson in that gully there-it couldn’t have been very interesting. But Coney Island was wonderfully interesting to Heller as a kid, and Indianapolis was very interesting to me.
CARO I’m glad you said “gully”. That “gully” was, to me, the key to understanding Lyndon Johnson. People, in the Hill Country, would say to me, “You’re a city boy, you can never understand Lyndon Johnson unless you understand the land.” You know, to me that sounded like a grade B weSTERN, that’s really stupid. But, of course, as you pick up that the land is the key to what he became, you have to ask what did the land mean? On a farm or a ranch, it wasn’t like in the city. If you made a mistake there like Lyndon ‘s father did, and picked the wrong area just because it was pretty, and there wasn’t enough soil there, you didn’t just move to a worse apartment, what you did was you lost your farm or your ranch. You had to load your family into a car and drive off with no money in your pocket and often no place to go to. So, now I’m writing about Johnson in the Senate and he’s called the greatest vote counter. He wants to know-he doesn’t want to have any votes unless he knows in advance that he’s going to win. You can find in the Johnson Library his vote sheets, with the numbers-you know, each Senator had his name and which side he’s on. When someone would say, “I think Byrd or I think Hubert Humphrey’s going to vote this way, or that way, Lyndon Johnson says, “I don’t want to think, I have to know.” He knows what failure means. You can call him ruthless but, as someone said, to understand all is to forgive all. When people ask me, as they do all the time, “Do you like him or dislike him?”-well, the truth is that once you understand him, you have feelings that are much more complicated than that. Once you understand him, you feel sorry for him. Or you admire him: now, in the book I’m writing now, he’s the greatest leader the Senate ever had, he’s doing incredible things-passing bills that it had seemed impossible to pass-and over and over again you find yourself grinning at his maneuvers and shaking your head in admiration: “How did he ever get that bill through?”
VONNEGUT My son, Mark, went crazy for a while, recovered sufficiently to graduate from Harvard, Medical School and stay in remission. But anyway, he was a sixties kid, left the country although he was straight with the draft, he didn’t want to be an American anymore and became a landed immigrant in Canada. He said what it took his generation so long to realize was that these people they objected to were mentally ill. No question: who’s Robert McNamara, if he wasn’t insane, who the hell was?
CARO When I do the Vietnam thing, Ina and I are going to find one of those little vil- villages in Vietnam he didn’t quite destroy.
VONNEGUT I wouldn’t take your job for anything. How good that you’re going to do that.
CARO Well, you want to really show what it means when a modern industrialized superpower makes war on a small non-industrialized country. The B-52s used to fly so high that you couldn’t hear them from the ground, and in the villages that were obliterated the people didn’t even know the bombs were coming until they hit. You really want to show the effect of power on the powerless. At the same time, there’s the other side of Johnson. Ina and I are going to live in a southern city, where the Blacks had no sewers in their area, where the schools were terrible, and all this changed because Lyndon Johnson got them the vote. So you’d want to see how he changed those lives. What I’m trying to do, is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about.
BARBARA STONE How about the effect of power on the one who wields it?
CARO Power is a very unusual weapon. It’s like a sword whose hilt, as well as the blade, is razor sharp so that when you grasp it, it’s not only cutting the people you’re using it on, it’s cutting into you by changing you.
VONNEGUT Well, Hitler at the end thought that he himself was one more casualty in the war.
CARO Did he?
BARBARA STONE I’m sure he did. He probably felt very sorry for himself, that no one understood him.
VONNEGUT Years ago, a professor at the University of New Mexico sent me a book which was called the Mask of Sanity which was a medical book, blue cover, gold letters, and it was about sociopaths whose personalities might explain everything. These people rise to the top because of the thrill in getting there. And what is really scary about that is that they don’t care what happens to anybody else. You assume the person is looking out for himself or herself, but the person isn’t-the sociopath doesn’t give a damn what happens to himself, either.
CARO Now maybe this is an example. When Johnson was running his campaign, he has kidney stones. They become infected and the doctors tell him that if he doesn’t have this operation, he might die. Yet, if he has the operation the campaign comes to a halt.
BARBARA STONE When was this?
CARO In 1948. You know, in those days, they’d make a big incision so you can’t get out of bed for six weeks or so. He’s 40 years old, and this is his last chance and he knows it. If he doesn’t win this race he ‘s leaving politics forever. He won’t have the operation, his temperature goes up to 105 degrees, he’s shaking with fever and yet, he won’t stop campaigning until he absolutely collapses.
BARBARA STONE You can see that for a man like that there was no choice.
CARO In this third volume he has a terrible heart attack in 1955. His presidential boom is about to start, and he doesn’t want anything to interfere with it, although he’s been afraid of a heart attack all his life because his father died that way at 60 and his uncle at 57. But his first thoughts are not about his health, but about what the news of the heart attack will do to his presidential prospects.
VONNEGUT You’re assuming in dealing with a stranger that this person cares, that they’ll be looking out for themselves, but it’s not true.
CARO It’s an amazing phenomenon and when you’re writing about someone like that, it’s very hard to make people see it, because as Kurt said, it’s outside the normal human experience. There are moments in both the life of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson where you realize this is outside of anything you’ve ever encountered before.
STERN Well, you’ve written so much about men of power and you ‘re still going to be writing more about Lyndon Johnson, if you don’t run out of time. What power figure would interest you, would fascinate you to write about after you finished everything you want to do about Lyndon Johnson.
CARO I have one more but-
BARBARA STONE -you don’t want to reveal it.
CARO Just because I’m superstitious.
BARBARA STONE Fine, okay. But there is someone else.
CARO I thought you were going to ask me how do I feel about writing about women.
BARBARA STONE Well, I was. I am. Would that person be a woman by any chance?
CARO Lady Bird is a big figure, but I don’t pretend to understand her at all, just as I don’t understand Hillary Clinton, and I think it’s a good thing I don’t have to. But, Ina, my wife, is writing about a really interesting woman, Diane dePoitiers, who was the mistress of the King of France-she was 20 years older than him. And she wielded the real power.
VONNEGUT How did Ina get interested in that?
CARO Well, we normally go to France for a couple of months a year, ever since The Power Broker was published, which was 24 years ago.
BARBARA STONE Are you fluent in French?
CARO I’m fluent in French until the French really want to start talking then I’m suddenly not fluent any more.
BARBARA STONE Kurt, are you teaching somewhere currently?
VONNEGUT I lecture about twelve times a year and I’ll teach a class now and then. I taught at Iowa for a couple of years and Heller and I both taught at City College.
BARBARA STONE Oh, you did? At the same time? I like the idea of being a student of writing and being taught by Heller and Vonnegut.
VONNEGUT Well, we might be lousy teachers, you can’t tell. Do you teach, Bob?
CARO No. I give lectures, like you.
VONNEGUT Well, you find you repeat yourself-you ‘re not going to tell that same joke over again, are you? Fortunately, a new bunch comes in that hasn’t seen the act. God, it was exciting then, ’65 and ’66 in Iowa. We had Vietnam vets, we had Vietnam draft dodgers, we had people who had been married and divorced, had kids. They had lots to write about. It’ll never be like that again.
BARBARA STONE I did some creative writing at NYU in the adult program when I was trying to finish off a degree, and I remember one professor saying that the difference between teaching the undergraduates and the adults, was that the undergraduates were like empty urns that you ‘re trying to fill up continually, where most of us older students came with urns that were at least half full, so that we could bring some experience to the table and he found it a little more interesting.
VONNEGUT Mathematicians and musicians and possibly a precocious poet can start early, but there are no precocious historians or novelists or biographers. You really must be a grown-up to do it.
Let me just finish with one question, since this is a literary magazine and our audience is interested in writers and the art of writing, what are your writing habits? Everyone has a different mode and I’m always fascinated by the differences. Do you work all day, some of the day, part of the day?
VONNEGUT Well, there’s a hell of a lot of writers who are teaching, and it seems to me that everybody, no matter what his or her field is, can be truly intelligent for about four hours a day and God, it seems that would be enough. And so you just pick the four hours, it can be midnight until four in the morning, and mine happens to be from six to ten.
BARBARA STONE At night?
VONNEGUT No, in the morning. And, afterwards, I’ll answer letters or do crossword puzzles.
BARBARA STONE But your mind is still writing?
VONNEGUT Well, that’s something thing I wanted to bring up with Bob. Novelists are famous as being lousy mates, whether males or females, and one reason is that they have to concentrate all the time or they’ll lose the thread of the novel. It’s all in the head, and they have information pouring in from the outside they’re going to lose and so they will pretend to hear you, but they’re really some- where else. I’m not working on a novel now, incidentally, but I remember at Iowa we had poets, we had playwrights, we had novelists, and essayists, and the poets -just chat, chat, chat, chat all the time. And the novelists were dragging themselves around like they got shot and buried. They really didn’t want to socialize much with anybody.
STERN It’s a tangled load in there.
VONNEGUT Yeah, and it’s all in here. It’s nowhere else and so they don’t want to lose it and if you interrupt a novelist it’s a disaster for him. So you don’t want to marry one, because they want to go on writing novels. But do you carry, are you carrying Lyndon in your head a lot now?
CARO See, I have two lives-my researching life and my writing life. If you ‘re interviewing people, your hours become what hours they’ll give you the interviews, or whatever hours the library is open. When I’m writing I can actually go about five hours, no more. So that’s a difference, but I get up early in the morning. I write from seven to about noon. I used to try to write longer, but I read and I found that I was always getting myself tired by working in the afternoon and then I was just throwing out what I wrote in the afternoon, so writing then was counterproductive.
BARBARA STONE You must be an easier mate to live with because having done your research, you have your notes and you ‘re not carrying that load around in your head for fear that if you enter into an argument or a discussion about what color shall we paint the walls-
CARO -no, that’s not right, actually. Because at the time I’m doing research, I think I’m fairly normal. When you’re writing often you wake up during the night, and correcting. I have two different personalities. When I get worked up, some of my chapters are very long as I get closer and closer to the end, and I get up earlier and earlier, eager to get to the desk all wound up. That’s the difference.
BARBARA STONE Well, this was great. I think we got a lot of straight talk about writing fiction and writing biography; and the use of power. Not a bad mix. Thank you both.