Lyndon Johnson – “Master of the Senate,” Part II
VTR Date: January 30, 2002
Guest: Caro, Robert
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert A. Caro
Title: Lyndon Johnson … “Master of the Senate”, Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs on Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert A. Caro’s extraordinary account of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”
Bob, I’d like to go back to a little story you were telling as we ended the, the last program, you were talking about a bistro …
HEFFNER: … Richard Russell …
CARO: Richard Russell, the great leader of the Southern Caucus is sitting in a little bistro in Paris with Lyndon Johnson’s Press Secretary, George Ready … and he says, “George, we’ll make this man President yet.” And in that statement is a lot of the key to the rise of Lyndon Johnson through the Senate and into the Presidency.
HEFFNER: And you were saying that in terms of my asking you, in terms of legislative processes, in terms of the nature of the men we’re talking about … how was Johnson able to convince Russell and others in the South that the South would rise again when he became President.
CARO: Well, I don’t think that I, I believe or I say that the South would rise again. I think what I say …
HEFFNER: My expression.
CARO: Your, your expression. I think the overall feeling was the South would be a lot better off with Lyndon Johnson than with, say, a Hubert Humphrey. That he would keep the pace of segregation as a … well, more moderate. It depends, you see … you question was terrific, but you can’t … it’s really … because he tailored his argument to the man, you know. With Eastland of Mississippi, who was this truly disgusting racist, I mean I’m not even going to repeat the way he would talk. I mean Johnson would talk in those terms. I have a scene in the book …
CARO: … he walked into the Cloakroom and Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey would be over here, you know, and he’d say, “You know we’re going to bring up that civil rights bill now, it high time that America did this and he’d walk over to the Southerner and he says, “We gotta give the niggers something, you know.” And he’d say, you know, “They’re uppity now, they’ve got this colored Baptist preacher (that’s Martin Luther King).” He says, “You know what a colored Baptist preacher is,” he says, “We gotta give them something. You know, we’ve got to give them a little bit. We don’t have to give them too much, but we’ve got to give them something.” He would tailor his argument … he could walk from one side of the room to the other and his accent would change. It would get deeper with the Southerners, and more Northern … no, not that … less Southern than with the Southerners. So when you talk about how he appealed to the Southerners, I think he appealed to them over a tremendous variety of ways, tailored to their different personalities.
HEFFNER: And to Hubert Humphrey?
CARO: Well, the story of Hubert Humphrey, which of course will come to its climax in the last volume … I mean we see it here. I mean what you see with Humphrey is the way Johnson was this reader of men, because we don’t even remember … I know I didn’t remember, Hubert Humphrey’s fantastic speech to that 1948 Democratic Convention. You know, it seemed so thrilling to me that I went to a lot of trouble to get a video tape, I don’t even think that’s the right word. What I got of …
CARO: A kinescope of it. And I said, “this is the most thrilling speech.” Then you realize that Humphrey … you know when he was young, and I certainly had never heard of this, when he became Mayor of Minneapolis, Minneapolis was known as the anti-Semitism capital of America. The police force was one of the most brutal towards Black people in America. Years later, I think when Humphrey died, I’m not sure of the date … Thurgood Marshall was asked to assess him. And he says, “He did a lot of great things, but nothing he ever did was as good … was better than what he did with the police force in Minneapolis.” Then in ‘48 he wants to be … he’s still very young, and he leads this fight for a strong civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention. And he is told, “you are young, you are a comer, you make this speech, your career is finished.” And he decides to make it anyway. It’s one of the great addresses in American history. And it turns around … it’s one of the few times in American history, that it turns a Convention around and they pass this strong civil rights plank. Then, of course, he gets to the Senate where the Southerners have the power and they humiliate him. And they keep him from any meaningful assignments; they ostracize him; they make, they attack him on the floor. There is a scene in this book which we know about because Senate staffers at the time knew about it … where he was so broke and Richard Russell once said, as he walked by, “Look at that …”, the distinguished, gracious, Richard Russell, I think this is the exact quote … “what do you think of the people of Minnesota sending an ass like that to the Senate?” And Humphrey is just broken-hearted. And he is the outsider, and then I write that in 1951 Lyndon Johnson fixed his “restless, reckoning eye on him.” And we know about that because once again, George Ready, as it happens, was present. The two of them riding on the subway, and Johnson begins trying to make a friend of Humphrey and to bring him into the Senate leadership. And their relationship, which was to begin then, goes through these ups and downs, but it is the story of two very strong men, but one is just stronger than the other.
CARO: … that one’s just stronger than the other.
HEFFNER: It, it reads as though one is so much stronger …
CARO: Yes …
HEFFNER: … than the other. And I have to ask you what purpose did Humphrey serve Johnson. Why was Johnson willing to bring Humphrey in slowly, but surely to leadership?
CARO: Well, that’s a terrific question. I don’t know that I can answer that. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Well, did he seem as the link to the part.
CARO: Yes. Yes. Johnson was raised to power as the … he became Democratic leader. You know, what we haven’t mentioned here … I’ll just say very briefly … is the most astonishing thing, was the rapidity of his rise to power …
CARO: … I mean this is the Senate where you’re not even supposed to speak the first couple of years. And then speak very infrequently in your whole first term. At the end of Lyndon Johnson’s first two years, he’s his party’s assistant leader. At the end of four years he’s the party’s leader … the Democratic leader of the Senate. Then when it becomes the majority party in 1955, he becomes the Majority Leader of the Senate. Now, he is what … he is raised to power, and we don’t remember this about Lyndon Johnson, but I hope people will remember now because it’s, it’s important to, in my opinion, to be understanding of Johnson. He is raised to power by the Southern Caucus. That is who installs him as leader. And he therefore … the Democratic Party is very divided. If he wants to have a unified party … a party that will be effective, therefore he will be an effective leader, he has to have a bridge … and you know … that’s a good word, or do you use “link”, same word, to the Liberals. And Humphrey is the Liberal leader. He is this charismatic, principled, idealistic leader that the Liberals follow. More than that , he is the great Liberal voice. We may not remember this any more, but in the year that I’m writing about, liberal Hubert Humphrey was a great voice for Liberalism. And Lyndon Johnson saw that Humphrey could therefore help him in many ways, but all based on the fact that he gave him a link to the Liberals who distrusted him (Johnson). What did Humphrey see in this? Well, we happen to know that because of a number of memoranda. Humphrey could not conceal his innermost thoughts and in this … in my book I think I quote … he would talk to reporters and the reporters would either tell me or show me … you know … memoranda of conversations that happened in the 1950s where he says, “You know, Johnson wants ..”, I’m over simplifying now … “Lyndon Johnson wants to be President, but of course, he’s never going to make it. Because he’s from the South.” And then … I can’t remember if Humphrey actually says this, or it’s implicit … “so therefore, as long as I’m friends with Johnson, his strength is going to come to me in the end. So it’s going to help me be President.” At the same time Lyndon Johnson is thinking something, too. And as it turns out, he’s right.
HEFFNER: And he … you know, this book, this volume makes me feel that you feel somehow or other, he’s always right, there’s something mystical, almost, about this man’s grasp of the American political process.
CARO: No. I, I don’t think that, as you’ll see in the next volume. I do think this … there is something almost … he’s always right about human beings. Up to a certain point. I say in this book he was a great reader of men. Lyndon Johnson didn’t like to read books. I mean the number of books that he read after college is really small. But when it came to reading men, he never missed. He used to tell his … you know, I would talk to John Connolly, and Horace B. Busby and George Ready and Walter Jenkins … and they would talk about Johnson, he says, “Watch their eyes. Watch the hands, but watch their eyes ….”
HEFFNER: This is what Johnson would say.
CARO: This is Johnson’s words. “What a man is saying to you is never as important as what his eyes are telling you.” You he’d say. And then he’d say, when someone would say, he’d always to get … he says, “Yeah, I wanna touch’em, I wana smell’em, I wanna feel’em.” He, and he would watch, then he would say, “You know what a man tells you is never as important as what he doesn’t tell you. What isn’t he saying to you”. And Horace Busby, I think it was said to me, “See, that’s why Lyndon would never let a conversation end. Because he didn’t want it to end until he found out what the man wasn’t telling him.” So when he evaluated another human being, I think that he knew how to appeal to him.
HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting that this, “what is a man not saying” because I was quite taken with this, where you go back to the original race for the Senate when he ran against Coke Stevenson, he … you write Johnson insured that it wouldn’t be an issue with a statement about President Truman’s civil rights programs that he made in his opening rally on May 22nd, 1948, repeating his attack on the program as a farce and a sham. He added that it was ‘an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty’. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called Poll Tax Repeal Bill. The Poll Tax should be repealed by those states which enacted them. I have voted against the so-called Anti-Lynching Bill. The State can, and does enforce the law against murder. I have voted against the FEPC. If a man can tell you whom to hire, he can tell you whom you can’t hire.” And then, of course, you write, after he became President, Johnson wanted his image to be that of a man who had “never had any bigotry”. Who had been a long-time supporter of civil rights. The memory of this speech would blur that image, so he did his best to make sure it wouldn’t be remembered. Stapled to the text of the speech in the White House files was the following admonition, “Do not release this speech …
HEFFNER: … not even to staff without express permission of Bill Moyers. As background both Walter Jenkins and George Ready have instructed this is not ever to be released.”
HEFFNER: So he knew that what it was that a man didn’t say or let …
HEFFNER: … be known. That would give you the best indication.
CARO: That’s terrific that you pointed … that you put it in that context. I never thought of it myself. But that’s correct. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Well, he knew … again he knew his man, he knew his Lyndon Johnson.
CARO: [Laughter] He knew his Lyndon Johnson. You know, he did know his Lyndon Johnson. He has this unbelievable quote in there, which I don’t have exact in my mind .. .but he says, “I’m just like an animal, I can go for the jugular in any man, but I keep myself on a leash, just like you would an animal.” And I think he had that quality.
HEFFNER: Yeah, well, I’ll find it because I was so impressed with …
HEFFNER: … with that quotation. Well, I won’t look for it now, you’ve said it.
CARO: And that’s an approximate …
HEFFNER: I wonder what that tells us about him?
CARO: Well, there was a quality in Johnson that he had to win, you know. He had to win … I think, you know, it’s something going back to his boyhood in Johnson City, because when I started these books, I was so young, and you know Lyndon Johnson died so young, he died at the age of 64, that when I started working on these books, a lot … not a few, but a lot of the people who had grown up with him, in Johnson City, who went to high school and then went to college with him at San Marcos, they were still around, you could talk to them about the young Lyndon Johnson. And one of the things that they said is, “he had to win”. If you got in an argument with him, it wasn’t like getting into an argument with anybody else. He would not stop arguing. He’d hang all over you, he wouldn’t stop. Then when he became a Congressional Assistant … I remember talking to a woman, now deceased, named Estelle Harbin, who worked with him in a two man … two person office in the Capitol. And she said, “the thing about Lyndon is he had to win, he had could not stand not being somebody. Just could not stand it.” And all through his life, he had to win. And there was a savagery in the way he would fight for it. Now that … in the first two volumes has a lot of totally unfortunate connotations. Here we see, he decides to pass the civil rights legislation. Forget about what the motives are for just a moment. He knows he has to pass them, and one way or another, impossible as it seems, that legislation is going to be passed.
HEFFNER: When you write about … and you do so beautifully, that he had to win, I wondered whether that extended, in your estimation to Vietnam?
CARO: Well, I’m going to have to say I’m going to take a pass on that.
HEFFNER: Can’t fool you into answering.
CARO: [Laughter] Well, I’m not … I haven’t … you know I’ve been thinking now, since I finished this book a lot about the Presidency, and I’ll tell you … I haven’t thought enough about it. But certainly … that is certainly an element. I mean how important an element I don’t know.
HEFFNER: Do you think any differently about the man now than you did when you began your work?
CARO: Well, I’m not … I don’t think … well, of course, you know … how would you answer that? You see more … I think differently about him, probably not in the way you’re talking about. I see his political genius more. I see this genius in the Senate. I mean I use the word “genius” …
CARO: … a lot in this book. We haven’t had many authentic legislative geniuses in the United States. He is the authentic legislative genius. I did … now you probably mean do I, has my opinion of him, you know of his motives, or whatever, changed. I think what I’ve always thought, that he’s the most complicated man I’ve ever encountered. You know, that he has emotions that are incredibly strong on one side or the other and that the could change. That he had this ability to change himself. There’s a chapter in this book … if you were to ask me what I’ve been waiting to say for … through the first two volumes, because it wasn’t time yet … but I have been told about. Is the chapter called “The Working Up”, you know, that he could work himself up because I had hardly started working on Lyndon Johnson when I realized I was hearing from people who were really close to him like John Connolly … who we know who John Connolly was … the Governor of Texas and the Treasury Secretary, Secretary of the Navy … Johnson’s closest aide for a long time in Washington. And Ed Clarke, who was Johnson’s chief lawyer and the guy who ran Texas for him. Really he’s known as the “secret boss of Texas” for I think, 25 years. And other people were saying the same thing to me, which was, basically, he could make himself believe whatever he wanted to believe, even if he had believed something different the day before, he could feel that he had never believed the other way, he would get very indignant … truly indignant, an honest indignation … if you said, that yesterday … you referred to this the other day. Clarke, of course, who had this great Texas narrators, raconteur’s gift for words … I wish I had them in front of me here … he had this phrase, he said, “Lyndon could believe in a cause and get all worked up and all worked and all worked up and all revved up, and say ‘follow me for the cause because it’s right.’ And he would believe it’s right, even if he had believed something else the day before.” [Laughter] Now I’ve talked myself right out of remembering what your question was. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: No. I was asking you whether you had changed your mind …
HEFFNER: … in any way. Or seen … come to see …
CARO: No I saw.
HEFFNER: … him differently.
CARO: Right. I saw … I saw violence contrasts in his character. Unbelievably, I mean everyone’s character had contrasts, has contradictory elements in it. With Johnson these contradictions going back to his boyhood, were almost, they were more violent than most people. They were more intense than most people. They were more passionate than most people. I found … when I was even writing about him in college, he was larger than life figure. And, you know, that’s a cliché … but, but see I felt that I came to understand what ‘larger than life” meant. That these passions, these elemental beliefs and desires and wants, and ideas and ideals in him were held so passionately, even if they were opposed, if they were opposite to each other that when he would talk, they would pour out of you. A rather wise man name Donald Orsman who actually had only a tangential relationship with Lyndon Johnson, but knew him some time, said “the thing about Lyndon Johnson was he got bigger when he talked to you.” Now it took me a long time to understand what that meant. He would, the passions … the things inside him would just come … you know, they would say, I said in the book, “it’s these passions that made his four fingered jab in your chest. It’s his passions that made him grab you. It’s his passions that made his … he had to convince you. So I found that’s the same kind of person he was all the way along?
HEFFNER: Did people ever leave him? I don’t get the impression that they did, except for a woman here, or a woman there. But his followers didn’t, did they?
CARO: Well, yes. There I have to disagree with you.
HEFFNER: No, please.
CARO: John Connolly, you know, left him. He worked in his staff, I mean a the very .. . at the very beginning … and you know, there were others.
HEFFNER: I didn’t mean the people who said, “I’m not going to work for again.”
HEFFNER: “I couldn’t take the abuse …”
HEFFNER: … which was what they mostly thought.
HEFFNER: Did they leave him in terms of support. Did they leave him in terms of rejecting him politically?
CARO: No. He kept … well, you know, I’m trying to think … that’s a good question, I’m trying to think over the entire life. Off the top of my head, I’m going to say in Texas he certainly kept the same supporters … George and Herman Brown of Brown and Root … Ed Clarke. He kept them. Very conservative men. Very racist men. They believed he was conservative, they believed he was racist, they believed it up until he became President … and then it was too late for them to do anything about it. He kept them. In Washington he kept the Liberals. They believed he was Liberal. They believed he was just waiting for the opportunity to do right. They stayed with him … men like Jim Rowe, Tommy Cochran, Virginia Durr, great civil rights believer. I mean it’s simply incredible to think that in Virginia Durr’s living room , or at the dinner table in her home was Alvin Wertz, Lyndon Johnson’s chief supporter in Texas, and Virginia Durr, the great civil rights leaver says something about that Negroes should have the right to vote. Alvin Wertz says, “Well, I like mules, too, but you don’t bring them into the living room.” The man that I’m writing about and we’re talking about here, was best … was close friends with this man and this woman, and kept their friendship.
HEFFNER: I … I wonder if we’re ever really going to understand the question of Black and White; the question of North and South. Whether …it’s so fascinating that this continues to run through your books. But it is the great matter of America.
HEFFNER: Race relations.
HEFFNER: Call it what you will.
HEFFNER: And that’s so hard … it’s so hard for my students to, to deal with that, to understand it today. It’s so hard for them to … we talked about lynchings before … we talked about, well, this speech and that “tell them that I wrote it against the anti-lynching bill”, that I remember as a young man reading, I forget whether it was the New York Post or the Daily News, at the end of it, at the end of each year there was this account of how many lynchings had taken place in the previous year. And I’m not talking about the early part of the century. This is part of our … almost part of our present experience.
CARO: You know the amazing thing is it’s changed like this, you know, in our lifetime. I mean in the … I’m not going to remember the figures any more, but when Johnson sets out to pass this first civil rights bill, which is basically only a voting rights bill, and as you said before, is ineffective, but as I said was necessary for the really voting legislation. I believe that out of the 6 million Black Americans of voting age in the South, only 15 percent were registered. I may have the wrong. However, it’s such an incredibly low number. There were whole counties in the South in which no Black person had ever voted. Now today, and largely through Lyndon Johnson … Black Americans are a part of the political fabric of America.
HEFFNER: Bob Caro, your books, the subjects are so important. Again, I plead with you … finish the book on Johnson …
HEFFNER: … and the Presidency. And thank you so much for joining me again today.
CARO: It’s always great to be with you.
HEFFNER: Thanks, Bob.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us
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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.