Robert Caro

Means of Ascent, Part I

VTR Date: September 3, 1990

Guest: Caro, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Caro
Title: “Means of Ascent … With Robert Caro,” Part I
VTR: 9/30/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … where many times over the years, great books, and great men and women, have provided our weekly theme. Then, some months back, I began a program about one such volume about one such man by reporting my own tears of wonderment, and remembrance, and profound appreciation in what seem now to be these leaderless days of our years – tears evoked by its author’s touching introductory reference that “bright thread” of achievement that gleams through the career of his outsize subject: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

He wrote: “Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of Black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into the voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life. He was to call the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 his ‘greatest accomplishment’, and the speech in which he presented that act to Congress with the ringing words that touched a nation’s conscience was indeed the high-water mark of the tides of social justice in his administration. And there remain other legislative monuments to the accomplishments of the President who figuratively linked his arms with the arms of the Civil Rights crusaders and clasped their hands in his; during the five years of the Johnson Presidency, great strides were made toward ending discrimination in public accommodations, and strides, if not great, at least the first, toward ending discrimination in education, employment, even in private housing. Thurgood Marshall, a Black face at last among the black robes of the high court, through appointment by Lyndon Johnson, was speaking not of his own advancement but of that of his people when he said, ‘ Thank you, Mr. President, you didn’t wait for the times. You made them’. In other areas of domestic social welfare as well, Johnson rammed to passage laws of which liberals had dreamed for decades: 60 separate education laws for the young and the poor; legislation that provided medical care for the aged and the poor. But his very declaration of that war (on poverty) was a reminder – as was his overall concept of a ‘great society’ – of government’s responsibility to do more than stand idly by without at least attempting to strike blows against ignorance and disease and want. The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson marked the legislative realization of many of the liberal aspirations of the 20th Century: in storming, on behalf of those laws, long-held bastions of Congressional hostility to social-welfare programs, he used the power of the Presidency for purposes as noble as any in American history.”

What an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary American leader! Yet, Means of Ascent (its title, of course, playing on the matter of ends justifying means), this totally fascinating second volume of Pulitzer prize winning, biographer-historian Robert Caro’s account of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, elicits the opprobrium of many LBJ admirers even more than did my guest’s first book on the President, The Path to Power. Perhaps that’s because what the author himself considers the “bright threads,” and the “dark threads” of his subject’s lifetime quest for, and then use of power, do not run together here. Indeed, Mr. Caro writes that “the two threads do not run side by side in this volume. The bright one is missing.”

And so, like so many of my guest’s other admirers, I would ask Mr. Caro whether what he will provide us next of The Years of Lyndon Johnson will contain biographical or historical threads so bright that these and other dark ones will very much pale beside them. Mr. Caro?

CARO: Well, I think so. “Will pale beside them?” I don’t know. In the life of Lyndon Johnson the bright threads and the dark threads are always running side by side. You know in the first volume we saw this relentless quest for power, but we also saw that when he was a young school teacher, down in the Mexican American community of Catula in South Texas, he taught these Mexican-American kids … I think I wrote “No other teacher had ever cared if these children learned or not. This teacher cared.” Then when he became a Congressman he brought electricity to … with just the most noble and heroic efforts … to the impoverished farmers and ranchers of the hill country of Texas and changed their lives, brought them into the 20th Century. In the next volume we’re going to see Lyndon Johnson passing the first great Civil Rights legislation, when he’s Senate Majority Leader in 1957. And while I don’t want to talk about a volume that hasn’t been published yet, I think I have written that without, in my opinion, without Johnson we wouldn’t have today the civil rights legislation that he got passed then. He was a legislative genius and he used that genius and this diligence and this savage determination to get things done on behalf of the disadvantaged of America, and I think that in that respect we’re going to see him as heroic. Does that mean that in this next volume we’re going to be happy with everything Lyndon Johnson does? I didn’t say that.

HEFFNER: Those who harbor their memories of Lyndon Johnson more in terms of the dark threads, will they find you as displeasing to them in your next volumes as those who were his defenders, his disciples, his advocates do with this second volume?

CARO: Oh, I don’t think … as I say, I think that a lot of people are going to say, “Oh, Caro’s opinion has changed, now he likes Lyndon Johnson,” but that won’t be true. The only thing that’s happened is that whereas this is called Means of Ascent as you notice, while it’s about the means by which he attained power, now in the next volume we see the ends to which he uses it. And some of these ends are really noble. To watch Lyndon Johnson … you know, when he’s Senate Majority Leader, the Senate is completely dominated by the South. I think there are 14 great standing committees of the Senate. Southern is a Chairman of nine, and I think that they were ranking members of the other four. To see a man, against this phalanx of Southern power, get the first Civil Rights bills through is really a noble and heroic thing. So from that respect I think they’ll probably be happier with it. That won’t … I mean it’s not even a relevant question to me. To me I’m doing a four volume work on his life. When it is done we will see the whole picture of Lyndon Johnson.

HEFFNER: But now it wouldn’t be unfair of me, would it, when this volume is titled … since this volume is titled Means of Ascent …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … to ask you as a historian whether you feel that the ends justify the means?

CARO: What I feel is what I think I wrote in the introduction which was that the life of Lyndon Johnson raises, to an extent, perhaps more than any other President of our century the question, “what is the relationship between means and ends?” I don’t like the other question. To me it’s a little to simplistic for Johnson’s career. I’d like I think at the end all the way through, people who read the book … I would like them to think about this question of the relationship of means and ends. And at the end come out with some ideas about it. I think that that’s the great thing … the great question that Johnson’s career raises. Because, after all, what are the ends of his Presidency. You say, “what are the ends of Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency?” Well, there are many ends, but one of them is he brought the country through a great depression and he brought the country through a great war … a good war. What are the ends of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency? On the one hand, there are the Civil Rights legislation, the wonderful Acts of the Great Society, — HeadStart and all – but is … are those the only ends of his Presidency? Really not. There’s the credibility gap, this terrible distrust which sprang up between the American people and its President that we still have echoes of today.

When Lyndon Johnson became President, there were 16,000 Americans in Vietnam. And they were just “advisors.” When he left the Presidency, there were 549,000 Americans in Vietnam and they were in active combat and we were bombing helpless villages. We cannot really say that the ends are clear cut, just like we can’t say his life is clear cut. And that’s part of the reason that I determined to take as much space as I needed to, and lay out his life … in detail … so that we could see what he’s doing, at every … both good and bad … at every step of the way. We can see exactly how this political genius is rising to political power in the United States.

HEFFNER: Now you say we’ll see “how” he rose to power?

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: But when you put the last period to the last page, will you not have made a judgment about this man? Rather than a description of how he rose to power. Will you not make a judgment?

CARO: I think that I will, but I think that the reader will be able to make a judgment for himself.

HEFFNER: Why, why … why would you want the reader alone to make that judgment? Isn’t there a … not a pride of authorship, but a pride in the years … how many thus far … spent on Lyndon Johnson?

CARO: (Laughter) Fourteen.

HEFFNER: Fourteen … with more to come?

CARO: Yes, certainly … more to come. I think that … why would I want the reader to make a judgment?


CARO: Well, I didn’t say alone.


CARO: What I really feel … you know I’ve always felt, perhaps to a great extent, that some of the … in some respects as an art, biography … and that’s really what … and that’s the way I’ll answer your question … the art of biography is narrative … it is story. If you show the reader chronologically what is happening and if at the same time you have empathy with your characters, not just Lyndon Johnson, but the other characters who were involved with him, and you lay it out, you don’t have to give the reader a message. I don’t think it’s necessary or desirable to pound in and lecture, you know, the reader, “this is what I want you to think, this is what I want you to think.” I do, obviously, have ideas about Johnson’s life, many of them are sort of expressed in that introduction I have to say. But do I want to lay things out so the reader can make his own judgment? Yes, because of that’s the way I think the reader understands, not by having someone, say, give them a lecture.

HEFFNER: Certainly in these volumes … I mean I read 800 pages here and 600 pages there of Caro and 1,300 pages …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: with the Robert Moses book. Is that … is that correct?

CARO: (Laughter) About right, yes.

HEFFNER: I never want you to stop because you are such an extraordinary writer, an extraordinary … narrative emerges from what you put on paper, but I can pretend to myself ever, and I don’t think you want me to, that I have the familiarity, that I … that I was there. Now I know that Caro writes sufficiently so that you really feel as though you’re there and that is the wonderful thing about reading you, that you have the sense that you’re an observer of what Caro is observing. But it can’t be, it couldn’t possibly be that I, reader, have sufficient knowledge when I’m finished with your hundreds of pages because I know that in the Moses book, you cut out, or your publisher cut before it went to print, so much of what you had written …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … so there’s more to make judgment from. I want your judgment then.

CARO: Well, you will get my judgment, I think, even in this introduction. You read part of it …


CARO: … which is a judgment. There are more pages in that introduction which are also a judgment on the negative side. However what I mean would emerge, I think, in this book. What do I want the reader to do? Now one of the things that I want the reader to understand, that I want the reader to understand is the impact of negative campaigning on our political process. You know, today you pick up The New York Times, it seems like every other day there’s an article on attack commercials and sound bites and tracking polls and this whole negative campaigning that we saw in the Bush/Dukakis campaign. But it seems to me that all these analyses together, they’re always blurred and the reason that they’re blurred is that both sides are sort of using the same tactics now. So we don’t see the full impact of what negative campaigning does to the very basic concept of democracy, informed choice … free choice by an informed electorate. I mean what is it the word “informed” means? I’m writing this, or I’m studying this before I start writing it, I’m writing this campaign and I’m saying, wait a second, whatever else this campaign is, here we have … it’s almost like a controlled laboratory experiment … it’s the new politics against the old. It’s the media politics against personal politics, because Johnson’s opponent, Coke Stevenson, whether he was a good governor or a bad governor, one thing about which no one can disagree is, he refused to use any of the tactics of modern campaigning. The Coke Stevenson campaign was simply him and a driver, his nephew Bob Murphy, driving from one little town to another – back and forth across Texas – in each town he’d get out, he’d shake hands, and he’d give a speech to a very small group of people, on Main Street, or on the courthouse lawn. And using those techniques … now we may say those techniques are laughable, except that using them, he won election after election after election – the greatest majorities in the history of Texas. All of a sudden here comes Lyndon Johnson, a relatively unknown Congressman. He’s the new politics … the media politics, technological politics. He’s got John Connolly, all the bright young men. He’s the first man in Texas to use polling extensively, and he’s using tracking polls, he’s … he actually calls a man named Edward Clark, his advisor, and says, “I want to compare … I want polls, and I want polls from two or three organizations … I want them at the same time … I want to compare everything … I want depth of feeling, I want etc.” … everything we know today. Johnson didn’t invent it, but he brought it to the Southwest. And he used media saturation campaigns. You know he had so much money. The one thing he’d do is he’d take an area of Texas … and he’d try to buy up the same hour on every station in that area so that you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing him or his supporters. He had packaged ads. And he kept trying issues until he’d find the ones that would touch. So here we see the collision between the new politics and the old. Now you asked me, “do I want the reader to make a judgment?” What I said to myself, you may not agree with my way of doing it, but this is what I said to myself on this particular point. I said, “if I make the reader feel like he was a voter in Texas in 1948 … I mean number one, I want the reader to feel like he’s with Lyndon Johnson when he’s in the helicopter, I want him to feel like he’s with Coke Stevenson. And I want him to feel like he’s watching this campaign. At the end of it, if I succeed in doing this,” I don’t say that I did, “but if I … if I succeeded in doing it, the reader will know the impact of negative politics.” Because Johnson destroyed Stevenson’s reputation.

HEFFNER: Is it, is it appropriate then to say that Means of Ascent is Robert Caro’s evaluation of modern technology in American politics, rather than of Lyndon Baines Johnson?

CARO: Well, that was a very good way you put it, but it’s not the whole … one of the things that I think … I never thought of it that way before (laughter), Dick, but to be honest with you, I would say that one of the things … that Means of Ascent is my evaluation of the impact of media politics on the democratic process.

HEFFNER: You know, I raise that point because when I did a program a few months ago with my friend Jack Valenti and with the historian James MacGregor Burns, MacGregor Burns had something very interesting to, to say about this. And you know, I felt, when I read the book, and I’ve told you, and I enjoyed it enormously, and as an erstwhile historian I particularly respect what you’ve done, but I thought the serpent in the garden here was the technology that Bob Caro wants us to consider in terms of a very present-minded disturbance. The imposition of all the things you talk about, and more, the beady red eye of the television camera and what it does today to politics. So that when the one thought that ran though my mind, and I’m sure through others’, too, was that Caro doesn’t like contemporary American politics. And this is a wonderful way of indicting it, here at the beginning, and here is the beginning, in a very real sense, of the modern technology. But Jim Burns said “My argument is that the American politic system is so fragmented and so disorganized and so money-oriented, so fractional, so that any person that wants to do good in this world, who wants to get into a position to do good, which is what LBJ wanted … has to go through all kinds of devious and dubious operations to do it. And I wasn’t reflecting just on LBJ, I was thinking of people like FDR …”, and Jim Burns goes on to say, “You may remember the book I wrote on FDR was called The Lion and The Fox …” and I thought at that point, “My God, Bob could have used that title if it hadn’t been used before.” “The foxlike aspect of Roosevelt, the deceptions of Roosevelt, the manipulations by Roosevelt. I wrote a biography about Jack Kennedy, and again I was thinking much more in terms of the pressures that American politics puts on ambitious men that force them to turn to devices … helicopter, television, polling, that do not look very good in themselves, but when you compare, whether it’s Roosevelt or Kennedy or Johnson, when you compare the contributions that they made as President (you’re next, or the volume after the next), their failings along the way, their shortcuts, whatever dubious things they did along the way, to my mind, pale beside the great achievements.” So that he’s saying “We all do it.” At another point Jim talked about running for Congress himself and said, “I’m not so proud of a number of the things that I did.”

CARO: Well, I don’t disagree with that. In fact, I agree with it. I guess that what I would add to it, I’d say, “Well … ” … a simpler way to do it is say, “Well, in this election … the election was stolen.” Now, if you carry that argument as Johnson’s apologists say, they say “everybody does it, so why does Caro write about it at such length?” Well, I can tell you why Caro writes about it at such length. If it’s a common part of American political life, it ought to be written about at length. And if it’s a key element in the rise to power of the man I’m writing about, it should be written about at length.

HEFFNER: But, Bob, is it a key element, was it a key element just in terms of the new technology, or was the kind of deception, a kind of essential dishonesty, that you do write about, peculiar not just to the beginnings of technology and politics, but to American politics for all the times … all the years of our past?

CARO: Well, if I understand your question, I would say no, it’s not … right in the stream because Johnson … one element of Johnson’s rise to power was that he always pushed things to the limit. You know it’s certainly true that elections had been stolen in Texas for a long time before.

HEFFNER: And in New York, and in California …

CARO: And in New York … and in New York and everywhere else. But never before, I analyzed … I say never before … all I could really do is analyze the last 15 statewide elections, gubernatorial or senatorial before Johnson, before this 1948 campaign. Even there I had trouble because as you got further back a lot of the records were literally missing, there were Democratic primaries that hadn’t been filed with the Secretary of State, so … But I think I was able to do the 15 before. Never before had we had a situation, you must remember what we’re talking about … six days after this election, not a day or two, but six days after the election, Coke Stevenson is still ahead. Leaving everything else out, he’s ahead by 100 and some votes. Now they’re doing the statewide tally and the county chairman from this county down by the Rio Grande is opening the tally sheets from the 13 precincts and his tally and he’s reading off the numbers for a final check. Stevenson is still 100 and some votes ahead statewide. The first 12 precincts the numbers are exactly the same as they have been on election. He opens the 13th precinct, where Johnson had gotten 765 votes, someone has changed the 765 to 965 simply by adding a loop … from the seven to the nine. And Johnson is now the victor. Now, you go back … what happened before that, and I lay out how thousands and thousands of votes were stolen. We know about this, it’s not speculation, there were transcripts, the masters – Federal masters, the Federal District Court appointed Masters to hold Masters hearings down there. We have over 1,000 pages of transcript on the stealing of elections. I don’t think that this concatenation of circumstances that I describe in the book had ever been carried to this length before in Texas. And I think that one of the problems with writing about Johnson is that over and over again when you go … you know, it’s not just on the bad side … what I would say is it’s not just to accomplish things of which perhaps we disapprove. I mean the story of how this guy dominated the Senate for what we would call “good” ends, liberal ends, is also … he said “no one else ever did that before.” So, on one side or the other Johnson was always pushing the potentialities and the evils of democracy to the limit.

HEFFNER: When it’s all said and done, I have to remember what my father used to tell me about dumping Hearst’s ballots here …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … in New York, into the East River. And what you write there sounds so familiar. So that I’m not so sure that if you looked elsewhere you’d want to identify it only with, with Lyndon Baines Johnson. One question … 30 seconds left. Was there any such skullduggery on Stevenson’s part? Or on the part of Stevenson’s workers?

CARO: No. Absolutely not, and I think that’s proven in the book. And, of course, I don’t identify it only with Lyndon Johnson. I’m just saying I’m examining Lyndon Johnson’s election.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s continue this examination …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … you stay where you are, we’ll end this program, and then do a second one. Robert Caro, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

CARO: Okay.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.