Advice to Robert Caro: Turn every page

December 18, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, reporters, reporting.

When Robert Caro began his reporting career for Newsday in New York, an editor gave him a key piece of advice. Caro was working on his first big investigative story and going through lots of files. The editor’s advice: “Turn every page.”

Caro took that advice to heart, and now he is one of the best and most revered reporters/biographers in the world. His multi-volume work on Lyndon Johnson goes beyond magisterial. And he isn’t finished. The latest volume ends with Johnson assuming the presidency in 1963.

In his reporting memoir titled Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Caro tells many fascinating stories of his research. One in particular has to do with a time when “Turn every page” wasn’t good enough.

Much of what had been written about Lyndon Johnson’s early life — especially college years — had been glowing, according to Caro. He was affable and popular when he was a student at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. Or so the stories that Caro read said. The stories that Caro heard, however, were different.

He stole the student council election and blackmailed a girl opposing his candidate to make her drop out of the contest. Those were the stories. The problem, at first, was that Caro could not find anyone to confirm them. And Caro doubled his own problem. He had a self-imposed rule that if there was no documentation, one live source wouldn’t be enough. He had to have at least two.

It took some doing, but Caro finally tracked down a man who confirmed everything he had heard and more.

Now, he needed a second source. He found another of LBJ’s classmates, a woman who consented to speak to him over the phone but whose tone was impatient and acerbic. As he was asking her question, she finally said, “I don’t know why you’re asking these questions. It’s all there in black and white.”

She was referring to the college of annual for 1930, the year Johnson graduated, something which Caro had seen and read thoroughly. He asked her to look at her book and tell him what pages she was referring to. She did, and Caro checked his copy for the pages she named. They weren’t there.

Looking closely, I could see now that they had been cut out, but so carefully, and so close to the spine, perhaps with a razor, that unless you were looking as closely as I was, you wouldn’t notice.

The next day, Caro drove from Austin — where he was living at the time — to San Marcos and found a used bookstore that had copies of the annual. In the first few he looked at, the pages had been excised carefully as they had been in his personal copy. Finally, Caro found a copy that had been missed, and his source was right. The whole story was there “in black and white.” In addition, Caro discovered much more information that was unflattering to Johnson.

It was information that someone went to a lot of trouble to expunge.

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