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.”
[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."
"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."
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.