Lyndon Johnson biographer Caro reveals a secret weapon of interviewing

January 30, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Robert Caro’s magisterial four volumes on Lyndon Johnson is, in my view, one of the great works of nonfiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. They will stand for many decades as an amazing work of prose and scholarship.

Volume 4, which covers Johnson’s vice presidency and his taking over the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was published in 2012. His presidency and involvement in the war in Vietnam will be covered in Volume 5. It is eagerly awaited by many, including me.

Meanwhile, Caro has given us a glimpse of his research methods in a long article in the New Yorker — an article that comes close to being as fascinating as the books themselves. The article is wide-ranging, but here is one of the best tidbits.

Caro, who has interviewed hundreds of people who knew something about LBJ, talks about a “secret” that every good interviewer knows. That secret is silence.

In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks.Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s. Source: The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives, by Robert A. Caro | The New Yorker

Caro has been working on his Johnson books since the mid 1970s. He has done everything he could to find out the truth about Johnson — including moving to the Texas hill country with his wife and living there for several years. The article discusses these and other aspects of his research.

Caro’s work is history and journalism of the highest order, and this article is a must-read.

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