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Why won't Bill Moyers speak to Robert Caro?
May 2, 2012 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Why won't Bill Moyers speak to Robert Caro?

I can't find an explanation other than in this interview with Moyers, (h/t MeFi) which was absolutely cryptic. I am such a big fan of both of these guys and the whole thing is bewildering to me.
posted by moammargaret to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
This thread on another website has some discussion. I don't know if any of it is reliable.
posted by John Cohen at 11:37 AM on May 2, 2012


Sounds like he just doesn't want to go back there, to that time, to that headspace.

Somewhere, I've read a criticism about the Caro books, one that described some scene the he describes that the refuter said must be pretty fictionalized either because he was there or because of how it was described, he must have made up details that excluded the possibility that it was accurate ...
posted by tilde at 11:41 AM on May 2, 2012


Tilde—interesting. There was this recent profile of Caro in the NYT. In it, he comes off as way too obsessed with accuracy to fictionalize anything.
Caro is an equally obsessive researcher. Gott­lieb likes to point to a passage fairly early in “The Power Broker” describing Moses’ parents one morning in their lodge at Camp Madison, a fresh-air charity they established for poor city kids, picking up The Times and reading that their son had been fined $22,000 for improprieties in a land takeover. “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life, and now we’ll have to pay this,” Bella Moses says.

“How do you know that?” Gottlieb asked Caro. Caro explained that he tried to talk to all of the social workers who had worked at Camp Madison, and in the process he found one who had delivered the Moseses’ paper. “It was as if I had asked him, ‘How do you know it’s raining out?’ ” Gottlieb told me, and he added: “When ‘The Power Broker’ came out, other writers were amazed. No one had ever seen anything like it. It was a monument not to industry, because lots of people have industry, but to something else. I don’t even know what to call it.”
posted by adamrice at 11:58 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Caro is murdering LBJ in his books. His persuasively presented view in al the biographical tomes he has produced to date is that LBJ was essentially a psychopath. Moyers, however, had a long, close relationship with LBJ, including being assistant news director for the media stations nominally owned by Lady Bird, serving as a top aide for LBJ when he tried for the Presidential nomination, and serving as special assistant, informal chief of staff and press secretary when LBJ was President. Their views on the man are clearly worlds apart. And I'm sure Moyers does not want to help Caro portray him as a dupe or accomplice.
posted by bearwife at 12:00 PM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


On preview, what adamrice said.

Something similar to what Tilde describes was tackled in the recent Esquire profile:
[Caro's editor] Gottlieb has questioned the veracity of Caro's reporting only once. There was a single paragraph that stood out on what would become the 214th page of The Power Broker. In it, Bella and Emanuel Moses, Robert's parents, were depicted at their summer lodge at Camp Madison, a camp for poor and immigrant children that Bella had helped found. There, they were leafing through The New York Times one morning in 1926, Caro wrote, when they learned of a $22,000 judgment against their son for illegal appropriations. Caro included a quote from Bella Moses, who was long dead: "Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life and now we'll have to pay this."

How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?

Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. "As the circles grew outward," Caro says, "there were people who'd only met him once. He wasn't going to be able to get to them all." Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert's relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp's social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.

"So that's how," Caro told Gottlieb.

"Every step of that story is by all ordinary standards insane," Gottlieb says today. "But he didn't say any of it as though it were remarkable. We're dealing with an incredibly productive, wonderful mania."
There's also some discussion of Moyers (who apparently wrote a lot of memos) in the profile. Moyers has an office in the same buidling as Caro (the Fisk Building in NYC) and also refused to comment for the profile.
posted by ThisIsNotMe at 12:01 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Apparently Caro has enough of Moyers's work product to fill two chapters in volume five. So you'd think he would be interested in clearing up any ambiguity. There's no turning back on the fact that Caro's LBJ is the definitive biography.
posted by moammargaret at 12:05 PM on May 2, 2012


Google Books is showing me a snippet from a 1991 TV Guide that says,
"I don't subscribe to Caro's theory that Johnson was 10 feet tall and all black-hearted," says Moyers. "He was one of the most fascinating men I've ever met."
posted by XMLicious at 12:08 PM on May 2, 2012


Exactly that type of scenario, folks - but I can't find the darned thing and now the whole internets is full of stuff about the new book (!!! hope I can get it on my e-reader, his stuff is literally HEAVY).

It was, however, from a Caro book, surrounding box 13, maybe? Not sure. I found one article talking about him talking to a guy who was there who had hand written his notes about what actually happened around that. But that's not the article.

Essentially, the premise was that Caro had described a desolate scene, of some official type folks getting together, some prosaic words about dusty roads and tumbleweeds(?), and them going to this building to get something or other, described from the POV of someone who had been there but was telling it in third (Caro's) perspective.

But that the only "source" was a newspaper clipping that kind of referenced "this happened on that day" and one of the people who actually WAS there said the scene Caro described was pretty much bullshit.
posted by tilde at 12:15 PM on May 2, 2012


... from a Caro LBJ book ...
posted by tilde at 12:17 PM on May 2, 2012


Moyers has always struck me as an honorable person, and I'm inclined to take him at his word in the interview you included.

But if there is some hidden reason, I think this is one of those frustrating times when we just won't ever know. Given Caro's depiction of Johnson as an absolute sociopath, I think bearwife's conjecture has the ring of truth to it considering how other Johnson staffers have reacted.
posted by helloimjohnnycash at 2:42 PM on May 2, 2012


> Caro is murdering LBJ in his books. His persuasively presented view in al the biographical tomes he has produced to date is that LBJ was essentially a psychopath.

This is not at all true. Caro's view is far more nuanced than that; as David Greenberg writes in his Washington Post review: "Caro’s ability to show these many sides of Johnson — good, bad, ugly — rebuts the rap that he paints his characters only in black and white. ... At any moment, he showcases only one element of Johnson (or of RFK, or of other characters); typically, it is a portrait of an extreme. ... Johnson, too, for all his complexity, is usually shown in one persona or another, heroic or demonic." Of course, for those still loyal to the man after all these years, any portrayal that shows him even part of the time as demonic will be unacceptable, but let's not adopt their oversimplifications.

> There's no turning back on the fact that Caro's LBJ is the definitive biography.

That too is untrue. To quote Greenberg again:
There is both triumph and tragedy in the work of Caro. For all his prodigious research, painstaking reconstructions and carefully placed semicolons, he hasn’t given us a life of Johnson that will garner those verbal laurels “authoritative” and “definitive” that many biographers crave. But it is precisely because of Caro’s marvelously distinctive, proudly personalized method that he cannot give us such a work. (For that purpose, Robert Dallek’s two volumes will continue to best serve scholars.) Caro’s sprawling, sparkling, theatrical opus, rather, calls to mind a work such as Carl Sandburg’s six-volume life of Abraham Lincoln, which also took years of prodigious labor and displayed, as the historian James G. Randall wrote, “a poet’s sense of language . . . and an ability to combine realistic detail with emotional appreciation.” Today, Sandburg’s work is read more for literary pleasure than historical authority. The same might perhaps be said one day, neither as insult nor compliment but simply as description, of “The Passage of Power,” which, for all its abundant virtues and inescapable flaws, is unmistakably the work of the singular Robert Caro.
That review is probably the best thing I've read on Caro, and sums up the way I feel about him.
posted by languagehat at 3:17 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I dunno, languagehat. I love these books and think they are enormously insightful, but the "good" sides of Johnson are not on display in my view. (And I'm not a loyalist so I don't have the perspective of the people who worked with and liked him.) I agree he comes across as a human being, not a cardboard cutout of a villain, but he does not come across as a likable, honorable, truthful, or good human being. To the contrary.

Me, I like Caro and Moyers very much, and admire both the men personally and their body of work. But I see no reason they should be chatting in view of Caro's (in my view persuasive and deeply researched) portrayal of Johnson in his work.
posted by bearwife at 4:49 PM on May 2, 2012


> I agree he comes across as a human being, not a cardboard cutout of a villain, but he does not come across as a likable, honorable, truthful, or good human being. To the contrary.

Well, sure; after all, he wasn't a likable, honorable, or truthful (I don't think "good" is a reasonable measure here) human being. But there's a huge gap between that and being a psychopath. I've known a number of people who fit the former description; none, as far as I know, that fit the latter.
posted by languagehat at 4:56 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


For all his prodigious research, painstaking reconstructions and carefully placed semicolons, he hasn’t given us a life of Johnson that will garner those verbal laurels “authoritative” and “definitive” that many biographers crave.

This is self-contradictory. I don't think anyone's accused Caro of skipping over things in the historical record to pursue his agenda. If Caro finds LBJ to be despicable, that's LBJ's fault, not Caro's. But there's more to it than that. Johnson through the 1950s was basically a talented, astute version of Mitt Romney, willing to shift and change over time to suit political ambition and fly in the direction of whatever way the wind was blowing at the time, stomping on whomever might have been in the way. The first two and a half books reflect that one-sidedness of LBJ's character. Caro's larger point is that LBJ's sociopathic behavior, however despicable, was the proximate cause of social progress in the 1960s (as well as smaller victories, such as electrification of the Hill Country.) It was LBJ's abdication of power, and delegation to the military, that ultimately caused his downfall over Vietnam. Caro's writing is about as objective as one can get.
posted by moammargaret at 9:11 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


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