February 15th, 2019

Quick! Start the Internet Shame Game!!!

We see it almost every week on the interwebs, with someone having possibly done something wrong/stupid and having their name and reputation blasted to smithereens in a nanosecond.

A full investigation and uncovering of facts would come later that might support, or not, or leave ambiguous, the initial onslaught.

Now keep that thought in mind as I turn to an extraordinary piece in The New Yorker by Robert Caro, who wrote the incredible biography of master builder Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and is currently working on a five-book biography of Lyndon Johnson. Four volumes have already been published.

Caro reveals his secrets as to how he gets the good stuff. He starts off with some wisdom he learned at his first job as a reporter, for Newsday:

“Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” 

To those accustomed to forming opinions based on Twitter headlines, this will make you very unhappy.

At the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas there are forty thousand boxes of documents. Forty thousand.

The way things worked, you’d fill out a slip for the boxes you wanted, and in an hour or so an archivist would arrive in the Reading Room wheeling a cart with the boxes on it, and put them on a cart next to your desk, each one landing with an impressively, and depressingly, heavy thud. There was room on the cart for only fifteen boxes, and I always requested more than fifteen, so that when I returned a box and a gap appeared on my cart it would be quickly filled.

Over time he pored through thousands of boxes of raw documents to find out how Johnson was able to rise quickly in power from his position as congressman.

And the same attitude toward turning every page to find out the story went toward interviewing people from Johnson’s hometown in Hill Country west of Austin. He realized that, in talking to them, he really didn’t understand them. There was a cultural divide.

Reporters during Johnson’s presidency went out there they’d stay for a few days, maybe a week, and then leave. Caro decided to stay there for most of three years as he commuted back and forth to the Johnson Library 40 miles away in Austin.

Living there was the best way to win the confidence of Johnson’s old family and friends and to understand Johnson’s youth. Caro does the hard work.

As soon as we moved there, as soon as the people of the Hill Country realized we were there to stay, their attitude toward us softened; they started to talk to me in a different way. I began to hear the details they had not included in the anecdotes they had previously told me, and they told me anecdotes and stories that no one had even mentioned to me before—stories about a Lyndon Johnson very different from the young man who had previously been portrayed: about a very unusual young man, a very brilliant young man, a very ambitious, unscrupulous, and quite ruthless person, disliked and even despised, and, by people who knew him especially well, even beginning to be feared.

Lawyering, or at least good lawyering, is often like that (without the three years of living on site part). It isn’t the shoot first and ask questions later that you might see in Twitter rages against the latest demon of the day. It’s about uncovering as much evidence as you can to see what it reveals.

Go read Caro’s piece. It’s fascinating. Then maybe reevaluate the real relevance of the trashy comments of the day as to what they really mean.

How many of them followed the lesson that Caro learned long ago?

“Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.”