Robert Caro discusses his latest installment on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.
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GUEST: Robert A. Caro
AIR DATE: 02/16/2013
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and this is the second in our series of programs with prize-winning historian-biographer Robert Caro about “The Passage of Power”, the fourth volume of his triumphant “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”.
Bob, I primed my audience, our audience last time to the fact that we were going to continue where we left off, and we were talking about the experience that Johnson had in … with Bobby Kennedy, a demeaning series of experiences. How do you explain what you indicate in the book that Jack sort of was … I forget exactly what words you use to describe … I think you used the word “fond” that he presumably was “fond” of “cornpone”.
CARO: Well, I used the word “presumably” … I mean, he said, you know …
HEFFNER: And you doubt it?
CARO: Well, you don’t know … during the three … almost three years that Lyndon Johnson was John F. Kennedy’s Vice President … it was three years of constant humiliation at the hands of … quote … “the Kennedy Administration”.
Certainly the prime mover, the guy who actually interacted with Johnson and, and did the humiliation is Robert Kennedy.
But you don’t really know whether he was acting, you know, for himself, or acting for his brother. In a very, sort of astute comment Richard Goodwin describes a scene that he witnessed where … not involving Johnson, where he realized that Robert Kennedy was bawling and you know, he could be a ferocious person in conversation … was really bawling out another member of the Kennedy Administration and Goodwin says, “Watching Jack Kennedy sit there and watch this … you suddenly … he’s … Goodwin says, “I suddenly realized that Robert was carrying out what Jack wanted. So I don’t pretend to know, you know, to what extent …
You know, Jack Kennedy … there, there were scenes where in this, in this book where Jack Kennedy, you know, is, is … is doing things you could hardly believe.
You know, there’s a … there’s a scene where Johnson is going off to Scandinavia and he … Jack Kennedy is up at Hyannis Port and Johnson says, “I just need to see him for a few minutes …”
You know, it’s quite remarkable … he … I, I forget the amount … he’s hardly ever alone with the President. In the first year, let’s say … if I have this right … he spends 12 hours alone … in an entire year with the President. The second year the figure is much smaller. The third year he’s hardly alone with him … I think it, it may be … I may be right in this, he has one hour and 19 minutes alone with Jack Kennedy.
So you say, “What was going on there?” You know, you don’t really know. What you really know is the fact that the Kennedy Administration has, as its Vice President, the greatest master of the Senate who ever lived. The only man who, since, since Webster … the days of Webster, Clay and Calhoun … who made the Senate work.
The Kennedy legislative program is completely bogged down, its going nowhere on a number of fronts … a tax cut bill that was desperately needed, Civil Rights Bill that’s desperately need. And they won’t use Lyndon Johnson in the Senate.
So, you say, “What’s the explanation for all this?” All you can really do is lay out what happened.”
HEFFNER: And what happened includes instances that you describe so well … in which the President sort of puts down the Vice President.
CARO: Keeps him on, you know, very short lease, you know. It has a very … it keeps him … has a very small staff.
HEFFNER: Is there any indication that there was someone else in the wings for the Vice Presidency … had Kennedy lived?
CARO: Well, well … Kennedy’s … you know that’s a very interesting question because if you had Arthur Schlesinger here or Ken Soros in here … they … or a number of other members of the Kennedy Administration … they would say there was never any doubt that Jack Kennedy was going to keep him.
He never said one word to indicate that Lyndon Johnson was going to be the Vice President. However, I will say that during the entire time that Jack Kennedy was running for the nomination … and at the Democratic Convention … there was never one word that he was going to pick Lyndon Johnson and put him on the ticket until he put him on the ticket.
So this time, is it really conclusive that there wasn’t one word? However, his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, his long time secretary says there was, indeed, such a word and he, he basically said the exact quote’s in the book … “I don’t know who the Vice Presidential candidate is going to be, but it’s not going to be Lyndon”. And …
HEFFNER: Now, you … let me interrupt
HEFFNER: … because it’s so interesting. You comment on that by pointing out that the people … the President’s … isn’t that weird, when I say “The President’s … I think of Jack Kennedy …
HEFFNER: … that President Kennedy’s closest people, the ones who were always most sympathetic with and to him, changed their minds about their descriptions of Evelyn Lincoln, how reliable she was … after she said that Jack Kennedy …
HEFFNER: … had indicated that fairly clearly that Lyndon Johnson might well be replaced.
CARO: Yes. After her book was published … I was talking … and, and, and their descriptions of her before and after … you know, before she was his trusted, you know, secretary … afterwards … you know, oh, why would … the President would never say anything like that to her.
You know, it’s … you don’t always know … in these convoluted personal things … you don’t always know.
Why did Jack Kennedy take him as a Vice Pre … select him as Vice Presidential candidate? ‘Cause he knew he couldn’t win without Texas? More than that, he knew he couldn’t win without Southern states.
You know Eisenhower had taken … I believe six of the 11 Southern states. He had to take some of them back … Kennedy … he counted electoral votes.
So early the next morning … Jack Kennedy calls his brother and his brother makes a call to his brother and his brother calls in Pierre Salinger and Kenny O’Donnell who … and, and he says to them …”Count up how many electoral votes we have if you take all the big Northern industrial states, which Kennedy knew he was going to take anyway and add Texas to them.
And they say to him, “You don’t mean he’s thinking of putting Lyndon Johnson on the ticket?”
CARO: I mean they are astounded. You have to believe Robert Kennedy was astounded. So when you’re … up to that moment everybody would have said there was no chance that Johnson would be put on the ticket and certainly there was no clue from Jack Kennedy.
So all I can really say about 1964 … is a number of things that, if you’re looking for an answer to that question are quite startling.
You know when Jack Kennedy goes to Dallas … to Texas in November, 1963 … he doesn’t plan the trip with his Vice President, who is the … supposedly the leading political figure in Texas.
He plans it with John Connelly … one of the … you talk about humiliations … one of the … you, you cringe writing about it … John Connelly is Lyndon Johnson’s closest aide. When he was a kid … you know in the 1940’s and ‘50’s … John Connelly is his Administrative Aide, he’s the guy who will do anything for Lyndon Johnson.
Now he’s become Governor of Texas. Jack Kennedy calls him to Washington …I think it’s in Octo … well, it’s just a few months before … I forget the months … before the Texas trip in 1963. He doesn’t invite Lyndon Johnson to the meeting. It’s … the only person from Texas is John Connelly and that’s how … where they lay out the final cities that he’s going to go to, etc.
That night … Lyndon Johnson has heard John Connelly is coming to Washington, he doesn’t know he’s seeing Kennedy. So he’s invited John Connelly, as he always does … to his house for dinner.
That day Lyndon Johnson finds out that his … that John Connelly is meeting alone with Jack Kennedy about the trip to his state … Lyndon Johnson.
John Connelly shows up … and how do I know this? John Connelly … you know I remember … had four days … wonderful days of interviewing John Connelly … literally from … just after dawn to late at night down at his ranch in, in South Texas. And we would sit sometimes … he had then a stable of quarter horses and the Mexican vaqueros would be exercising them in the morning. So he’d come over and wake me up at something like six or six-thirty … and we’d go sometimes … they would have little lawn chairs, whatever you want to call them … to watch the horses work out.
Sometimes we’d sit on the top rail of the fence. And I said … so John Connelly described to me how … when he came to Lyndon’s house that evening … Lyndon said, “You thought I didn’t know you were with the President. You thought I didn’t care about Texas?”
And John Connelly says, “No, no … I, I knew you cared”. And I said, “Well, what was Lyndon Johnson’s attitude?”
And he said, “Irritated”. And I said, with a question … “Irritated?” And there was a long pause and John Connelly said, “Hurt”.
And, ahmm, these things happened … you know there are a number of things that happened in the last months running up to Jack Kennedy’s trip to Texas, which really you could put down on the side of the ledger and say “No he was thinking about somebody else in 1964.”
The same time you could put things on the other side of the ledger and say, “No, he’s … you know, among them he says … whenever he’s asked, he says, “Definitely, I will have Lyndon Johnson on the ticket.”
HEFFNER: What did your researches lead you to feel … think … conclude … about the brothers? The Kennedy brothers, those two … Jack and Bobby?
CARO: Well, Jack I don’t pretend … you know I’m not his biographer … I mean in this book, you know, I tried to show him … I didn’t feel that America remembered the true heroism of what he did in what we call the PT-109 incident. Where … I mean … I, I thought … myself that the more I went into Jack Kennedy … the more it was a tale of physical and moral heroism that I, although I had read so much about Kennedy … didn’t fully appreciate.
Part of it was the constant physical disease. We know now he had Addison’s Disease … but nobody knew it, no one knew how to treat it, when he was growing up.
He was, time after time, I think twice he received the last rights from the Catholic Church. He had this horribly bad back … just horrible … terrible bad back. It may have been because they were giving him injections which in layman’s terms “rotted away the cushioning behind the vertebra … between the vertebra and the spine”.
But he was in constant pain. You know what he selects as his sea duty? His father doesn’t want him to go and he could easily have been exempted … he selects patrol-torpedo boats which are called “the bucking bronco’s of the sea” because they’re bouncing like this (makes a gesture) … every bounce is agony.
He had to sleep on a board or on the floor every night. And he takes this PT boat into battle, it’s sliced in two by a destroyer. And the story which I can’t … of how he … what he does to organize his surviving men and to keep them together and to enable them to be rescued is to me … I said what a story of heroism.
Of course it rests largely on the original article by John Hersey in the New Yorker where he actually found, you know, the men on the boat.
HEFFNER: So loyal, to …
CARO: Oh, loyal … well, the thing that got me is then Jack Kennedy refuses to come back to the United States and he gets command of another PT boat. And he has to get a new crew and he looks up … he’s outfitting the boat and there are four or five members of the old crew and they said, “Why didn’t you pick us … we want, we want to sail with you again”.
So I thought the story of Jack Kennedy, I thought, you know it’s part of the story … I mean of this time. I mean all my books are supposed to be … I tried to make them be more than just the story of Lyndon Johnson.
You have to understand Jack Kennedy. So you have on the one hand this great heroism … you have this guy who’s so shy … he’s really afraid … he’s a terrible public speaker … you know, and he’s … his brother is killed … he’s thrown into running … his father demands, he throws him into running for the Congressional seat.
And his father … I’m forgetting who said … but there’s quotes in here … the father is watching Jack Kennedy, who’s so skinny … you cannot … you know, he’s so skinny from Addison’s disease … he’s yellow … you know, he’s yellow skinned …going up to a bunch of longshoremen … making him go up and say “I’m Jack Kennedy, I’m running for Congress”.
And the father says “I never thought I would ever see anything like that. I never thought he could do it.”
So Jack Kennedy as a, as speech maker, he rallies America, he inspires … you know, “Ask not what your country can do …” he inspires the country to its best instincts. That’s part of what being a President is.
But as a legislator, passing laws … getting Congress to pass laws … there he’s not so good.
HEFFNER: You know, you talk that way about Jack. Now you’re written so much about Bobby …and you have …
HEFFNER: What’s your bottom line? How do you sum up?
CARO: Well, I don’t have a bottom line …
HEFFNER: I …
HEFFNER: … doggone it.
HEFFNER: Bob, we, we really should argue that one out. You say the facts will speak for themselves. Only the facts. You want to present the facts, then your reader will come to her or his own conclusion. Haven’t you?
CARO: Well, I would say that, you know, the Robert Kennedy in this book is a Robert Kennedy who changes, do you know. There are two separate chapters on Robert Kennedy … two separate sections on Robert Kennedy.
One is, you could say, the early Robert Kennedy … who is … works for the McCarthy Committee … works for the rackets committee … is a simply ruthless interrogator, you know, of hoodlums and labor bosses. And really when that Kennedy is running for the Presidency … you know … you say Lyndon Johnson finally wakes up.
Robert Kennedy has gone out to the West. Now Lyndon Johnson suddenly realizes he doesn’t have the West any more. Why doesn’t he have the West? He’s done so much for the West … he thought he had … I think it was 172 electoral votes … he thought he … convention votes.
They said, “Well Bobby Kennedy’s been out here and Bobby’s put the bridle on (these delegates) and when Bobby puts the bridle on, nobody takes it off.” So you have a very tough carrot.
Then you have … a chapter just before the end of the book. Which is called something like “The defeat of … it has the word “despair” … I forget the title, where you see Robert Kennedy … people say … everyone I had talked to, you know, said he changed.
Now, you, you know, you really … you know … he himself says, he starts to change before his brother’s death … in the Cuban Missile Crisis … he is, you know, everyone … among his characteristics were this black and white view of the world. And Russia was black.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis with all … most of the other voices around the table are calling for an immediate attack on Cuba, you know.
So Robert Kennedy, over and over again, who draws them back, who says “Can’t we wait one more day?” in one instance.
And then after his brother’s death everybody says he changed. And I find, you know, just in the brief time after the assassination that is covered in this volume, yes, he changed.
He does things that you say “There’s something in him that, that very few people have.” I mean there’s a scene in this book where … so the assassination is November 22nd and in December every year he has gone to this Black orphanage for a Christmas party with his aides … and he goes there this year.
And a little Black boy, I think I say the age is 5 or 6 years old or 7 years old, runs up to him in front everybody and says, “Your brother is dead. Your brother is dead”.
And one of the people who was with him … actually my friend Peter Maas the journalist said, there wasn’t any place in the world any of us wouldn’t have rather been that moment. But Robert Kennedy doesn’t even hesitate … he scoops up the boy and says, “That’s all right, I’ve got another brother.” He finds the right words to say to people in a number of instances. So he’s changing. And as, as to what he evolves into I’ll have to (laugh) say … “Let me write it”, it’s in the next book. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: As I say, doggone it, I know that I’m going get that. What about the assassination? I, I gather you’re … you want to put aside because you find no, no indication whatsoever that there was any involvement on Lyndon Johnson’s part in the assassination.
CARO: That’s correct. That’s correct. No … not even … no hint of that.
HEFFNER: Why do you think that continues to plague us?
CARO: Well, it certainly does continue to plague us. I can only say that in all the years (cough) … excuse me … that I’ve been working on Lyndon Johnson … interviewing people and going through papers … I’ve never found the slightest hint that I could follow anywhere that would lead me to believe that Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.
HEFFNER: And you won’t hypothesize on why that … I don’t know that it’s paranoid … but that that notion continues …
CARO: Well, people say “Well, who, who benefits … certainly, you know, who benefited from the assassination?”
CARO: Lyndon Johnson … he became President. That’s probably a big reason. Second reason I think, which is behind a lot of these conspiracies … which is … it is an industry in America, you know. Is that we don’t want to believe that one person … I don’t want to say “nut”, unbalanced person … could change the world like Lee Harvey Oswald did.
I mean you know America is a very different place. I mean part of the thing that I have to show in the … I started, I hope, to show in “The Passage of Power” and I hope … have to show in the next book … if it’s going to be … achieve what I want … is that America is very different place on November 22nd, 1963 when Kennedy is assassinated than it is when Lyndon Johnson leaves office at the end of ’68, the beginning of ’69.
So one shot, you know, one, one gunman rather … so people … I, I can’t … you know, I’ve constantly … people … I’m assaulted by (laughter) the conspiracy people who are angry that I don’t find the conspiracy.
Well, I found no hint that Lyndon Johnson has anything to do with it … I have nothing else to say about it, actually.
HEFFNER: You, you, you put it very succinctly, very directly and I, I was not surprised, but I was … I guess I say delighted that you were willing to state what people were waiting to hear you …
HEFFNER: … make a comment about one way or another.
HEFFNER: You, you make the point that those seven weeks from the assassination until Lyndon Johnson spoke … I guess it was the State of the Union address …
HEFFNER: … were incredibly transformative years for him. What do you think that they brought out … who he’d been all along?
CARO: Oh, I think that … you know, one thing that I say is that power reveals. When a person has enough power to do what he wants to do, then you know what he’s wanted to do all along.
With Lyndon Johnson, we see what he does in these first seven weeks …that he picks up the civil rights (cough) … excuse me … Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill which is absolutely stalled. You cannot look at Congress as it was … and the status of the Civil Right Bill. I mean it’s not even in the Senate yet. You know it is mired in the House Rules Committee whose chairman Judge Howard W. Smith of Virginia … he won’t even tell them when he’s going to have hearings on the bill. You know it’s not even into the Senate where the filibuster is.
But I remember, you know, when Lyndon Johnson was 21 or 22 years old … or 20 years old, I think, actually and he’s a college student and he’s poor … and he has to drop out of school for a year to earn money to go on. And he teaches at what they called “the Mexican school” in Patula, Texas and I wrote about that incident in Volume 1.
I summed it up by saying, “No teacher had ever care if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared.”
And not only … I mean he felt it was very important that they learn to speak English, so he would spank the boys and tongue-lash the girls if he caught them speaking Spanish.
But you could say that was just an example of Lyndon Johnson doing the best job he could in whatever job he had … which was a characteristic of Lyndon Johnson. He was a teacher.
But he also taught the janitor … the janitor’s name was Tomas Caranaro … and Caranaro says that Johnson wanted him to learn English so he bought him a text book and every day before school and after school they would sit on the steps of the school and Caranaro said with a textbook and he said, “Johnson would pronounce, I would repeat … Johnson would spell, I would repeat”. So I thought Johnson always wanted to help.
Now in this book, three or four night after he becomes President, he’s got to give his first speech to the joint session of Congress and his advisors are sitting around the kitchen table in his home, he’s not yet in the White House … and they’re saying “Don’t press for civil rights … lost cause”. And he said, “Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?”
HEFFNER: Which is a good point to end this program … pick it up on our next one if you’re game and can continue to go. Bob Caro, thanks for joining me today on The Open Mind.
CARO: Pleasure to be here, as always.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. 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.