What I learned from Robert Caro

Robert Caro came to give the Dennis and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture last night. That sponsored lecture allows USC to attract distinguished thinkers on politics and the media.

Caro was so charming in every way–an amazing story-teller, with a lovely New York boy accent–and I loved so much of what he said it’s hard to distill.

For one thing, I love how Caro manages to humanize Lyndon Johnson without romanticizing him. Caro has been able to demonstrate why LBJ is so important to the left–and how effective a political genius he was in accomplishing things for people–like rural Texans–that are normally not the beneficiaries of public policy. And just how ruthless he was in doing so.

The second thing I took away was his incredible patience. It doesn’t seem to bother him that, in his 80s now, he may or may not get to the end of his LBJ project before it’s time for him to exit. And he does seem to have another project in mind–but he refused to answer that question when asked because he’s superstitious. I love this–I really don’t like to discuss nascent work, either, which many people rather treat like a weakness. Well, if Robert Caro can do it, I can, too. I don’t like to talk away ideas before I write them.

In addition to his interest in new projects, he admitted last night that he reads Trollope, which made me squeal with delight. I love Trollope, but whenever I am reading these old, long meandering 19th century novels, there is a nagging person inside my head telling me that I am wasting my time, that nothing these novelists have to say matters to the world, and that, at middle-age, I only have so much reading time left. If a guy in his 80s can spend his free time reading Trollope, and his working time working for 8 years on a biography of roughly 3 months of a man’s life, then I can let time go lightly, too.

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