“Turn Every Page”
People are always asking me why I chose Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson to write about. Well, I must say I never thought of my books as the stories of Moses or Johnson. I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man. From the very start I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times—particularly the force that is political power.
Why political power? Because political power shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in little ways that you might not even think about. For example, when you’re driving up to the Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge in Manhattan in New York, you may notice that the bridge comes down across the East River in Queens opposite 100th Street. So why do you have to drive all the way up from 100th Street to 125th Street to cross it, and then basically drive back, which adds almost three totally unnecessary miles to every journey across the bridge.
Well, the reason is political power. In 1934, Robert Moses was trying to get the Triborough Bridge built, and he couldn’t because there wasn’t enough public or political support for the project. William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of three influential newspapers in New York, owned a block of tenements on 125th Street. Before the Depression, the tenements had been profitable, but now poor people didn’t have jobs, and couldn’t pay their rent. Hearst was losing money on the buildings and he wanted the city to take them off his hands by condemning them for some project. Robert Moses saw that the project could be the Triborough Bridge, and that’s why the bridge entrance is at 125th Street. That’s a small way in which political power affects your life. But there are larger ways, too.
Every time a young man or woman goes to college on a federal education bill passed by Lyndon Johnson, that’s political power. Every time an elderly man or woman, or an impoverished man or woman of any age, gets a doctor’s bill or a hospital bill and sees that it’s been paid by Medicare or Medicaid, that’s political power. Every time a black man or woman is able to walk into a voting booth in the South because of Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, that’s political power. And so, unfortunately, is a young man—58,000 young American men—dying a needless death in Vietnam. That’s
political power. It affects your life in all sorts of ways. My books are an attempt to analyze and explain that power.
When did I start writing? It seems to me that I always wrote. I went to elementary school at Public School 93 in Manhattan. It was on 93rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It had never had a school newspaper, so when I was in the sixth grade I created one. We mimeographed it. I remember I couldn’t get the ink off my hands—I showed up in class with ink all over them.
My mother died when I was eleven, and before she died she told my father that she wanted him to send me to the Horace Mann School. I began there in the seventh grade, and almost immediately I began working on the school newspaper. The paper meant something special. I don’t think we were even conscious of what, but we knew. To this day, I have dinner fairly regularly with guys who worked with me on the Horace Mann Record
I always liked finding out how things work and trying to explain them to people. It was a vague, inchoate feeling—I don’t think of it in terms of, Why do I want to be a reporter? At Princeton, I was the paper’s sportswriter and I had a column, but I found myself writing more about the coach and about how he coached than about how the team was actually doing. I think figuring things out and trying to explain them was always a part of it.
My first job out of Princeton, in 1957, was for a newspaper in New Jersey—the New Brunswick Daily Home News
, “The Voice of the Raritan Valley”—that was very closely tied to the Democratic political machine in New Brunswick. In fact, it was so closely tied to the machine that its chief political
reporter, who was so elderly that he had actually covered the Lindbergh kidnapping in the early Thirties, would be given a leave of absence during the political campaign—that’s the chief political reporter—so that he could write speeches for the Democratic organization. This reporter suffered a minor heart attack shortly after I got there, so someone else was going to have to write the speeches, and he wanted it to be someone who would pose no threat to his getting the job back later, so he picked this kid from Princeton, and I found myself working for the political boss of New Brunswick, this tough old guy.
For some reason, he took a shine to me. My salary at the paper was fifty-two dollars a week. No specific salary was mentioned when I went to work for him, but every time he liked a speech I wrote he would pull out a wad of fifty-dollar bills and hundred-dollar bills and peel off what seemed like quite a few and give them to me. I was happy with that aspect of the job, but then came Election Day.
He brought me along to ride the polls with him, which meant going from polling place to polling place to make sure that everything was proceeding as it should. But on this particular day the driver of his limousine wasn’t the regular driver. The driver had been replaced by a police captain.
I didn’t understand why, but as we got to each polling place a policeman would come over to the car, and the captain and my employer would roll down their windows, and the boss would ask how things were going. Usually the answer was everything is “under control.” But at one polling place, the policeman said they had had some trouble, but they were taking care of it. And then I saw that there was a group of African-American demonstrators, neatly dressed men and women, mostly young, who had obviously been protesting something that was going on at the polls. And as I watched, police paddy wagons pulled up. There was one there already. And the police were herding the protesters into the paddy wagons, nudging them along with their nightsticks.
The thing that got me when I thought about this in later years—what it was that really hit me—was the meekness of these people; their acceptance, as if this was the sort of thing they expected, that happened to them all the time. All of a sudden I didn’t want to be in that big car with the boss. I just wanted to get out.
As I remember it, I didn’t say a word. The next time we pulled up to a traffic light, I just opened the door and got out. The boss didn’t say a word to me. I think he must have understood. Anyway, I never heard from him again.
But I had realized that I—Bob Caro—wanted to be out there with the protesters.
Not long after that, I decided that if I wanted to keep on being a reporter, I needed—for myself—to work for a paper that fought for things. Why? I couldn’t explain it then, and I can’t explain it now. But it had to do with that Election Day. With the protesters. With the cops nudging them along with the nightsticks. I had gotten so angry!
So I looked around for a newspaper that fought for causes. There were several at the time, and I wrote letters to all of them asking for a job. It took a while, but I got an offer from Newsday on Long Island—a real crusading paper then—and in 1959 I went to work for them.Newsday
had a managing editor named Alan Hathway, who was an old-time newspaperman from the 1920s. 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 monk-like 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. They hired me as a joke on him while he was on vacation. He was so angry that I was 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. When I had been working on the New Brunswick paper, Ina and I had been living in a garden apartment in Edison, New Jersey, with our baby son, Chase, and we hadn’t yet moved to Long Island. I had told Ina we’d better not move; I was probably going to get fired. I drove back and forth to work every day.Newsday
then did not publish on Sundays, so as low man on the totem pole, I worked Saturday afternoons and nights, because if a story came in then, I could put the information in a memo and leave the actual writing of the story to the real reporters who came in Sunday, and would do the writing for the Monday paper. The last of the other reporters and editors would leave about noon on Saturday; for the rest of the day and the evening, I would be alone in the vast, cluttered Newsday
city room, empty but not silent with the constant ringing of the telephones lined up on the city desk and the ceaseless clatter of the wire machines.
Late one Saturday afternoon, a telephone on the city desk rang, and when I picked it up, it was an official of the Federal Aviation Agency, calling from his office at what was then, because John F. Kennedy hadn’t yet been assassinated, Idlewild Airport. Newsday
had been doing a series of articles on Mitchel Field, a big Air Force base in the middle of Long Island’s Nassau County, that the military was giving up. Its twelve hundred acres were the last large open space in the county, so what happened to it was important. The FAA was in the process of ruling that it should become a civilian airport. Newsday
, however, felt that it should be used instead for public purposes, in particular for education, to allow Hofstra University to expand, and to create a campus for Nassau County Community College, the only public higher education available on Long Island, which was then being housed in temporary quarters in the County Courthouse in Mineola that were already too crowded to accommodate the students, many from the large low-income community in nearby Hempstead, who wanted a college degree. Public education for the poor, free public education: that was something worth fighting for.
I hadn’t been working on any of the Mitchel Field stories. But on this Saturday, suddenly this guy from the FAA was on the phone, and he says something like, “I really like what you guys are doing on Mitchel Field, and I’m here alone in the FAA building, and if you send someone down here, I know what files you should be looking at, and he can look at them.”
I was alone, the only person in the city room. This happened to be the day of the big Newsday
annual summer picnic on the beach at Fire Island. Just about everyone else had gone, except me. None of them had a cell phone, of course, since there were no cell phones then. I called the editor who was my immediate superior, and then his superior, without being able to reach them. When, after many calls, I finally did reach an editor, he told me to call the paper’s great investigative reporter, Bob Greene, and have him go down to Idlewild, but Greene wasn’t reachable, either, and neither were the other reporters I was told to call. Finally the editor told me that I would have to go myself.
I will never forget that night. It was the first time I had ever gone through files. The official met me at the front door and led me to a room with a conference table in the middle of it, and, on the table, high stacks of file folders. And, somehow, in a strange way, sitting there going through them, I felt at home. As I went through the memos and the letters and the minutes of meetings I could see a pattern emerging of the real reason why the agency wanted the field to become a civilian airport: because executives of corporations with offices on Long Island, who seemed to be quite friendly with FAA officials, wanted to be able to fly in and out of Long Island in their private planes without having the inconvenience of driving to Idlewild or LaGuardia Airports. I kept looking for a piece of paper on which someone came right out and said that, but I didn’t find one; everything I could find on paper talked around that point. But between all the pieces of paper, I found sentences and paragraphs that, taken together, made the point clear. I found enough to demonstrate that.
There are certain moments in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files, making them yield up their secrets to me. And here was a particular and fascinating secret: that these corporate executives were persuading a government agency to save them some driving time at the expense of a poor kid getting an education and a better chance in life. Each discovery I made that helped to prove that was a thrill. I don’t know why raw files affect me that way. In part, perhaps, because they are closer to reality, to genuineness. Not filtered, cleaned up, through press releases or, years later, in books. I worked all night, but I didn’t notice the passing of time. When I finished and left the building on Sunday, the sun was coming up, and that was a surprise. I went back to the office and before driving home, I wrote a memo on what I had found.
Early Monday morning, my day off, the phone rang, and it was Alan’s secretary, June Blom. Alan wanted to see me right away, she said. I said, “I’m in New Jersey.”
“Well, he wants to see you just as soon as you can get here.” I told Ina, with what I suppose was a wry smile, that we had been right not to move. I drove to Newsday that morning sure every mile of the way that I was about to be fired.
I ran into June 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 what he was reading 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 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 goddamned page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.
Copyright © 2019 by Robert A. Caro. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.