Robert Caro

Lyndon Johnson – “Master of the Senate,” Part I

VTR Date: January 30, 2002

Guest: Caro, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert A. Caro
Title: Lyndon Johnson … “Master of the Senate”, Part I
VTR: 3/11/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And over several days now of the most exciting, enjoyable and rewarding reading ever, I realize full well that there is at least one thing I haven’t changed my mind about over the past 20 years.

That before I go to meet my maker, Robert Caro, my guest today just must complete, so that I can read the final volume or volumes of this incredibly brilliant biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

For it was in 1982 that The Washington Post put The Path to Power, the commanding first volume of his “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” at what it called “the summit of American historical writing.” Newsweek described it as “not only a historical, but a literary event, an epic biography.” And The Los Angeles Times wrote that “Caro is a phenomenon.”

Then when The Means of Ascent, the second volume of his Johnson biography was published in 1990, Time magazine wrote of it, “riveting and explosive. Caro’s treatment achieves poetic intensity.” And The New York Times called it “immensely engrossing, his analysis of how power is used is masterly.”

Well now Knopf brings the “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” ever closer to our own times in Robert Caro’s third volume, Master of the Senate, which leads me quite literally once again to implore my Pulitzer Prize winning guest to publish his account of Johnson’s Presidency in time for me to savor it, as I have his other volumes, particularly this last one, Master of the Senate.

Now, I’ve said my piece, Bob, you’ve got to finish that before I’m finished …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … and I, I want to start off today by asking you about this, this matter that you refer to, you write in the introduction to the new volume, “power corrupts, that has been said and written so often that it has become a cliché, but what is never said, but is just as true is that power reveals”. And I know you refer to it toward the end of the book. What do you mean?

CARO: Well, I mean that when a person is trying to get power, and we see this, as with everything else with Lyndon Johnson in a very intensified way. The first two volumes he trying to get power. He’s desperate to have it. And he’s willing to do almost anything to get it, as we’ve seen. Now in the third volume, in the beginning of it, he’s rising to power in the Senate. When he gets it, suddenly two things happen. But they are both summed up with what you ask, “power revealed”. Because when a person is rising to power on the one side he has to try to conceal the traits that might make other men not want to give him power if they see, for example, that he’ll be too ruthless, too arbitrary in using it. But at the same time, power reveals, and I’ve seen this, we could talk about it later with other characters in my books. It gives him an opportunity to unleash things that they have wanted to unleash.

In Lyndon Johnson’s case this compassion he always had for poor people, particularly poor people of color. Suddenly with the power that is revealed.

HEFFNER: And you know, I wondered as I was reading the book and I read every page with great delight … I wondered the first note, real note that I made to myself … “is Caro changing his mind, making a new judgment about Lyndon Baines Johnson?”

CARO: Oh, not at all. This has always been my judgment. It’s the same person. Now we see him, you know actually in the first volume we see him when he becomes … he has this … number one he has a compassion for poor people, an empathy because he was poor. I mean I wrote, you know, how he really worked when he was a teenager harnessed together, in effect, with mules, pulling this … pushing this Fresno, a highway grading machine. I said “how could not have empathy for these people? For this work?” He had done the work.

And we see him, when he becomes congressman, he knows what the people … he’s only 28 years old, he knows what the people of his district need. They need electricity because without electricity they’re all poor farmers and ranchers, they have to do every chore by hand … from ironing to pumping up the water from the well, etc. He says “if you elect me Congressman, I will bring you electricity.” No one believes he can do it. It seems like an impossible task to bring electricity to this isolated area, there’s not even a source of hydroelectric power around. But he does it.

But then we see, in the second volume, there seems to be no place for him to go, he’s lost for the Senate, you know, his first race for the Senate. And he loses interest to a large extent in politics. Without the promise of power, he really is not very interested any more. And he says when he runs for the Senate in ‘48 … he says, “if I don’t win, I’m leaving politics.” He was born for politics, he was a master of politics. But if he didn’t have power he wasn’t going to stay in it.

But now in this volume, it’s the same driven, relentless, savage person who’s determined to do whatever he sets out to do, with this real savagery of will. But now the ambition and the compassion come together for both reasons, he has to pass the first civil rights legislation and he does it. And that, of course, is a large part of the story of this book, the first civil rights act of 1957. Now the one … not the great ones he will do later, but the first one, that had to come first. And I think the story of how he did it, it’s the same man I always wrote about only now he’s using power for something besides himself.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you refer again to the matter of power revealing, you write toward the end of the book, page 862, you talk about 1957

CARO: Right.

HEFFNER: … and the civil rights efforts. You write, “during Lyndon Johnson’s previous political life, compassion had constantly been in conflict with ambition …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and invariably, you don’t say ‘occasionally, once in a while’ …


HEFFNER: … “invariably ambition had won. Given the imperatives of his nature, in such a conflict the ambition would always win.” Are you suggesting that when he achieved what he wanted to achieve in the Senate, with the thought that he would then achieve more, the Presidency, that he didn’t have to have that conflict between what I would consider human decency and the, the ambition that would bring him great power?

CARO: Well, not exactly. It’s a very good question, you always ask terrific questions, it’s a very complicated thing to try and answer. One of the great aspects of democracy is that it almost requires for someone to attain great heights in the political system and to accomplish things with it. It almost requires him to act in what you call “the best of human nature”. If you want to be a great President, you have … and if you’re a dictator, you can be a dictator for a long time just by getting power from the barrel of a gun.

But in a democracy you have to have, you have to get power from the ballot box, and people’s opinions, from people’s vote. They have to approve of what you’re doing. Now, with Lyndon Johnson it’s certainly true that in this book, and as in earlier books and in the first part of this book, several times, his compassion, his desire to do things particularly for poor people, suddenly comes into conflict with ambition.

Quite specifically here he’s being raised to power in the Senate by the Southerners. And when he goes, whenever he’s on the verge of going too far for civil rights … I’m trying to think of a way to sum up a large number of a series of events … he realizes he can’t. And he stops. And up to 1956, he is not only … you know, before I started this book, I thought, like every other biographer of Johnson has written that, if he was allied with the Southern block he was sort of reluctant to do it, he was just this foot soldier, he didn’t make the decisions. Not true. He was not just a Southern soldier in the Senate … you know we have the Southern Caucus there which was the 22 Southern Senators, they had the power in the Senate. In the year would vary from Congress to Congress, but in … for most of this time, there are 15 great standing committees in the Senate that have the power in the Senate. For most of that time, the Southern is a Chairman of eight or nine of these Committees, including just about all of the most important committees.

They have the power and Johnson allies himself with the Southern Caucus. He becomes one of its strategists. He … the leader of the Southern Caucus, of course, is this fantastic figure, Richard Brevard(????) Russell of George, who’s never lost a civil rights fight for 25 years … the South calls him the greatest General since Robert E. Lee, with the difference that Russell is winning. Lee lost. Russell … Johnson so convinces Russell that he’s on the same side on civil rights, that Russell raises him to power, makes him Majority Leader … makes him first Minority Leader then Majority Leader and anoints him his successor, when he, Russell is going to be too old, to carry the banner in the South.

Now as late as 1956, after Johnson’s been in the Senate for seven years, this is the situation. In 1956 the South crushes a civil rights bills, I mean they’ve crushed every civil rights bill for 82 yeas. They crush it again and Johnson plays the leading role, he is the guy who does it. And then all of a sudden in 1957, he completely reverses himself, decides that a civil rights bill must be passed … for both the reasons, compassion and the ambition coming together … and it is going to be passed. And, he … I mean the story of him getting this bill to passage to me is one of the amazing political stories.

HEFFNER: It is, and your, your telling of it is …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … is fascinating, but I don’t’ know quite know how to put it, but I guess … I wonder when you say that, whether it wasn’t the ambition that later understood that compassion was going to be the key to achieving even more of his ambitions and that he concerns for Negroes, his concerns for those he called niggers, certainly always the nigras, but you report the choice of language …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … emerged only when he thought it was a key to power.

CARO: Well, I don’t quite agree with that because that would leave out, “did he always want to do it?”. And I think … somewhere in these thousand pages I know I say, “if we believe …” ..


CARO: … when he was a teacher. And I say, “and the author, for one, believes,” … right, that that’s me. [Laughter] That when he, you know, when Johnson was a teacher at ?????, I won’t go through this again … when he was a 20 year old, 21 year old school teacher and teaching the Mexican kids down in South Texas, I wrote, “No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. He cared. He always cared.” This was always ready to be unleashed inside him. It was always there. So he always wanted to do it. So I think that what you’re saying to me is not quite correct. On the other hand, you have to ask the question, “what would have happened if these two things had not come together?”

HEFFNER: What do you think would have happened? What do you think when you recount the tale of the Southerners who controlled the Senate … you know you’re a researcher, a historian. I lived through more of that than you did …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … and it sounded as though I were just reading the daily newspaper because the names were so … resonated so for me. What do you think would have happened it Johnson had not, as you believe, taken the lead in some amelioration?

CARO: You mean as President? You mean Senate?

HEFFNER: Well, no, I mean in the Senate.

CARO: Okay. They would not, they would not have had a civil rights bill. If there’s ever anything that I think that I proved beyond any argument … although here we are arguing about it right now … [laughter] … it is that in that Senate of the fifties the South had too much power for any civil rights bill. I mean you just look … I detail them. Anti-lynching bills couldn’t even get passed.

HEFFNER: I know.

CARO: I mean it’s quite incredible. I mean you’d think that one thing the Senate could agree on would be a bill to make lynching a Federal crime, since the Southern states would not prosecute it. Southern juries would not. Southern prosecutors would not indict and Southern juries would not convict and no one is getting convicted for these horrible, horrible part of America. Yet the Senate over and over again defeats anti-lynch legislation.

HEFFNER: And your noble Senator, Richard Russell …

CARO: No, please don’t say that I said he was a “noble” Senator. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: You make me feel that you believe that as I read the book.

CARO: I think that he was a great … well, that would be … if that’s … what I did, then I failed in what I wanted to do. What I felt was that there are aspects of Richard Russell in which he is the perfect Senator, he is the Senator of the United States. He is a great patriot. He has studied the history of Rome and he believes the key to peace in the world is for the United States to have military power. He’s the greatest expert on military power. He has all this power in the Senate, and he uses it to keep our armed forces strong.

At the same time I certainly think, and I detail in this book, how his views on race are simply horrible, and they’re all the more horrible because of his genius as a legislative strategist … how he always manages to defeat the civil rights bill. And I try to really show how he was a force … you know someone, I think it was Nietzsche (CHECK SPELLING) said “the moral arch of the universe bends towards justice”. You know. Well, if it bends toward justice, it bends rather slowly. And keeping it from bending are people like Richard Russell. I know that someone wrote about the Senate, “the Senate is the South’s unending revenge on the North for Gettysburg”, and Richard Russell is the greatest general since Robert E. Lee”. Well their cause was the same cause. And it’s not a noble cause.

HEFFNER: You know, I know what the difficulty is here at this table. Because you didn’t fail at all … quite to the contrary you succeeded, but I am less compassionate, or less, maybe disinterested than you are. You tell the stories of good and of bad and I remember at the beginning of your second volume, you, you make the point, and you repeat it here … “through everyman’s life there is a red thread …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … and a black thread”. And in that second volume you said there’s not going to be very much of, of good here to be said …

CARO: That’s correct.

HEFFNER: … about Lyndon Johnson.

CARO: That’s correct.

HEFFNER: … here you are … find it somewhat different and I wonder what’s going to happen in the volume on the Presidency?

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And I’m, I’m waiting. But going back to Russell. Yes, you say he was a great internationalist and you talk about the role he played in preventing MacArthur

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … when he returned …

CARO: Yes. And in effect saving the separation of the military and the civilians almost single-handedly.

HEFFNER: Okay. I see that. I guess I’m less forgiving, though, of the description which you do offer of his indifference toward, if that’s the word, toward the lynchings.

CARO: Oh, not in … well …

HEFFNER: Not indifferent?

CARO: Well …huh … well, you could say indifference toward lynching. But not indifference toward the principle of segregation. He believed in it. I mean of all his writings the thing … mongrelization … that was the word. I’ve never known … that the exact quote is in the book … “history has recorded no instance of a mongrel civilization that endured.” Mongrel civilization is one in which blood is, is mixed. He, you know the … he always was a gentleman … he was a patrician … I entitle my chapter on him, “A Russell of the Russells of Georgia” because his father was one of the first citizens of the state; he was one of the first citizens of the state. But his views on the necessity for the separation of the races … he wouldn’t use … he didn’t use words like “nigger”, you know, he didn’t use words … he was always … his tone was always measured, it was never the ranting of a Billbo(CHECK SPELLING) or an Eastland, you know. Those words would never pass his lips, he was always a gentleman, almost always except if … when he found he was losing [laughter] on civil rights. He always was a gentleman, he was always courteous, he was always gracious, he was always urbane. But unyielding in … not only in his defense of segregation, but in his belief in segregation.

HEFFNER: You know, I couldn’t help but wonder whether, when you record the Southerners control of the Senate, and describe the Senate, as you write, as the great dam …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … that prevented so much …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … by way of legislative … positive legislation, whether people today, people considerably younger than even you and you’re younger than I am … can possibly believe, without your detailed recounting, what this country was like in terms of its legislative bodies, in … just a half century ago.

CARO: Well, that’s what I was … one of things I was hoping, you know, you’d get to in this because I consider a major … you know, I don’t know, but a lot of pages in this book, a lot of chapters Lyndon Johnson isn’t even in them. It’s about legislative power, it’s about the history of the Senate, and how power works in the Senate. It’s one reason that the book is so long. Because when I started it, I realized that I … because I had no idea what legislative power was. I had no idea at how different, how diametrically opposed it was to executive power. And how America for all, say since the Civil War, because before the Civil War we had in the Senate, Webster, Clay and Calhoun. So the Senate was a central, maybe the central point in American government.

But we have, in our lives, come to consider power only in terms of executive power. I mean, in my case, I didn’t even realize I was doing that. Now, then you start reading all these biographies … now England, you have great biographies of Disreali(CHECK SPELLING) and Gladstone, Peel and Pitt. They are, by definition, studies of legislator, or parliamentary power. We have very little of that, and in my opinion, we have very little understanding of what legislative power is and how important it is in American government. How it used to be important. Now I tried to show that … you always go to the right point by calling the Senate a “dam” and showing how the executive branch, you know, was starting to move towards civil rights. I mean up and down, but … the judicial branch, the Supreme Court was moving towards civil rights … Brown versus the Board of Education, etc. Even the House of Representatives was passing civil rights legislation. Not much, but some. Every bill that was sent over to the Senate for 82 years was killed in the Senate. It was the dam, not just for civil rights legislation, but it was a dam against all attempts at social justice, all attempts to ameliorate the human condition, came up against this rock hard power of the South in the Senate. I think, I, myself, would have to say I hardly knew about it. But when you learn about it, you realize how almost impossible it was to crack that. And what …how what Johnson did, in getting this legislation through in 1957 … seemed almost impossible. When he said, I hope I wrote … I mean when you see … it seemed impossible that he was going to get this through, you know. But he was determined to get it through and he managed to do it.

HEFFNER: And yet that first legislation was so watered down …

CARO: Oh, it was almost meaningless.

HEFFNER: … in terms of the Northern liberals.

CARO: … almost meaningless. But of course Johnson with his, you know, gift of the phrase, said, “You know, we’ve got to break the virginity”. You know, once we break the virginity, it’ll be easier next time. And he was really right, in my opinion about that.

HEFFNER: We just have a couple minutes to this program, but you’re going to say where you are …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … and we’ll do another one, because I want you to tell me how he was able, because this is what you seem to be saying, how he was able to fool a man as astute as Richard Russell, or as there were so many others. They were smart and they lasted, whether it was George or Byrd, they remained there. How was he able … if you are right …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … that he did what he did to achieve, ultimately, civil rights ends.

CARO: Sure, well, I’ll do my best.

HEFFNER: Stop me now, while we do have a minute …

CARO: A pleasure.

HEFFNER: Did he fool them?

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: Was Russell as …

CARO: Well, you know … I say “yes”, I should have made a more measured answer. We do not know what happened in these … we know that Russell and Johnson were very closely united. As I said Russell anointed him the successor. We know that Russell said, you know, there are scenes in this book, that I think are very revealing … Richard Russell is sitting with Johnson’s aide, a Socialist, George Ready(CHECK SPELLING), his Press Secretary, in a little bistro in Paris … and Ready said to me, he said, “and all of a sudden …”, Johnson had done something very impressive in a NATO meeting that day, and Russell was talking about it, and all of a sudden he says to Ready, “You know George, we’ll make this man President, yet.” Now, that was Russell saying Johnson had great ability. But given Russell’s absolute belief in segregation you have to say that Johnson made him believe that … not that he would preserve segregation, certainly, but that, as I think … I quote …

HEFFNER: I’m going to stop you right there …

CARO: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: So the viewers will come back next because I’m getting the signal … thank you Robert Caro for joining me on The Open Mind today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.