Robert Caro discusses his latest installment on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.
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GUEST: Robert A. Caro
AIR DATE: 02/23/2013
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind and this is the third 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”.
You know, Bob, I’m so glad we could do these program seriatim and I’m glad we can talk together this way. There’s so many things that come up in reading a massive, massive book such as your own.
Massive, but so entertaining, so compelling. I don’t know that you believed me when I told you that several times Elaine came in the room when I was reading it and found me crying, because it is so wonderfully evocative of my life … the things that I remember.
One of the things that I’ve wanted to ask you about … ah, there’s so many more I want to ask you about. The Congress then because you make such reference to the relationship between Johnson’s successes and the nature of the Congress of the United States.
But one of the things I wanted ask you, too, was about Bobby Baker …
HEFFNER: … and about … that name … that probably not known …
HEFFNER: … to most of the people who are watching us today. But how do you … how do you deal with Bobby Baker in your evaluation of Lyndon Johnson? In your description of the role he played.
CARO: Well, you know, it’s not remembered today, but the Bobby Baker scandal was the great scandal of 1963. He was Lyndon Johnson’s protégé … Johnson had raised him to the Secretary to the Senate Majority, and in 1963 … this huge scandal erupted involving call girls, campaign pay-offs … just about anything, you know … I’m not sure I can remember all the other things now.
But he was on the cover of every magazine. And Johnson, you know … said … “I … he wasn’t my protégé”, you know.
HEFFNER: But he was.
CARO: Yes. And at the moment that President Kennedy’s motorcade was winding through Dallas, at that very moment the witness … there hasn’t been … it’s been the Bobby Baker scandal. There have been a lot of hints bringing it closer and closer to Lyndon Johnson.
But it hasn’t really … the link has not been made. But at the very moment that the motorcade is winding its way through Dallas, Bobby Baker … ah, a witness is testifying … is, is appearing in a small room in the Senate Office Building, before investigators from the Senate Rules Committee.
And he’s pushing across the table to them … the documents … cancelled checks and invoices that will tie Lyndon Johnson to the Bobby Baker scandal. And that’s happening at the same time that the motorcade is going through, through Dallas.
Then, of course, with the assassination … the investigation is cut off for a while. It’s going to come back again in, in the next book.
HEFFNER: Doggone it … again … the next book.
HEFFNER: Ah, because I read there, I read not only about what was going on in that room in the Congress as the papers are being …
HEFFNER: … passed across. And I gather at one point when the word comes through … the lawyer reaches out to take back the …
HEFFNER: … papers, but can’t get them.
CARO: He said, “He’s President of the United States, you won’t want these” and this Senate Investigators says, basically, “Yes, we will, they belong to the Senate Rules Committee now.”
HEFFNER: What was Time magazine about to …
CARO: Life magazine.
HEFFNER: Life magazine.
CARO: Well, Life magazine … you know all these things were converging on Lyndon Johnson. Among the incredible drama … you say … what … you know … why is so much happening. This … why is the book really going into these … you say, “Not only was the Bobby Baker thing about to explode … at that, that very day, you know.
Life magazine had had … I believe the number is nine reporters investigating Lyndon Johnson’s finances. You know when Lyndon Johnson was young, he was very poor … and he’s now amassed a great fortune. And Life magazine has been looking into what they called the story of Lyndon’s money.
And, in fact, the first story in that series has been written and is about to run in the magazine. And they’re having a meeting in … and they want to expand the investigation further.
So in the Time Life building in New York, in the office of the Managing Editor, there are a group of reporters and editors gathering to divide up the areas that Life is going to look into of Lyndon Johnson’s finances in more detail. They’re going to send … the reporters have been in Texas, they found a lot … now they’re dividing … going to divide up, for further investigation … when a secretary runs into the room and says, “The President’s been shot” and of course, they all run back to their desks. And … there’s no room in the magazine for this story.
They are going to run, nine months later, in August of 1964, there are going to be two articles on Lyndon Johnson’s finances, which will show that he’s become a millionaire.
The other … I mean, the, the lawyer that you’re talking about is … in the Senate Rules Committee … is pushing these documents … the invoices and cancelled checks which tie Johnson to Baker … across the table.
Nobody remembers that they’re meeting in this room in the Senate Office Building, so they don’t know what happens until 2:30 that afternoon. I mean it’s really something to … I mean I’m reading the testimony, this has never … no one’s ever written about this.
And I didn’t know … you know, I knew about the Bobby Baker investigation and I’m reading all the later transcripts from 1964 and someone’s questioning this witness, a man named … a Senator in open session … is now questioning this witness, Don B. Reynolds.
And he says, “You know something … so you were testifying all day?” And I said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean all day? What day?” And you look back and it was November 22nd, 1963 and then you look to find out when, when the … when the … it isn’t testimony, but when the … when he started talking to the investigators … it was 10:30 in the morning and you could date about when this was …
This was all happening … Lyndon Johnson’s career was about to enter its greatest crisis during that motorcade … the day of the motorcade.
HEFFNER: Okay, now I know well enough that you’re not going to talk about the next volume … but I’ve got to ask you because I wondered as I read this volume … when I read about those wonderful parties that Lyndon Johnson used to give as Vice President for visiting dignitaries and others.
How did Johnson go from that from that poor boy who was so humiliated by his father’s poverty to a man who had quite so much money to have the kind of spread he had in Texas.
CARO: Well, you don’t have to wait for the next volume because in volume 2, Means of Ascent, there is … as you’ll remember because I know you know that book very well … a Chapter called “Buying and Selling” …
HEFFNER: Right … I want you to talk about it.
CARO: Well, what … so … basically with Lady Bird’s money …
HEFFNER: The stations, you mean.
CARO: Yes. Well, they buy one radio station in Texas. That has later become several radio stations, television stations, quite an empire.
But at the beginning John … Johnson, from the early days … if you wanted to secure influence with Lyndon Johnson, one way was to buy advertising on his radio stations and then on his television stations.
HEFFNER: Excuse me … when you say “influence” you mean in getting legislation passed?
CARO: Well, what I … it’s very … I’m trying to remember what specific things … that’s a book that came out 22 years ago. So I don’t want to … I remember there’s a case of contracts to supply army bases, military bases around Austin. I really can’t … you know as much as I like to answer all your questions … I am going to write about that in detail, you know, because it’s going to become a big issue in 1964 because Life is going to run this two part series.
HEFFNER: I gather it had not surfaced during the Vice Presidential years …
HEFFNER: … until that very last moment.
CARO: Well, it didn’t really surface then, you know.
HEFFNER: Until the moment he was President.
HEFFNER: How do you account for that?
CARO: Well, investigative reporter … I, I don’t …
HEFFNER: Hell’s bells, you were an investigative reporter.
CARO: Well, there had … you know there were many hints about it. You know, but the fact is, as you say … that it hadn’t really surfaced.
There were a lot of … you know a lot of things were happening … that’s one of the … a lot of things were happening at the time of President Kennedy’s trip to Texas.
Life magazine had been investigating Lyndon Johnson’s finances for months. It was about to surface. The Bobby Baker scandal had not been linked to Lyndon Johnson … firmly linked to Lyndon Johnson … it was about to be linked to Lyndon Johnson.
I try to write these books as things happen. And that’s, that’s why I feel that the proper place to discuss them is as they happen in, in the next book.
And when you take … what I tried to … I mean when you try to take these things out of context, you know, as you know … that’s sort of, in my view, a mistake, you know.
HEFFNER: Okay, I, I can certainly understand that, but putting things in context certainly enables us to go back to this question of Lyndon Johnson’s own power …
HEFFNER: … as a legislative leader. I mean you’ve spoken about it before. Do you have any sense of why Mr. Sam related as he did to …
CARO: Lyndon Johnson?
HEFFNER: … they … he considered them his children almost?
CARO: Yes. Well, Sam Rayburn you know was a very powerful figure … we’re … it’s almost … it’s hard for America to imagine … a person like … a figure like Sam Rayburn, who was Speaker of the House, you know … for longer than any other man in history then. Served in Congress, I think for 48 years … was this figure of such integrity that when he died … you know … his whole, his entire estate beside the farm that he owned … was $15,000. People said “Nobody can buy Sam Rayburn. And nobody can cross Sam Rayburn”.
He was the toughest figure … you know he was this short man with massive shoulders … this really big head, completely bald which he was very ashamed of … he was always … he hated television because he said the lights were shining off his bald pate.
But the thing about him was he was lonely. He was married once, a very brief period. Marriage didn’t last. He lived alone in Washington. When he was young he said he wrote his sister a letter … he said “God what I would give for a tow-headed boy to take fishing”.
Some years later he writes a letter, he says, “Loneliness is what breaks a man, loneliness is what breaks the spirit.”
So Lyndon Johnson … he was a friend … at least an acquaintance of Lyndon Johnson’s father in the Texas legislature. Lyndon Johnson’s father was a Representative from the Hill country.
And Lyndon Johnson when he … Rayburn never went to people’s houses for dinner. He hated so … then … he hated social events. He used to say, “Once I tried to tell a joke and before I finished, I was the joke”. You know.
CARO: But when Lyndon Johnson comes to Washington and he marries Lady Bird, the year is 1934 … he invites Rayburn to dinner. Rayburn comes once because of the acquaintance with Lyndon Johnson’s father. But Lady Bird makes him feel at home. She has this wonderful gift … I mean I, I myself witnessed it … it’s … an unbelievably gracious woman. When she says “You all come back now …” And he does come back to their house and he comes every Sunday. And he has nothing to do on Sundays, so she will make for dinner his favorite peach ice cream, very hot chili … really hot chili, the way Mr. Sam liked it, and he’ll sit there and read the Sunday papers with Lyndon.
So they really become, in a way, his children. And so the year is now 1935 … Lyndon Johnson is a Congressman’s assistant. I mean think of this, he’s never presided over anything except maybe another secretary in the Congressman’s office.
And Franklin Roosevelt creates the National Youth Administration. They’re going to have 48 separate state directors. Lyndon Johnson wants to be the State Director for Texas. Why would anyone give him the job? He has … he’s somebody’s assistant.
There’s a very dramatic scene in the Memoirs of the old Senator Tom Connally from Texas who was a great power in Washington because he was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Franklin Roosevelt had to deal with him.
Connally writes in his memoirs … “An amazing thing happened yesterday. Everybody knows that Sam Rayburn never asks a favor from any man. But Sam Rayburn came to my office yesterday and asked a favor … begged a favor and would not leave my office until I granted it.” And the favor was to make Lyndon Johnson the State Director of the National Youth Administration. And Johnson’s career is on its way.
I mean the story of Rayburn and Johnson is … I mean is filled with scenes … the year … before this incident, when Johnson is still a secretary … a Congressman’s assistant … secretary they called them then … he gets pneumonia … which, of course, was very serious then.
Rayburn comes and sits in a straight backed wooden chair beside Johnson’s bed all night in the hospital. Rayburn was a chain smoker, but he was afraid to get up and brush the ashes off his vest because he was afraid he’s wake Lyndon up.
So Lyndon remembers getting up in the morning and there was Rayburn sitting with his lapels and his vest completely covered with cigarette ashes. And Johnson also tells us that as soon as Rayburn saw he was awake … he got up and came over to the bed … and says, “Lyndon, never worry about anything. If you need anything come to me”.
And that was really the story of the beginning of Lyndon Johnson’s rise … until the day of Rayburn’s death.
HEFFNER: You know, the, the stories that you tell about the Congress also … again, I … I’m not going to ask you to comment upon the Congress of the United States in 2012, 2013 … I’m not. But as I read The Passage of Power and particularly learned more about those earlier years when Johnson exercised so much power over the, the Senate … I wondered whether we have any idea of what the Congress was like …
HEFFNER: … before our own times.
CARO: That’s a terrific question. And I happen to think the answer is “No”. And every time people say, today, “Oh, things have never been this bad”, I think “Well, you know, from 1937 to 1963, the Congress of the United States did not pass a single major domestic piece of social welfare legislation.”
HEFFNER: With Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Presidency.
CARO: And Truman … I mean … Congress is completely controlled by the Committee Chairmen and I forget in what year the exact number, but there were some … it was some year that I write about in here … there’s 16 …
CARO: … standing committees and 11 of them are chaired by Southerners or their allies. And these people are implacably opposed to Civil Rights. They have learned that if they unite with the Midwest Republican Conservatives who are their blood … you see it’s not like today … you have the Republicans and the Democrats … then you had two parties and you had Liberal Democrats, but you also had half … the Democrats were Southern Democrats and you had the … the Republican Party … similarly you had the Liberal Rockefeller Northeast Wing and you had the Midwest Conservatives.
When Roosevelt is defeated … when they defeat Roosevelt on the Court packing fight in 1937 they realized “If we … if the Midwest Republican Conservatives and the Southern Democrats stand together, they control Congress”. And they controlled Congress for 25 years. That’s …
HEFFNER: It’s, it’s fascinating because one looks at the paper today and thinks …”Where are we, how did we get here?”, but …
HEFFNER: … you make the point in, in the book and your simple statement of history here … that we were there … we were there in that gridlock.
Ah, what was the nature of Lyndon Johnson’s magic. And I know you’re written about this before, but here … I’m so puzzled about how he lost the magic … or gave it up … or I have to conclude that the Kennedy’s simply stripped him of it.
CARO: The Kennedy’s wouldn’t let him … he once said, “The Kennedy’s legislative director … liaison … was Larry O’Brien. Lyndon Johnson once said, “Larry O’Brien hasn’t asked me for a piece of advice in two years.”
They let it be known … if you want something from the Administration … the man to see is not Lyndon Johnson … it’s Larry O’Brien. So Johnson was stripped of his power, we see him here … you see his magic … I mean Kennedy has two Bills that are important. One is the Civil Rights Bill, for which there was a desperate need. I mean if you … forget about justice and fairness … I … we don’t want to forget about that … but if you just say, “What was the state of the United States?” You had the Civil Rights Movement boiling up on the streets of the South. They had to have some sort of legis … they had to know that there was some legislative way to achieve justice.
The Civil Rights bill, the Senate is going to stop it because the Southern Democrats control the Senate, they have enough votes … Richard Russell, the Southern leader has enough votes to prevent closure. But the Bill isn’t even in the South … I’m going on too long.
HEFFNER: No, you’re not at all.
HEFFNER: It’s, it’s back there in the House.
CARO: Well, it’s in the House Rules Committee and the Chairman of the House Rules Committee won’t even set a date for hearings, where it could be heard in the House before it gets over to the Senate.
Johnson comes into office and we hear it in the tapes, there’s only one way to get it out of that Rules Committee … Johnson … one, one lever … Johnson realizes this … and I wrote in there, “If there was only one lever, Lyndon Johnson was going to pull it.” And he was … he throws his weight into it and gets the Civil Rights Bill moving.
HEFFNER: You know, as we near the end of our, our discussion, I want to ask those questions that you’re not going to answer until …
HEFFNER: … we near the end of the discussion of your final book. But Johnson is such a puzzle to me as a urban New Yorker. Wasn’t he to you as an Urban New Yorker?
CARO: Oh, yes. You know, when I started these books, Dick, I thought I didn’t have to do much research into his youth because there were any number of Johnson biographies … had been written already.
And I didn’t think they’d get … went into enough detail and color … so I, I would go … the Johnson Library was then open from 9 to 5 … so every day I worked there from 9 to 5 and then at 5 I’d drive out to the Hill country and try to interview one person. See he died so young … died at 63 … 64 rather … that all the people who went to high school with him, when to college with him, formed his first political machine were still alive.
And I’m talking to them, and I came back and say to “Ina, you know, I don’t understand these people, they’re so different from me. I said, we’re going to have to move there. And, of course Ina said (laughter) You know … right …
HEFFNER: Not to Texas …
CARO: No, well first she said, “Well, why don’t you do a biography of Napoleon”. (laughter)
CARO: So I said, “Why don’t you write your own book”, so she has …
HEFFNER: She did.
CARO: … written two on France. (Laughter) But we rented a house in the Hill country and for three years … I think each year we were there 8 or 9 months … we lived there. And you have to spend, you have to go to these farms and ranches and talk to these people who had lived these lives of loneliness, which is so different from our life. And … they have their own … really wonderful brand of integrity and honesty, but it’s very different from New York. I had to learn them before I could learn Lyndon Johnson.
HEFFNER: You think that was the key to your … seriously … to the great success of these volumes? That you learned them, you learned him.
CARO: Well, to whatever extent that I did … I think that had, that was, was a very important part of it because when you first move there you l think that the things that they’re telling you are just … you know … some sort out of a Western movie, a grade B Western … you know, they used to say, “You don’t understand Lyndon because you don’t understand the land, you’re a city boy, you know.” I … you know … if you don’t understand the land … but then one day, his cousin Ava said to me, “Let me show you something,” and she drives me out to the Johnson ranch and she says … “Stick your fingers into the soil … there is no soil on top of the rock … it’s just a couple of inches.”
She said, “Lyndon Johnson’s father couldn’t face facts, so he went broke. That’s how the … Lyndon always looked facts in the eye.”
HEFFNER: Bob Caro, thank you so much for talking with me again about The Years of Lyndon Johnson, this time The Passage of Power. I look forward to the final volume or volumes, who knows and our discussions then. Thanks a lot.
CARO: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an 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.