Caro meshes well with listeners

By Courtney Bottazzi

Staff Writer

The moment he started to speak, Robert A. Caro exuded easy humor and a personable speaking manner as he shared stories from his career as a journalist, where he began on the complete bottom of the totem pole.

Now a successful biographer, it quickly became apparent why Caro is 2011’s Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters. On Feb. 28, the University had the great honor of hearing from Caro in “Power in the Hands of a Master.”

From such a talented author who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and other prestigious literary awards for his works on Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Moses, Caro’s speech was more like a conversation than a lecture.

“I thought Caro’s speech was really interesting and engaging. I liked how he didn’t talk down to the audience. I was amazed by how much work and detail went into his work to find even the most minute details. The amount of research and problems he had to do as an investigative journalist in his early years was really interesting,” Eric Brod ’13 said.

It was evident that Caro felt most comfortable when he was completely immersed in one of his investigative reporting projects; or, as he put it, one could feel “home amongst the files.” Caro offered much information about his journey in the researching field, recounting times he would never forget such as of finding four pages stuck together cataloging Johnson’s monetary interactions or discovering the contents of a telegraph that serve as tangible proof for a previously unsupported theory.

“There are moments in your life, that you never expect, that end up being really special,” Caro said.

Caro explained how it was the retracing of Johnson’s childhood that provided him with the context to fully understand the President’s motivations and point of view. David Moffat ’12 offered his opinion about Caro’s work on Johnson.

“It’s amazing how comprehensively Caro writes about Johnson’s life. You really get a full picture of a man who would come to such a powerful influence on the course of American history. From his pioneer ancestors to his inability to win fist fights, everything Caro writes about Johnson seems imbued with some greater significance in the story of his life. It’s empowering to imagine that every day the course of history is changed in mundane ways. Caro also immerses the reader in the Texas Hill Country. Before I started reading Caro, I didn’t even know it existed, now I feel like I know it as well as my own hometown,” Moffat said.

In the question-and-answer portion of the event, Caro explained how it was difficult to say how he felt about Johnson as a person.

“I’m not sure if ‘like’ is an applicable term,” Caro said. He decided he was rather “in awe,” a phrase that delicately highlighted the tension of the great leader and his legacy.

“He really illuminated the contradictory nature of Lyndon Johnson: how he was both a manipulative schemer obsessed with power and a genuine campaigner for minorities and the poor,” Moffat said.

When asked whether he was a political genius, Caro denied the claim.

“If someone could do it, I could try to figure it out and explain it,” Caro said.

Throughout his speech, Caro emphasized his search for this next move of political genius.

“I appreciated his broad perspective on today’s presidential campaign. He kept using that term ‘political genius’ to describe LBJ. Clearly we’re not seeing such a thing in today’s candidates. I was surprised how much he hesitated when asked to analyze our present crop of politicians. There’s a real intellectual modesty there, but I guess this hesitation also makes sense when you consider the historian’s stance, in which time and perspective are crucial. Caro was funny, brilliant and generous. An inspiring event,” said Robert Rosenberg, assistant professor of English.

The inspiring investigator recalled advice he had heard in his early career from his mentor at Newsday: “Don’t assume a damn thing, turn every goddamn page.”

Caro’s incredible career can serve as a reminder that regardless of past achievements, one must always approach a project as a student.

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