Robert Caro

Means of Ascent, Part II

VTR Date: September 3, 1990

Guest: Caro, Robert


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on the Open Mind … and this is the second of two programs with historian and Pulitzer Prize-Winning biographer Robert Caro stemming from the controversy that has raged about Means of Ascent, the second volume of his monumental study of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Now, some time back, when his brilliant first Johnson volume – The Path to Power – appeared, I introduced an Open Mind program with Mr. Caro by noting that I had long since marked off in my tired old copy of Bartlett’s Quotations Carlyle’s comment that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men,” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that “there is properly no history, only biography.”

Well, today I want to query Mr. Caro about the biographer’s objectives and obligations: Do they differ from the historian’s, from the journalist’s? Indeed, in practice, does the sense of these objectives and obligations or responsibilities differ here in America from elsewhere? In these times from in the past? So, generally, I’d like to begin that way, unless there’s something from our last program that you want to deal with first.

CARO: Well, actually that question leads right back to what I wanted to deal with from the last program, because I didn’t like my last answer because I didn’t have a chance to give it completely. You asked, you know, in effect … do I in fact give too much emphasis to Lyndon Johnson’s stealing of this election of 1948, when it’s such a widespread practice in democracy. Now that goes directly to my objectives … first in writing The Power Broker about Robert Moses and now in writing about Lyndon Johnson. I’ve never been interested … I’ve never conceived of a biography as only being writing the lives of famous men. I have to say I never had the slightest interest in doing that. I remember how I got interested in Robert Moses … it was because I was a reporter at Newsday, and you used to sit there and type “City Park Commissioner, Robert Moses,” you’d say, “Well, what does that have to do with him building the Long Island Expressway?” Or you’d type “Triborough Bridge Authority Chairman, Robert Moses” … no one even knew what a public authority was in terms of urban political power. And I said, “Gee, if I can do … a life of Robert Moses and show where he got his power from and how he used it, I’ll be showing the real nature …the essence … the true nature, if you will, of urban political power in America in the 20th Century.” Not what we read in textbooks, but where this power really comes from … because he was never elected to anything, and for 44 years he had more power than anyone who was … any governor or any mayor. Now with Lyndon Johnson, I turned to Lyndon Johnson because what I had done with urban political power I wanted to do with national. I said, “Johnson also was unique.” The thing that attracted me to Johnson first was not his Presidency … but the fact what while he was Senate Majority Leader he dominated, controlled the Senate of the United States as nobody else has before or since. I said, “Gee, if I can show how he did that, I can show something about how national power works.” Why … and I don’t see his life, what I’m doing, as a life of Lyndon Johnson. I see it as a means of illuminating not only the history of America in his times, but of illuminating political power. Now, in a dictatorship you say,“power comes from the barrel of a gun,” right. You can say in a monarchy it comes from a king’s manifesto. In America, power comes from elections. If stolen elections are really a part … such a big part of American political life, as you say and others say (laughter), then we can’t, we have to examine it in great detail. And my way of examining it in great detail is to stop and see exactly what … what goes into a stolen election. I’ve always been dissatisfied because I don’t know if this is true or false, this is what dissatisfies me … that always say when Kennedy ran against Nixon he might not have won if there hadn’t been votes stolen in Chicago, in Cook County. Now we have thousands of articles and so many books analyzing how the debate between Kennedy and Nixon changed that election. But we have very, very little analyzing the late … if they were late I don’t know if it’s true or not (laughter) … what happened in Illinois. I was anxious when I started out to know, “Gee, what exactly constitutes a stolen election?” Now, here we had an election, I said, “is this just an election like every other election in Texas where there is stealing?” I spent a great deal of time, several years of my life, examining this election. Two things happened. Number one, I found that it was not merely another Texas election, as I think the book shows, so I’m not going to waste your time going through it, nobody had ever gone to the lengths that Lyndon Johnson went through in this election. Bt more than that, because we have 1,000 pages of court transcripts, then I was very lucky, I found the man, Louie Sallis who actually engineered the stealing of votes in the crucial precincts, and he talked to me at great length, and I talked to other key figures in this election, many of them very old. I said, “Gee, what am I going to do … not … I mean what would you have me do … not let this chapter in American history disappear … or lay it out exactly as it happened?” I think of my books as … among the things I think of my books as … is studies in political power. This is part of political power and it deserves to be studied in depth.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, someone commenting on what you have frequently said about your interest in power and that the origin of your writing, having to do with the desire to analyze power in America, said, “Caro isn’t interested in power, he hates it … he doesn’t want to analyze it … he hates it.” Is there … is there some fairness to that characterization?

CARO: No, I don’t think so. I haven’t seen that comment, but I would say in the very first volume of the Johnson biography the reason that I spent so much time showing the effect of the New Deal programs and in particular, rural electrification on his Congressional District, the 10th Congressional District, I said, “Gee, just in a way like this election, a perfect example …” But on the other side, said “this is the … this is the perfect example of showing how the powers of government can help people who are fighting forces too big for them ever to fight themselves.” I mean the forces of nature had defeated the people of this hill country, it was simply to hard to make a living there. Their lives were really very mean, meager lives. Big part of it was that they didn’t have any electricity, and there seemed no way to get electricity there. I mean there was … there was not even a source of hydro-electric power in this entire vast district except on one border. And the story of how Lyndon Johnson decided he … when he ran for Congress he said, “If you elect me to Congress, I’ll bring electricity.” Now they elected him, he was 28 years old, but nobody believed he could do it, it just seemed impossible. And I laid out, I would say, in the same detail as I lay out the stolen election, what the life of the people was like before they got electricity, how incredibly hard it was for Lyndon Johnson to bring electricity, and in answer to your point, how it’s the best possible example of showing how power can help people’s lives. And in the next volume I hope I’m going to do that and show how the passage of the Civil Rights Legislation has changed the lives of Black Americans for the better. I would say there’s … there are a lot of comments, but that’s one that I … doesn’t relate, I don’t think, at all.

HEFFNER: Well, out of the context of the present controversy over Means of Ascent, which basically is stirred up by people who … are annoyed at anything that you might write … that is negative, particularly negative about Lyndon Johnson. Let me just ask you, Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt … now I … and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely … I can repeat that because I’m not writing about power. I can repeat it because historians repeat themselves. Does that have … does that have any … resonance for you?

CARO: You know, if I was of the stature to have an axiom, it wouldn’t be that one. I would say “power reveals.” I think that what happens is that as a person gets power we see the traits in his character, both positive and negative traits, being given fuller play. Now in the case of Lyndon Johnson, we will see that also positive and negative. I mean, we will see the young Lyndon Johnson who was really … had a credibility gap, had a … was known as a liar … back to his college days. I mean his … a stealer of elections in college, a stealer of elections when he was a Congressional secretary in Washington. When some said “Who would steal to win the election of something like ‘the little Congress’”. A stealer of elections here. Person that was … that created a mistrust. What happened when he became President? Should we be examining this all the way through? On the other side we say, here is a guy who in the first volume goes down, as I think I said in your first program, to this Mexican-American town and just determines to teach these kids … to make them as much a part of America as he can. I mean he goes … he organizes school teams for them, when they didn’t have any teams like the Caucasian kids had. He doesn’t only teach the kids .. he sits, he buys a book and teaches an elderly janitor to read English sitting … I wrote “sitting on the steps of the school after closing time, while across the street in a vacant lot, people … there was snickering” … I forget my words, there were snickering remarks were directed at him. And here we see when he gets to be President he passes the great Civil Rights legislation. He brings Black Americans more into American political life. Gives them more control of destiny than anyone but Abraham Lincoln. So, we say, “shouldn’t we follow that all the way through?” I think power reveals both sides of people.

HEFFNER: It “reveals” you say, do you think there is anything to the notion that it corrupts? That it changes people and that power in the instance of Lyndon Johnson did change … him? Or is the recounting of the stolen elections back in school, back as a Congressional Secretary, Assistant, does that indicate that your own feeling is it simply revealed what he was all along?

CARO: Well, you know, the problem with answering your question is that your question is fine, but when my books come out, it’s always the, quote, “the news” that makes the headlines .. “Johnson steals an election,” right? “Johnson is known as a liar,” etc., etc. No one ever writes, I’ve never seen a headline saying “Johnson brings electricity, transforms lives of 250,000 people who no one else could help,” right? “Johnson, beloved of his Mexican American …”, I never see those headlines. My answer … the answer to your, your questions is, that in Johnson’s life it’s a fiercesomely strong personality. Even the word “fiercesomely” has a negative characteristic, so I wish I could edit that out, and just say, “has a uniquely powerful, unbelievably powerful personality.” It’s got different, contradictory aspects mixed up in it, and when he gets power, we see these … all aspects sort of being enlarged. And I, I would just say I see, I saw the same thing actually with Robert Moses. So, and indeed with Al Smith, I have to say, who is another character that I studied in The Power Broker. So, from my limited … I, I think that power reveals.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, you say “power reveals.” You talk about not seeing headlines that indicate the other side of a picture that you’ve drawn.

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: What does that say about contemporary journalism?

CARO: Well, as far … (laughter) that’s a very good question. It says quite a bit about contemporary journalism (laughter.) One of the things it says is it doesn’t seem that contemporary journalists are really capable of dealing … see I’m not sure … well, that is even harsher to a journalist than I mean to be because it’s very difficult … if I were still a reporter, I mean how do you sum up … I think my first book is 900 and some pages. How do you sum up that book in a headline, in a paragraph? It’s almost impossible to do it. You know I used to … I remember when I was a reporter, it’s one of the things that made me hate being a reporter … I felt you never had enough room to discuss things, you know. How would you sum up The Power Broker which is an entire life with good and bad in it … negative and positive in it. It’s very hard to do. However, I will just say that I think the newspaper reporter, about my books, because they have newsworthy things in them, really presents, really makes it seem as if my view of Lyndon Johnson is somewhat more negative than it is.

HEFFNER: Does that concern you about what you and I have learned about what else is going on in the world today, since what we learn about what is going on, what we know about what is going on in the world today, is function of those same reporters and those same headlines.
CARO: Well, I think that someone … I’m not sure who wrote this … I, I think it’s Arthur Schlesinger, but I’m not sure … said, that the coverage of the press, when you get into really learning something, “the coverage of it by the press is as the shadow to a substance.” You know over and over again in all three of my books. When you take some incident … first, the first thing I always do is you read all the newspapers and magazines. Then you go to the letters, right, you go to the Johnson Library, to Moses’ archives, the Mayoral archives in New York and you try to find every letter, every memo that dealt with it. Then you try and find every person who was involved and you go and interview them. And then you, you go back and re-interview, if you have a memo on something. And you say, well, here is a memo and there were four people in this meeting … A, B, C and D. Now you go back to A and you say, “You know, you told me the memo meant this … but B says it meant ‘that’. How do you square this with what you say?” Then you go to C. And you keep going back and forth. And you arrive over and over again at something that’s very different from the press coverage.

HEFFNER: Again … what does that … how does that leave you? Obviously wanting to be a biographer and a historian …

CARO: (Laughter) Well, that’s …

HEFFNER: … rather than a journalist.

CARO: Well, that’s how it left me. You know, I mean there were many aspects of being a reporter … I was a reporter on Newsday for six years, and there were many aspects of being a reporter that I really loved. But there was one aspect that I truly hated and it had to do with time. I never felt that I had enough time to explore something to the end. So I always felt I was writing something that I really didn’t know enough about. Now after awhile I graduated to be an “investigative” reporter, so you might get two weeks, or even a month to look into something. I still was never done. And I really promised myself that if I ever got to write books I was going to take as much time as it took to satisfy … to answer every question that might arise. (Laughter) Now, one side of that is people criticize my book, I mean for taking too long on my books, and of course, each one, The Power Broker and the two Johnson books, has taken seven years. On the other hand, I almost think that you can’t put a time on something, you have to say, “I’m going to spend as much time as it takes.” On … if I can just go back to the rural electrification … see, no one had ever written about that. In every previous Johnson biography you had like one and a half pages … Johnson brought the world’s largest rural electrification co-op. When my wife and I … you know, I said I don’t understand the people down here, I don’t understand young Lyndon Johnson, so we’ll have to move to Texas. And we did move to Texas. And we lived down there for large hunks of three years. Actually just … just … I mean I’ve lived down a lot more than that … but this was the length of time I spent interviewing people in the hill country. And I gradually realized, and it was very slow, that no matter what I was asking people about … if I was asking about young Lyndon this or that … I was hearing over and over again the same phrase, which was some version of “no matter what Lyndon was like we loved him because he brought us the lights.” You know, “brought the lights” … you know, I’m a city boy like you … I thought well, they mean, electricity … I read that already …

HEFFNER: He turned the switch.

CARO: Right. But I gradually realized, and I remember thinking, “Gee, this is the greatest story I’ve ever heard … rural electrification is the most dramatic example of the uses of government to help people …” whereas I said before, “who are fighting forces too big for them ever to fight themselves. They’re never going to get electricity from a private power company.” I said I have to show what their lives were like, what the lives of these farm wives were like without electricity, and how he transformed them by bringing electricity. And I remember thinking, “God, this is going to take at least six months of my life.” I don’t remember how many, but it was at least six months of my life. But you have to, I mean it’s a great luxury and thrilling, I don’t mean it’s a hardship, to be able to say, “this deserves to be told. And I’m going to tell it in detail.” And you asked me several times about the stolen election … I would say the same … this deserves to be told and I’m going to tell it in detail. And it was the same reasoning which really goes back to political power in both cases.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that your concern to spend the time leads to the analysis of contemporary journalism that the problem with it, the problem with those headlines that you’re talking about, that are distortions of reality, is a function only of time?

CARO: (Laugher) I have no idea.

HEFFNER: Are we really going to let journalists off the hook that way?

CARO: (Laughter) No, Dick, but to tell you the truth, I don’t want to start analyzing contemporary journalists. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s fair enough.

CARO: (Laughter) I mean, we don’t have enough time. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, perhaps we don’t have enough bad things to say or a large enough vocabulary. Seriously, there’s a question I wanted to ask you … I was brought up … my President was Franklin D. Roosevelt. You’ve had the opportunity now to study Roosevelt obliquely. Have your thoughts about FDR changed …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … as you saw him from the vantage point of your biography of Johnson?

CARO: Well, that’s a good question. Of course, what I meant about journalists was in this program about Lyndon Johnson …

HEFFNER: Oh … (laughter)

CARO: … I didn’t want to get off on contemporary journalists. Yes. Because you see, Robert Moses is … you use the word “obliquely,” it’s been fascinating because both the young Robert Moses and the young Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt was a huge figure in their life. Franklin Roosevelt was Robert Moses’ most bitter enemy. I mean, these were two guys who hated each other from the moment they met. And Moses would spend a great deal of time trying to poison my mind against Roosevelt. At the same time in dealing with Moses, you know, when Roosevelt became Governor, he used his power to crush Moses down. And of course, later Moses used his brains to outwit, defeat Roosevelt in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel fight. And if Johnson … it’s fascinating because Johnson and Roosevelt struck up a rapport from the very beginning. Johnson really was a political genius and I think, James H. Roe who was one of Roosevelt’s advisers and Johnson … trying to explain this to me, said, “You know, Bob, you have to understand, very few people understood what Franklin Roosevelt was really talking about when he was talking politics.” Lyndon Johnson understood it from the very first conversation. And all through volume one and volume two we see Roosevelt is a figure in, in these two books, but he’s always in a figure in this relationship, you know, with Lyndon Johnson. And I really enjoyed learning about that, I have to say.

HEFFNER: Did you change your mind about …


HEFFNER: … FDR because of …

CARO: Oh …

HEFFNER: … your new view of him? A different view of him?

CARO: No. No, I didn’t.

HEFFNER: Do you see him, and I must ask you as … the word is a poor one … and as political as Johnson, were they really soulmates as you have just suggested?

CARO: Oh, well, that’s a question that would require a great … Roosevelt was certainly, you know … two great political geniuses … in the Presidency, you know, in the last certainly 50 years … are Roosevelt and Johnson. They …they were both political geniuses … I don’t know …

HEFFNER: Well, one feels about Johnson’s uses of power, not in the Presidency because I haven’t learned yet …
CARO: Right.

HEFFNER: … what you’re going to write. But we do know more about, as, as Jim Burns wrote The Lion and the Fox …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: Is there that kind of parallel between Johnson and Roosevelt … the lion and the fox?

CARO: Ah, I think that I … well, let’s … I’m not quite sure what you mean … Johnson fighting for civil rights, for the Great Society, for programs like Head Start was certainly a lion in my mind, and that’s the way he’s going to be portrayed. Johnson fighting the first Civil Rights legislation … through a Senate that was totally dominated by the South is certainly a lion, in my eyes. Was Johnson always a fox … he was always (laughter) also a fox. He’s a very complex man. As I think I said in your first program, though, there’s a big difference … I mean we said “what are the ends of Franklin Roosevelt’s life? And what are the ends of Lyndon Johnson’s life?” The great ends, the ends for which they’ll be remembered in history … Franklin Roosevelt’s great ends were bringing a country through a great depression which was hard to do and through a great war, a good war. Lyndon Johnson … the ends of Lyndon Johnson’s life were both positive … such as those, the Great Society, etc., but there was also the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the credibility gap and for that, you have to say the ends just like everything else in Lyndon Johnson’s life are very complicated.

HEFFNER: Bob, we have 30 seconds or so left. Not asking you to tell tales out of school, it’s the end of September as we tape this, 1990 … when will we do our next program …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … and when will we presumably do the last program … when will your volumes be complete?

CARO: (Laughter) Well, the next volume I’m writing right now. And I don’t think it will take as long as the other two because I’ve done a lot of the research already. The third volume is the entire Presidency, and I’m going to do it … I’m going to go to a Southern town, one of these Southern towns that never had …

HEFFNER: Third or the fourth?

CARO: The fourth one, the Presidency. I want to show the impact of the Voting Rights Act on a Southern community where the Blacks are now in power, and I want to go to Vietnam and show a village that was bombed by America, and it’s going to be a very long book.

HEFFNER: And I’m told that we have no more time. But thank you so much for joining today, Robert Caro.

CARO: Thank you.

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, today’s extraordinary guest, 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 another 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.