September 19, 2011

Historian Robert A. Caro

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Editor's note: WVIA will air the talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert A. Caro, who spoke at Bucknell University on Feb. 28, on several dates including Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 7, at 10 p.m.; Sunday, April 8, at 2 p.m.; Monday, April 9, at 7 p.m.; Sunday, April 15, at 3 p.m.; and Sunday, April 22, at 5 p.m. Check local listings.

By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Historian Robert A. Caro, author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Moses, has been named the 2011 Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters at Bucknell University.

Caro will give the talk, "Power in the Hands of a Master," on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell. The event will be free and open to the public.

"Robert Caro is a standard-setter for other political historians," Bucknell President John Bravman said.

"As the presidential election year begins, we will look forward to hearing from a writer with Mr. Caro's extraordinary life of insights into the presidency, government and American decision-making."

Award-winning historian
Caro won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his books on New York urban planner Robert Moses and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Twice winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, Caro has won numerous other major literary honors, including the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best "exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist."

Born in 1935, Caro graduated from the Horace Mann School in 1953. In 1957, he received a degree in English from Princeton University, where he served as managing editor of The Daily Princetonian. He was a Carnegie Fellow at Columbia University and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

Caro began his professional career as a reporter with the New Brunswick Daily Home News (now merged into the Home News Tribune) in New Jersey. He also spent six years as an investigative reporter with the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper Newsday.

In 2007, he was named a Holtzbrinck Distinguished Visitor at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany. On Feb. 25, 2010, President Barack Obama awarded him the nation's highest award in the humanities, the National Humanities Medal, saying, "I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I'm sure it helped to shape how I think about politics." On April 10, 2010, Caro was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.

The Power Broker
Caro's first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, examines one man's accumulation of power through the past half-century.

Moses developed his public authorities into an unofficial fourth branch of government whose records of public works — bridges, tunnels, freeways, playgrounds and housing projects as well as two World Fairs — cost 27 billion dollars but were closed to the public. He wrote legislation that cemented his power, controlled the entire huge flow of federal funds to agencies he ran, and dominated the politics and politicians of his time, without ever having been elected to any office. He held power in the state for 44 years, through the governorships of Smith, Roosevelt, Lehman, Dewey, Harriman and Rockefeller, and in the city for 34 years, through the mayoralties of La Guardia, O'Dwyer, Impellitteri, Wagner and Lindsay.

Acclaimed as a modern classic, The Power Broker was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century. David Halberstam called it, "Surely the greatest book ever written about a city." The New York Times Book Review said, "In the future, the scholar who writes the history of American cities in the 20th century will doubtless begin with this extraordinary effort."

Essence of power
In an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Caro said of The Power Broker: "When I was starting to do The Power Broker, I realized that I wanted to do something very different with biography than what I felt biographies had been doing before. I came to see that I wasn't really interested in writing a biography to tell the story of a famous man. ... I was interested in political power because in a democracy, political power shapes all our lives.

" ... I felt that if I could somehow manage to find out the sources of Moses' power, if I could find out what his power consisted of, and how he got it and how he used it, I would be explaining something that needed explaining: not the theoretical, political science course, version of power, but the reality of power, its true essence."

The Years of LBJ
The volumes of Caro's Lyndon B. Johnson biography were developed through research and interviews in Texas and Washington, D.C., often with people never before interviewed and files previously unseen.

The first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, covers Johnson's childhood through his 1941 Senate campaign. It was cited by The Washington Post as "proof that we live in a great age of biography ...  [a book] of radiant excellence ... Caro's evocation of the Texas Hill Country, his elaboration of Johnson's unsleeping ambition, his understanding of how politics actually work, are — let it be said flat out — at the summit of American historical writing."

Henry F. Graff of Columbia University called the second volume, Means of Ascent, "brilliant. No review does justice to the drama of the story Caro is telling, which is nothing less than how present-day politics was born." Means of Ascent continues Johnson's biography through his 1948 Senate election.

The third volume, Master of the Senate, examines Johnson's career in the Senate through his election as John F. Kennedy's vice president. It was hailed by The London Times as "a masterpiece ... Robert Caro has written one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age."

Caro's fourth volume of his five-volume biography of Johnson, The Passage of Power, is to be published in May.

Weis Award
Bucknell established the annual Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters in 2002 to honor and recognize individuals who represent the highest level of achievement in the craft of writing within the realms of fiction, non-fiction or biography. Previous recipients have been Edward Albee, John Edgar Wideman, David McCullough, Derek Walcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, and Toni Morrison.

The Weis Fellowship was established through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of Janet Weis, an author, civic leader and philanthropist as well as trustee emerita of the University. Her husband, Sigfried Weis, was chair of the Bucknell Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1988.

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