Robert Caro

On History, Biography, Literature … and Robert Caro, Part II

VTR Date: May 27, 2009

Historian Robert Caro discusses biography, history, and storytelling.


GUEST: Robert A. Caro
VTR: 05/27/09

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is once again my favorite man of letters, history and biography: Robert Caro, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Power Broker”, his splendid biography of Robert Moses, and for the three volumes thus far of his massive study, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”. We all eagerly await the fourth.

Now last time Bob Caro elaborated upon his answer to a Newsweek Magazine interviewer’s recent question: “I am trying to make clear through my writing,” explained my guest, “something which I believe: that biography – history in general – can be literature in the deepest and highest sense of that term.”

We went on from there and as we ended last week’s program, Bob Caro was starting to tell a story which was too long to fit into the moment we had left. So Bob, pick up now.

CARO: Well, a turning point in Lyndon Johnson’s life occurred in a single month, October of 1940. He’s in the House of Representatives, he’s 31 years old, a junior Congressman. And up ‘till that October you can see he’s a junior Congressman from the letters, the correspondence in the files at the Johnson Library.

When he writes the Chairman of a Committee or another senior Congressman, it’s always “Can I have a few minutes of your time?” … a junior to the senior. Suddenly, after election day which I think was November 4th, 1940, the letters have a different tone … the committee chairman … the senior Congressman are writing to this junior Congressman … “can I have a few minutes of your time?”.

So I wanted to find out what happened in that month. At that time I was interviewing all these old (meaning elderly) New Deal figures like … one was Tommy … Thomas J. … Corcoran
… Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran .. who was a, a Roosevelt aide, but also a very potent campaign manager, a money raiser in Washington. And I said, “What happened in that month?”

Corcoran used to call me “Kid”. And he said … I said, “What happened in that month?” And he said, “Money, Kid, money”. He said, “But you’re never going be able to write about that, kid.”

And I said, “Why not?”. And he said, “Because you’re never going to find anything in writing.”

Now I thought for some time, probably two or three years after he told me that, that that was going to be correct, because I knew that he was talking about campaign contributions. But I, I didn’t … you couldn’t document that and you couldn’t write in any detail about it unless you had documentation.

But as I started to say last week, I had this … when I was a young reporter I had this old, wonderful editor out of the old newspaper days … named Alan Hathway and he, when he was teaching me to be an investigative reporter said, “Never assume a damn thing”, he said, “turn every page.”

So I was down in the Johnson Library and of course, you can’t do this with all the Presidential papers because there’s hundreds of thousands, millions … tens of millions of pages. But you could do it for his Congressional years, there was a finite number of boxes, pages to be turned. So I’m going through every file, even those which supposedly had nothing to do with anything I was interested in.

And suddenly in one of them, there is the most astonishing document.

There are four typed sheets of paper, they were typed by John Connolly, who was Johnson’s … later the Secretary Navy and the Treasury Secretary … but then he was Johnson’s assistant and Walter Jenkins, another Johnson assistant.

There are three typed columns on every … on each of these pages … in the left hand column is the name of a Congressman. In the middle column is what he needs money for … “Lyndon … one more round of ads and I can win this”; “Lyndon, they’re going to outspend us for poll watchers, I’ve got to have money”. “Lyndon, we need this …” and in the right hand … that third column is the amount of money they’re asking for … which is … in 1940 … is so small … it might be a $1,000 or $1,500. But in the … now I knew what this was about … because Lyndon Johnson had made himself an official with the Democratic Senate … excuse me … the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Congressman were asking him for money.

So you have these three typed columns on the page, but in the left hand margin is writing by each name in Lyndon Johnson’s own handwriting. And next to some of the names it says … if he was giving them all the money they wanted … “okay”. If he was giving them part of the money he wanted, he would be “Okay, $1,500” or “Okay, $1,000”, whatever he was giving them. But sometimes Lyndon Johnson write “No”. And sometimes he wrote, by a name, “No, out.” And I remember I asked John Connolly … what did “No, out” mean? And Connolly said that meant the guy was never getting anything from Lyndon Johnson. You didn’t cross Lyndon Johnson.

And I was thinking up to that point that all my life I had been wanting to show, to prove, that economic power had an impact on the political process … never really able to do it the way I wanted to do. But all of a sudden I could because this was the rawest use of political power. Lyndon Johnson was a political genius, what he had seen in 1940 was … he was the … he was a junior Congressman who nobody listened to. But he saw that he possessed something that nobody else in Congress possessed.

He knew the Texas contractors and oilmen who needed favors and contracts from the Federal government, the oil depletion allowance … a thousand things … and were willing to pay … in the form of campaign contributions, to get it. But they wanted it. And he also … they were all Conservatives … reactionaries … the Texas Regulars, many of them … anti-Roosevelt.

He also knew all the Northeastern, Northern Congressman who were Liberals, but who needed money. He saw in an instant … if he could make himself the conduit, the only conduit between these two groups, he would have political power. He persuades the contractors and oilmen to give their contributions only through him. He lets it be known that if you want this money you have to go to him and in a, in a month he has created national power for himself … at the age of 31. And also he has enabled me to finally say, you don’t have to talk in academic terms … about how economic power influences the political process … here we have it in concrete terms. That probably took too long to tell, Dick. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: No, it didn’t take too long … it took … for many people it takes a lifetime and more …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … to understand that. Which leads me to the question of today. Do you see … it was my friend Jack Valenti who used to say, “Dick, the, the money is the … money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Ah, you see it today as much, as rawly … as often?

CARO: Don’t know because I, I … the one of the things I learned doing these books is that you don’t really know from what you read in the papers, you know … you have to really wait until you can go behind that. You know …

HEFFNER: Tell me about that. Guide to the modern newspaper reader.

CARO: Well, I, I sometimes think that what you read in the paper is like the, the shadow to the substance. It’ not … it’s part of what happens. You know, it’s like …. on something that you’re doing, you know … how does a civil rights bill get passed? How did Lyndon Johnson pass a civil rights bill?

You have all these stories, day by day, you know, on the maneuvering and all. But then you go down to the Johnson Library and you see the actual tally sheets, you know you can find all these stuff down there if, if you’re willing to spend enough time there.

Johnson kept the tally sheets himself … they’re long sheets of papers with the names then f 96 Senators on them. He filled in … you can see him cross and move a number from one column to the other. You know, there are thumb prints on these, on these tally sheets. His thumb print. Because what he used to do, he would hold the thing … and move his thumb down from one man to the other. And, you know, he never moved his thumb … until he knew which way the vote was going to be.

And when you then find out why votes were changed … that don’t ever … sometimes that don’t ever appear in the paper … like … before he was President, he passes the first Civil Rights Bill. In my last book, Master of the Senate, of all the things that he did … you say, “what is political genius?”. He wants to pass the first … no Civil Rights Bill has been passed since Reconstruction … 82 years … the South always stops it.

He’s looking, there’s no way he’s going to get this passed in ’57 and he wants it passed. He’s got to find a group of votes; he can’t do it one at a time.

In this genius that he has, he suddenly sees a connection between a canyon … in between Idaho and Oregon, on the Snake River, called Hell’s Canyon … and the Civil Rights Bill. The connection is that Westerners never go for Civil Rights all the way, but they’ve got … they’ve been wanting to get this dam built. And he arranges this very complicated deal where the West will support … it, it’s a very complicated … so but basically the West will support the Civil Rights Bill, if Hell’s Canyon is passed. And he makes that work in the Senate. You say, “that’s the only way this Bill got through.”

Now you don’t see … really … reading about … in the papers … the papers are treating the Hell’s Canyon dam built as one story and the Civil Rights Bill as another story.

Only through the papers where you see, you know … and the interviews … you know … I mean I remember interviewing Bethine Church who was the widow of, I think a friend of yours … the widow of Frank Church, who comes to the Senate … if I have this date wrong, forgive me … I think in … the year before … and Bethine said, “You know Frank wasn’t really … that wasn’t a bit issue in Idaho. Civil Rights.”

And Johnson inspires Frank Church … what … it’s what people leave out about Lyndon Johnson …that’s what my books are trying to make clear. He inspires him … he says to Frank Church, among other things, he says, “You know, Frank, you are not a Senator just from Idaho, you are a Senator of the United States …” and he … and, and Bethine said, “You know and he would talk at our dinner table about how he was a school teacher when he was in Cataula, down in this Mexican town near the border, the kids didn’t have text books and what it meant not to have textbooks.” And he said … she said those were some of the most passionate evenings I ever spent in my life and at the end of them, Frank was for civil rights.

HEFFNER: With all of this behind you and in front of you in terms of the next volume, do you ever feel that you have something to say, or something to convey to the new administration in Washington?

CARO: (Laughter) Well …

HEFFNER: Without, without revealing what you’re writing …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … in the last volume.

CARO: Well I think the new administration is doing just fine without me. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But if you were to make some judgments as to what … from what in the past … Lyndon Johnson’s past … would be relevant to the Obama Administration …

CARO: Well, something is very relevant, but it’s not a piece of advice or anything. You know it comes out … also out of my last book, Master of the Senate. I mean I can’t get over the fact that when Johnson sets out to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965, basically African Americans hardly vote in the 11 Southern states, they’re not a political force.

So when Johnson is in the Oval Office, in the White House … you know, then I don’t know what’s happening … then you could hear the protesters and pickets chanting out on Pennsylvania Avenue … because it wasn’t sealed off then. And they were chanting at him, you know … we shall over … they were singing “We shall overcome” … saying we’ll win without you. You know they were saying, “Hey, hey, LBJ … just you wait, see what happens in ‘68”. Because they thought he wasn’t supporting civil rights. He was going to support civil rights, he was going to get this Bill through. But that was the atmosphere then.

African Americans really held only a fraction of the political power they should. Today an African American sits in the Oval Office. I can’t get over that. I mean … it’s like … that’s just 43 years ago … you know in a blink of history’s eye.

So whenever I look at the Obama Administration, I am so thrilled by that fact that I, that I … that’s what I think about.

HEFFNER: Which, which of your volumes is it in which you … in your preface, I believe it is, you talk about the red line and the black line that runs through everyone’s biography …

CARO: Oh …

HEFFNER: … was it the second one?

CARO: Did the dark, the dark line and the bright line …

HEFFNER: Yes. And for you the bright line was Johnson and Civil Rights issues.

CARO: Johnson and Civil Rights issues and Johnson and the poor. Johnson … I mean I feel he always, whatever his other elements are … and I think I spend enough time showing what the other elements in this character … he always, in my opinion, had this drive … burning desire to help the poor … particularly the poor of color, but poor in general. You know he gave speeches which people don’t remember … “Why should you be a Democrat? Because the Democrats are the Party that helped the bent and the stooped. That’s not blacks, that’s the elderly.

HEFFNER: You know, I don’t want to let you go now until we talk about bit more about this, this Charles A. Beard notion of “All recorded history being an act of faith.” You … you seem to put an opposition “the act of faith” and the heavy research, the real digging for facts. Do you mean to do that?

CARO: Yeah. Ahmmm … well … in opposition … you ask such good questions … you have to think about … I wouldn’t say “in opposition to”. I would add to it that that lessens the faith element and increases the fact element.

HEFFNER: But you know, I was thinking my little Documentary History of the United States came out … god help me … in 1952. And I wrote then about the “permanent Roosevelt revolution”. And over the years there were so many times when I wondered “how could I have written that?” … what about Ronald Reagan? And then, what about the first Bush and then certainly the second George Bush.

So this time with the new volume coming out in the fall, I actually went back … didn’t change it … but added an asterisk and wrote about changing, changing interpretations …

CARO: Yes.

HEFFNER: … of history. And how invalid my reading had been that there was no permanent Roosevelt revolution. Do you feel like that at any time? I mean before … or in our last program, I asked you … do you go back and read what you’ve written in The Power Broker or in the Johnson books and feel that somehow or other, given the course of history since you wrote it, you would write it differently?

CARO: Well, no … I, I … as I say I read The Power Broker …

HEFFNER: Mmm, all the way through …

CARO: … and I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t change anything in that.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that give you or claim for you a kind of omniscience at the moment that you write that isn’t given to mankind?

CARO: No, I, I … no, I, I would put it a different way. I would say if you’re writing about an episode … an episode and you are … I mean what you say is correct … if you’re looking at, you know, the overall sweep of history …

HEFFNER: The past.

CARO: Well … yes … Martin Luther King, you know, said, “the moral ark of the universe bends slowly, but it bends towards justice.” Now let’s say … that up until Obama … when he first started running, I didn’t think he was going to win. Ah, that’s a way of looking … you know now, we see that the ark bent rather fast … in 43 years … but it, but it does bend. So you would write something in a different way now than you would have two years ago, when he was starting to running.

But that’s not really what I’m talking about an omniscience on the overall thing. What I was talking about was writing about episodes, about specific things that happened. Why a civil rights bill was passed? Why someone gets political power. What I was speaking of is if before you write you collect as many facts about the episode as you can, then the chances are that you’re, that you’re going to get something … you’re going to have to change your opinion … are lessened because you’ve done the work, you know, as much factual work as you can. That’s a different thing … we’re talking about … in, in my view … something two different here. I, I … anyway I interpreted it as different.

HEFFNER: No, I, I, I see what you mean. I just … I guess Beard affected me so greatly when I first … I mean it was … Beard said that at a … when he was President of the American Historical Association and wrote that … delivered that speech … his presidential address … and then I think it was the following year that Samuel Elliot Morison who disagreed, talked about … I think his title of his speech was “History Through A Beard” because he wanted to reject that notion of “act of faith”. And I find myself very much impressed with it; that seemed less than you do … the facts, facts, facts leading to what seems to me has to be an interpretation …

CARO: Well, I don’t think … if I can just …

HEFFNER: Please …

CARO: … say I don’t feel it’s just facts, facts, facts, you see. In the last program I said it’s facts, facts, facts plus you have to get the whole feeling of the time. I mean … I don’t know if I have time to do this now … but you want to say … you talk about the Roosevelt revolution, well I remember saying to my wife, Ina, we were down in Texas in the hill country … I said, “I am going to try to add something to that. I’m going to try to find a Roosevelt program and examine it from beginning to end. Not just the facts of it, I’m going to try to see the background it came out of and what it produced”.

And I took … Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration. When he started 95% of the farms in America didn’t have electricity including almost all of them in the Texas hill country.

Johnson, as a young Congressman, brought electricity there. I said, “Let’s take this program, let’s find out what the lives were like before electricity, let’s find out how Johnson got the electricity and let’s look at the lives 50 years later.”

And when you do that … and we spent a lot of time doing that … we probably spent a year of our lives interviewing, you had to find these … I mean it’s not facts, facts, facts … you, you have the facts, but you also have to go to these old, elderly farm ladies because they would be in the late seventies or eighties to remember when Johnson brought them electricity in 1939 and ’40. Say “What was your life like before? What was your life like afterwards?”

If you interview enough of them you feel you can create the picture of this world. This isn’t a world that you, that you’re taking on as an act of faith … that’s only part of history.

What I believe … when I … you say … you can create, if you’re willing to spend enough time in it, you can create a world … to, to this day … one of my most wonderful … I get this all the time … because you give talks around the country … to the National Association of Rural Electrification Cooperative … and women came up to me … it used to be very elderly women when the book first came out … that was the first book, The Path to Power that this was in.

They’d say, “Thank you for writing that section.” It’s called the Sad Iron … they say, “Thank you for writing that section. I was trying to tell my daughter what my life was like and I couldn’t make her understand. And now I can make her understand.”

Those women now, it’s younger women, college aged kids, come up to me and say, “Thank you for telling …for telling this story because my grandmother tried to tell me what it was like to be on the farm when they had to pull up the water themselves out of the well, every bucket of water. I really couldn’t understand it.”

A historian can do something that’s a lot more than an act of belief and that is a lot more than facts, facts, facts. The historian can create a world so that when the world is gone the world still lives and therefore the world will endure.

When I speak of wanting my books to endure, it’s because you want people to know how hard lives were for women on the farms before there was electricity. That’s part of what being a historian means to me.

HEFFNER: You know you sound eminently like my friend Elie Wiesel when he comes and speaks about memory.

CARO: Well …

HEFFNER: You are providing memory in what you’ve written. You did it with The Power Broker and you’ve done it now with, with these, these volumes on Johnson, you really re-create … it is … I guess in its purest sense … sounds silly to say … it’s history. And you must be very pleased with that, that you have given those people you’re talking about … you provided for me and so many people a memory that they don’t have themselves. Is that what you’re going to have written on the tombstone? Memory?

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Have you ever thought of that?

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I don’t mean to be grim.

CARO: I, I … you know what Balzac wanted written on his tombstone?


CARO: “Let it be said when he is dead, his sins they were scarlet, but his books, they were read”.

HEFFNER: Indeed, you must have thought about that then Bob …

CARO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … since you remember it so well. What’s the future course of … without revealing anything since I know you won’t (laugh) anyway? What can we expect in the years ahead in the Johnson … field?

CARO: Well, I’m writing …

HEFFNER: From Caro?

CARO: … well, I’m writing this last volume now, you know, and learning it seems like very month something we … you know, that I didn’t know before. So it’s quite fascinating.

One thing that I’m doing in this last volume, without trying to go into any specifics is, there’s a whole … you have three main characters in this last volume, Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. And a lot of this book is about the interplay of these three fascinating personalities.

And the impact that that interplay had on the whole course of history in, in the 1960s. So you’re, you’re just absolutely fascinated by it. And I, I find that I don’t know what we can look forward to, if we’re going to look forward to another book (laugh) …

HEFFNER: Say that again.

CARO: We’re going to look forward to another book (laughter)

HEFFNER: You mean two more volumes?

CARO: No. No. No.

HEFFNER: Okay. And it’s going to be a rather massive book I gather. Does that take you further into Bobby and Jack’s own biographies?

CARO: Well, yes. Yes because you can’t … you know in all my books I use biographies as a way of telling stories. As a way of telling … one thing we didn’t go into … you know I hate books that sort of have a lecturing tone. I feel if you can pick the right character, you can show something without having to give a lecture on it.

Like, if you tell the life of Sam Rayburn, you’re telling the story of Texas populism because that, that’s … if you, if you tell the story of Al Smith … you’re telling the rise of Irish Catholicism in political power in New York.

HEFFNER: And guess what I’m being told. Our time is up … thank you so much Bob Caro.

CARO: A pleasure. Always a pleasure.

HEFFNER: 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 $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR 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.