In 1958, Caro was a restless young reporter for the New Brunswick Daily Home News in New Jersey, the first byproduct of his tenure as managing editor of the Daily Princetonian. In an effort to escape New Brunswick, he sent his resume to a variety of newspapers. Only one answered his call. Newsday, in the early 1960s, was not the first-class paper we know today; it was a smallish daily in Garden City, Long Island. But the paper had a civic-minded, idealistic publisher, Alicia Patterson, who fostered investigative reporting.
Not everyone there was encouraged by Caro’s hiring. In his authorized history of Newsday, Robert Keeler noted that managing editor Alan Hathway “preferred street-wise reporters to eager college boys, and he responded to the hiring of Caro with a grumble.”
Shortly after Caro began, an editor dispatched him to a railroad crossing, just east of the office, to report on a near-accident. “He was so raw,” Keeler wrote, “that he drove to the west instead, and didn’t realize it until he reached Queens.” But Caro would soon demonstrate a gift for both roads and archives. One day he was sent to examine some Federal Aviation Administration documents at what is now the John E Kennedy airport.
Shortly thereafter, Caro was summoned to Hathway’s office, where he expected to be discharged. In Keeler’s account, the crusty old editor proclaimed: “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this. From now on, you do investigative work.”
While at Newsday, Caro developed an interest in New York State Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who was both ubiquitous and elusive in the public mind. During a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1966, Caro decided to undertake a full-length biography of Moses even though Moses’s p.r. man told him at the start that he would have no access to Moses, or to his colleagues and friends. Caro resigned from Newsday, and went ahead and did the research anyway on a paltry advance from his publisher. Still, the Newsday years were crucial to Caro’s development as a writer. “His time as a journalist has helped make him a better historian,” says Pete Hamill, “because he knows how to make the writing vivid, while simultaneously telling a story.” Adds Hamill: “Caro doesn’t bother with the academic babble; it’s as if in his head there’s some old guy from the copy desk looking down at him, and saying: `Uh, Bob, what does this bullshit mean?’”
In May 1967, Moses, impressed by Caro’s tenacity, agreed at last to see him. Caro drove to Moses’s home on the south shore of Long Island, and found him sitting in front of a huge picture window that framed one of many bridges he himself had built. “So,” Moses said with a wide grin, “you’re the young fellow who thinks he’s going to write a book about me.”
Published in 1974, The Power Broker traced Moses’s journey from idealistic reformer to rapacious autocrat. In fifty chapters that totaled more than twelve hundred pages, Caro showed his readers the many achievements of Robert Moses, but also the dark side of his record. In building his expressways, for instance, Moses evicted 250,000 people, a process that, in Caro’s vivid description, destroyed entire neighborhoods and left deep scars on those who were uprooted. Some of the finest pages in The Power Broker contain the firsthand reminiscences of ordinary people crushed by Moses’s ambition. The Power Broker contained sprightly vignettes of numerous individuals, but Caro managed to achieve something even more difficult: he took matters like bond issues, municipal legislation, machine politics, and highway construction, and brought them vividly to life.
For a work that was published in 1974, The Power Broker is very much alive. It has been used in hundreds of colleges, and Cards younger colleagues speak of it with awe. Michael Tomasky, political columnist for New York magazine, considers it “a huge journalistic landmark and model.” “Each chapter was like a short story,” recalls Wayne Barrett, a reporter and editor for The Village Voice. With The Power Broker, which has sold 200,000 copies, Caro did the hardest thing a writer can do: he produced a book that endures, a book that stands in the tradition of Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell.