Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson - The Passage of Power" (Part I)

GUEST: Robert A. Caro
AIR DATE: 02/09/2013
VTR: 12/13/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and when my guest today joined me at this table for the first time nearly three decades ago, I took particular note then of both Thomas Carlyle’s comment that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that “there is properly no history, only biography”.

Now, whether he would or would not agree with Carlyle and Emerson, I believe that Robert Caro has more than demonstrated their correctness in his own great works: in The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and in his thus-far four volume masterpiece: “The Years of Lyndon Johnson – Volume 1, The Path To Power; Volume 2, Means of Ascent; Volume 3, Master Of The Senate – and now Volume 4, The Passage of Power.

And Robert Caro’s repeated awards: his Pulitzer Prizes, his Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians, his National Book Award, his Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters…and the many other honors my guest has received since he long ago broadened his journalist’s perspectives, only make us all the more eager to embrace what presumably will soon be the final, fifth, volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Meanwhile, today’s program is only the first of a series of Open Mind conversations about Volume 4 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power.

And this time — much to his relief, I’m sure — I’ll not implore my guest once again to hurry up with his next volume out of respect for my advanced years and my great eagerness to know before I pass just what final judgment he will pass on this bigger-than-life American.

For I think I now know … and I wonder if my guest hasn’t been giving much more than hints to his readers all along. Bob, you think you’ve been throwing out more than hints to your readers about your final conclusion about Lyndon Johnson?

CARO: I … no … I don’t think … I, I don’t think I’ve been throwing out hints. I say at the end of this book … you know, which of course, is in many ways about Lyndon Johnson’s finest hour, when he takes over the Presidency … on no notice at all … when Jack Kennedy is assassinated … and has to solve a lot of problems and bring the nation through what could have been a crisis … wasn’t a crisis … more of a crisis because of him … but I say at the end of this book … but this is not the whole story of the Presidency … Vietnam is yet to come. So, if that’s a hint, but it’s also … that’s just the fact.

HEFFNER: To me, I wouldn’t expect you to say anything other … or write anything other than the fact. But I then I realized, Bob, that going through the four volumes over these years and I’ve read them, each one of them … I realize I go up and I go down and I’ve come to the conclusion that Caro is judging Lyndon Johnson in this wonderful even-handed way, saying, as we should say about all men … “that there were good things and there were bad things”.

And I think of that … was it in volume 2 where you said there a stream, a black stream and a red stream that …

CARO: Dark … dark stream and a white stream …yeah …

HEFFNER: Dark stream that runs through every man’s life.

CARO: Yeah, well that’s a great compliment to me. I, I take it as a great complement that you say there are great ups and great downs because I’m … the hardest thing about writing about Lyndon Johnson is that he is a man of such violent contrasts.

You know on the one hand, great compassion, great desire throughout his life to help the poor, particularly poor people of color, coupled with this genius for turning that compassion into legislative achievements.

And on the other hand, this great cruelty …this great greed … this great arrogance that we will see what happens with Vietnam in the volume that I’m working with now.

So when you’re writing about him, as you take each section of his life, you know, you say, “Well, this is just glorious, it’s wonderful, you know.” Then you say, “This is just terrible, it’s horrible”. But it’s my job to portray each as, as it is.

HEFFNER: And your …

CARO: At the time, I’m …

HEFFNER: … at the time.

CARO: … maybe, maybe I’m not being clear.

HEFFNER: No, you’re being very clear, but it seems to me as you put them together, there’s no way of making a good or bad final judgment.

CARO: Well, I’m not, I’m not sure that there is a final …

HEFFNER: You haven’t gotten to that …

CARO: I, I (laugh) … but you, you, you … I’d rather answer it by saying “Look … you know, look what we see in Lyndon Johnson “.

In this book, you know, we see him taking over the Presidency. Here is a man who is, you know … everything goes back to his boyhood. So the first part of this book … is something you say, “All his life he wanted to be President. That’s the thing.”

When he was a boy he was working on this road gang, you know, his family was really poor. They lost the Johnson ranch and for the rest of his boyhood, the family really lived in circumstances where they had to worry every month … was their home … their only remaining home … the one in Johnson City, going to be taken away from them.

So, he was working on this road gang and it’s really … you know, it’s this vast empty Texas hill country. And in the middle of this … in the midst of this hill country, they’re building this road … it’s not a paved road … they don’t have paved roads in the hill country then … from Austin to Fredricksberg.

And there’s a road gang of seven or eight men. And Lyndon Johnson is the youngest … the other’s are really men, in their twenties … Johnson is 17 and 18 years old. And he’s really too skinny to do this work. The older men say, “You know, he was too skinny to do the work”.

Buy at lunch hour when they would gather around the fire in the winter when it was freezing cold and they had to work. Or in the blazing hill country sun. He would tell them that “I’m gong to be President of the United States one day”. And he repeated it all his life. He gets to Washington, he falls in with this group of New Dealers … Abe Fortas, Tommy (The Cork) Corcoran, James Rowe (laugh). He’s telling them, “I’m going to be President”.
And, you know, even, these men, who … you hear a lot of men in Washington say things like that, saw there was something special about him. They believed he was a man of destiny.

But here, in the beginning of this book, we see him make the … he wants to be President all his life … now it’s 1958 … it’s time for him to run for the nomination … the 1960 Democratic nomination. And he doesn’t run. He, he lets Jack Kennedy … this young Senator go around the country and basically take the elect … the nomination away from him.

So we say this volume shows him at the absolute depths when he becomes Vice President to Kennedy’s stripping him of power … I’m going to stop talking …

HEFFNER: I don’t want you to stop.

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I’m fascinated by your talking and your writing.

CARO: Well, they strip him of power. They mock him. They call him “Rufus Cornpone”. You him and Lady Bird … it’s Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop. He’s ridiculed, humiliated and denied power for almost three years. And, and then in an instant, in the crack of a gunshot in Dallas, everything is changed. And he has the power.

And what does he do with it? Great things. So Lyndon … to write about Lyndon Johnson, for me, anyway is really hard because you keep saying “Are you exaggerating on one side, are you exaggerating the other”. You say this was man of very violent contrasts.

HEFFNER: That’s the hint that I was referring …

CARO: (Laugher)

HEFFNER: … not a hint …

CARO: (Laugher)

HEFFNER: … I sudden realized, having read all the volumes thus far … what it was that you were saying and you were saying something that a great historian says, he doesn’t raise to great heights … an individual also has that dark line running through. And that’s when I remembered what you had written … I guess it was in volume two.

CARO: I wrote …

HEFFNER: You mentioned the word here, in the adjectives you use and the other words you use … humiliation.

CARO: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Why did that play such a large role? It’s repeated again and again and again in The Passage of Power.

CARO: Yeah, well, you picked out a very important word, you know.

His boyhood was a time of humiliation … you know a small town can be very cruel. And here you have a small town, Johnson City, that’s cut out, you know, from the rest of the hill country, from the rest of America.

Residents of Johnson City at the time used to call it an island city because it’s a little town, something like 382 people, I think, when Johnson was in high school … that’s cut off by a sea of land … and in winter, when the roads are impassable, they can’t … you can’t really get to any place. It’s very hard to get to Austin in one direction, which is an hour … or San Antonio.

So it’s a little world unto itself. In this world Lyndon Johnson’s father … from the time he’s born until the time he’s, like, 13 years old, is a great figure. He’s the Representative, the Honorable Sam E. Johnson … he’s a populist legislator, he’s respected.

And then in an instant the father makes a mistake … he pays too much to try to buy back the old legendary Johnson ranch … tries desperately to make it pay … and in two years they lose the ranch and he becomes … the father … a figure of ridicule.

You know, there are very … at some barbeque … political barbeques … someone says “Sam Johnson’s a smart man, all right, but he’s got no sense”. And everybody laughs and Lyndon’s standing there next to him, when he realizes … if you write about his boyhood … you could cry writing about his boyhood. He’s the only … they go into the, the drug store where they have the penny candies and everyone of the … other kids take out penny candies and they put it on their father’s bill, but Lyndon can’t because his father hasn’t paid his bill.

So his boyhood is a time of humiliation. And all his life he keeps using that word. “It’ll be a humiliation. If I lose it’ll be a humiliation.”

HEFFNER: Humiliation at the hands perhaps of, of Bobby Kennedy because I wanted to ask you … if we’re holding judgments back … you must have some judgment about Bobby. You, you make your reader feel so about Jack less so perhaps, but because of this hate feud between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy the feeling is just … I mean here in The Passage of Power you think of Bobby as an extraordinary person in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s life.

CARO: Yes. And he’s going to become, you know, in the next volume … I mean the story of the sixties is of Democratic politics and even of some national decisions … hinges a lot on this extraordinary animosity between Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

It’s one of … you know … as a historian you say … one of words … you don’t want to use certain words and one of the words you don’t want to … I don’t want to us … is “hate” … that’s too strong a word.

HEFFNER: But it’s there.

CARO: It is there. Because … I mean … you know … it’s there because it’s not too strong to describe what happens in this book alone between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

HEFFNER: How do you account for it? I mean the, the, the business that you describe so feelingly about that … the offer of the Vice Presidential nomination …

CARO: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … you know, Bob … an aside … I was at Los Angeles for CBS and I went home … I had to go back … and took the “red eye” just after Jack Kennedy was nominated. And I said my prayers that night on the plane … I was praying that Jack Kennedy had the wisdom to pick “cornpone” Lyndon Johnson …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … and he did. Why was there such a fight over it?

CARO: With the brother?

HEFFNER: With the brother.

CARO: Well, you know, you say “why”, you don’t say where … you know, it began and I, as an historian was so lucky to find this out … the first time they met … you know, in this book, as you know, I’m able to describe the first time Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson met. I mean it’s quite a scene. I’m able to …

HEFFNER: It is.

CARO: Johnson has breakfast every morning in, in the Senate cafeteria … Senate dining room which is next door to his office. So the year I, I think is 19 … now I forgot … I think the year is 1953.

Robert Kennedy has just joined the McCarthy … Senate Rackets Committee as a Assistant Counsel. So Senator Joe McCarthy has … in the Senate dining room there’s this large round table right near the cashier. And Joe McCarthy always sits at it with his staffers … right. So in this morning there is four or five staffers there and Senator McCarthy and Lyndon Johnson walks in with two of aides … George Reedy, his Press Secretary and Horace Busby, his Speech writer. And they both described the scene to me.

That Senator McCarthy jumps up as he always does to every one … you know he’s deferential to Johnson … says “Good morning, leader, you know great job you did yesterday, leader, I don’t know how you pulled that off, leader”. And all his staff jumps up and Johnson goes around, they all shake his hand. One of the staffers doesn’t get up. It’s Robert Kennedy. He sits there sort of glaring at the floor.

Well Johnson, you know, in an interpersonal encounter he always is … knows what to do …he’s going to win. He sort of stands there like this … so that Bobby Kennedy has to get up …

HEFFNER: Putting out his hand.

CARO: … and shake his hand. And I asked, you know, these two Johnson aides who witnessed this … Busby and Reedy … well what was the reason for this … you know?

And you say, you know, they gave a number of reasons that Johnson had told stories about Joe Kennedy, Bobby’s father. But they said it wasn’t that. Reedy said to me “Did you ever see two dogs who have never met come into a room and all of a sudden there’s a low growl and the hair stands up on the back of their necks?” He said it was that way whenever they were in a room. These were two men who could not look at each other.

HEFFNER: Your, your description of that is, is wonderful. And I guess I didn’t take seriously enough … though I’ve had the experience of the two dogs in the room … of that sort of visceral response between the two of them. Because it led to this extraordinary lifelong battle.

CARO: And … with, with … and the fight over the Vice Presidential nomination in Los Angeles … which again, you know, is so … three … you know, we don’t know and I say in the book …

HEFFNER: Right. You do say that.

CARO: Robert Kennedy said, you know, that his brother knew what he was doing. He has this wonderful quote, “What do you think my brother took a nap and I went down to try and get his Vice President off the ticket?”

Nonetheless, when you map out the events of this afternoon … do you say … but while Robert Kennedy was making these trips, John F. Kennedy was preparing and giving him statement saying “I select Lyndon Johnson”.

So to hear about that … you know, you try to talk to as many people as you can who were there. And you say, “What was happening that day?”. It’s such a … I mean the night before John F. Kennedy ends Lyndon Johnson’s dream … he takes the nomination away from him … 806 votes to 409.

The next morning at 8:00 o’clock in the morning, the phone rings in Lyndon Johnson’s bedroom. Lady Bird answers and its Jack Kennedy saying he wants to come down and see Lyndon Johnson.

And they make an appointment for 10:00 o’clock in the morning … Johnson gets out of bed and calls three men … he three closest aides … Jim Rowe, who is the old Roosevelt New Dealer, great political insider, John Connelly, who was Johnson’s campaign manager in 1960 … because Johnson said, “He’s the only man tough enough to handle Bobby Kennedy” and Bobby Baker who is Lyndon Johnson’s long time aide in, in the Senate.

And he says “John Kennedy’s coming down at 10:00 o’clock, what do you think he wants.” And, of course, they all say, “He wants to offer you the Vice Presidency”.

And Johnson has them lay out the reasons why he should take it or not take and that he says, “You’re right, I should take it”. And Jack Kennedy comes down and there follows a whole series of things at which nothing definitive is said, but Jack Kennedy comes up and tells everybody “I think he’ll take it”.

Basically I’m over simplifying a lot of pages in the book. “He says he’ll think about it, but it looks like he’s going to take it.”

Robert Kennedy comes down three times … Jack Kennedy’s suite … Lyndon …

HEFFNER: He denied it.

CARO: Oh …

HEFFNER: Didn’t he? Didn’t Bobby deny …

CARO: That …

HEFFNER: … that there was that often a …

CARO: No, no. He … no … I …

HEFFNER: … he’s …

CARO: … I think, I think … there were three trips … there’s a great difference of description in what happened on each trip.

HEFFNER: Right.

CARO: But a number of things there’s no … so Jack … they’re all in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, … Jack Kennedy’s suite is 9334 … Lyndon Johnson’s is two floors below in 7334 … and there’s a back stairs.

And that’s the back stairs that three times that day Robert Kennedy comes down and he meets with … at one point he meets with … Lady Bird says … because Lady Bird is very wise.

And she says basically “Lyndon mustn’t meet with Bobby alone.” And it’s decided … I think the first meeting … it’s been a long time since I wrote this … that he’ll meet with John Connelly and Sam Rayburn.

And at this meeting, according to both Rayburn and, and Connelly … Bobby Kennedy says “You know, you don’t have to be on the ticket, Lyndon, you can become Democratic National Chairman”. To which Rayburn replies with a single word expletive … you know.

HEFFNER: Not on this air, please.

CARO: Not … no, I, I know what show I’m on. (Laughter) I didn’t … you know Rayburn is this mighty … he’s old, you know, and he’s blind … but he’s still a mighty figure, you know.

And in another one of these meetings, Robert Kennedy comes down and meets with Rayburn and says, basically that Lyndon should withdraw. And Sam Rayburn says, “Are you … are you authorized to speak for your brother?” And Robert Kennedy says, “No”.

And Rayburn draws himself up and says, “Then come back and speak to the Speaker of the House when you are.”

And Robert Kennedy basically retreats up the stairs again. And then there’s a third meeting where Robert Kennedy meets with Lyndon Johnson alone and there are two accounts … there are two accounts of this … they’re the only people in the room … are so violently different … that you really don’t know, but you do know that Robert Kennedy was trying to get him to withdraw. And the whole stor … Lyndon Johnson never forgot that day. He never forgot what he calls the humiliation of that day. It was one of the unforgettable, horrible days of his life.

HEFFNER: We’re … you know … this program is going to end in just a few minutes and then we’re going to go one and continue it. So I …I’m not worried about continuity, but here … later you write about the President’s … about JFK’s secretary … Ms. Lincoln … and you’re writing about later on about the matter of JFK then wanting to get rid of Johnson from the ticket coming up for the second election in, in ’64. Could it have been that Jack was playing a game all along, using Bobby as the …

CARO: Well, you know, Dick, I don’t know the answer to that. You know, you don’t really have an answer as to why this happened, you know. Why Jack offered the Vice Presidency …

HEFFNER: Yes.

CARO: … and Robert tried to get Lyndon to withdraw from it. The relationship of the three of them … you know there are scenes in this book that you could hardly believe. You know, and if you didn’t have a number of witnesses to them, you wouldn’t believe them.

I mean when, when Johnson is Vice President … now Robert Kennedy … or the Kennedy’s … you said, “Where do the orders come from” … you know … you’re, you’re, you’re … I don’t know that, you don’t know it. But Robert … everything that Lyndon Johnson did had to be cleared. Every speech that he gave … no matter how minor … had to be cleared. He couldn’t even use a plane to go to a … a government plane … to go to an event unless … basically Robert Kennedy signed off on it … unless someone in the Kennedy … but it was basically Robert …

HEFFNER: Bringing back that word “humiliation”.

CARO: Humil … yes and it was a … you know, it was a humiliation and Johnson is humiliated and he’s driven to, you know, his office is in the Executive Office building.

He’s asked Jack Kennedy to give him an office in the White …

HEFFNER: Again and again he’s asked him … you write.

CARO: … well Kennedy won’t do it. So his office is across the street in the Executive Office building. And often he will go over there … it’s painful even to write about and, as … and I think I’m quoting Horace Busby … “wander around the halls, as if to say, “Here I am, give me something to do”. You know just to make himself visible in the White House.

And there are … so finally, after a couple of years of this, there’s one of the White House dinner dances … one of the few that, that Johnson is really invited to, you know. And when he’s invited, if he’s invited out to Robert Kennedy’s house, which was called Hickory Hill …it’s an old, big white Colonial house in McLean, Virginia … for … every so often Robert Kennedy had to invite him because of protocol considerations. He would always sit him at what was called “The Loser’s table”. And Johnson knew it was the Loser’s Table. So there’s one … so after one White House dinner dance, Robert Kennedy is scrambling eggs, you know, late, late …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

CARO: … in the evening in the White House kitchen and there are people there. And Lyndon Johnson comes up to him and begs … this man who was the greatest Majority Leader, the greatest Parliamentarian in the Western World, the mightiest man in Washington … you know, the most powerful Democrat in the country once … and he says to him, “Why don’t you like me?” … he says, “Your father likes me, your brother likes me, but you don’t like me. Why?”

And Robert Kennedy … you know … one of the witnesses says, you know, this encounter was completely in Robert Kennedy’s hands … meaning he sort of was enjoying it. And he doesn’t answer it and he sort of retreats. And Lyndon Johnson follows him, begging. There are seen after the scene between these two men that you can hardly believe.

HEFFNER: We’re going to … you’re going to sit there and we’re going to pick up when we come back next week. Okay?

CARO: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you, not just to Robert Caro, you in the audience. And I hope you join us again next time, too. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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