Robert Caro on Lyndon Baines Johnson
VTR Date: September 16, 1998
Guest: Caro, Robert
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert A. Caro
Title: Robert Caro On Lyndon Baines Johnson
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And every time I see my favorite historian and journalist, Robert Caro, whose The Power Broker about Robert Moses won the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize, and whose first two volumes of a monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson each won the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award, among others, I press him mercilessly for the next of that series … and then the next.
After all, at 73 I want to make darn sure that I’m still around to read and to savor them. That’s one pleasure I don’t want to have to forego.
Earlier, of course, my guest had to contend with the loud and rather wily criticisms of Lyndon Johnson’s old cronies and partisans. And when we all do finally have the pleasure of near total immersion in the Caro/Johnson volumes to come, I want to ask my guest if we’ll likely have to witness the same kind of partisan author-bashing he experienced when volume one, The Path To Power, and then volume two, Means of Ascent, were first published. What do you think, Bob, are you going to, you know, hunker down and be ready for those attacks?
CARO: Oh, you know, they go away and the books go right on, I’m happy to say. I think that people like Jack Valenti, you know will always go on hating my books. The character … the story gets a lot more complicated because while the character of Lyndon Johnson does not change, the first two volumes were really about how he obtained power … Path To Power and Means of Ascent. Now, when the third volume, the one I’m working on now begins he has power, he’s in the Senate and we’re going to see him in an amazingly short time. I mean, you know, the Senate then, they said the only thing that matters is seniority … you have to wait several terms to get power in the Senate. In four years after Lyndon Johnson arrived in the Senate he was the Democratic leader of the Senate. The Senate then was dominated by the South, there were fourteen great Standing Committees of the Senate, nine of them were chaired by Southerners, and they were the ranking members of the other five. In four more years after he becomes Democratic leader, Lyndon Johnson passes the first Civil Rights Bill since Reconstruction … a wonderful, magnificent achievement. So we see him, in this book, I’m writing about it right now, using power for really wonderful ends. So I suppose in answer to your question, which I hadn’t really thought about … I suppose some people will say, “oh, Caro’s changed his opinion of Johnson”. Not at all, it’s still the same guy. But he’s using this power for wonderful ends. It’s like … compassion, which he showed, there were always hints of it in his early life. But they were totally subordinated to his desire to get power. Now that can start to flower a little bit.
HEFFNER: When we did program on the second volume…
HEFFNER: Ascent to Power I read … well no, it wasn’t on the program we did, it was on a program that James MacGregor Burns and Jack Valenti and I did when I read, at the beginning of the program … those wonderful paragraphs of yours in which you said, “Absent from this volume will be the threads of red … threads of red and threads of black run through every man’s life. This book you won’t see the threads of red though…
HEFFNER: … they will appear in the future”. And then there were these wonderful paragraphs and your description of what Johnson contributed to the life of the Black person in America.
CARO: Well, I…
HEFFNER: Very touching.
CARO: Well, I … I had forgotten that you did that. I mean I now I remember writing there, you know, that it was Abraham Lincoln who struck the shackles from Black Americans. But it was Lyndon Johnson who took them by the hand, led them into the voting booth and made them forever a true part of American political life. Those paragraphs I was really thinking more about the Presidency, but in fact it starts right … I say “right now” because that’s what I’m doing right now … right in the Senate. You really can’t believe, I mean when he sets out to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 … you say, “this is impossible”. The Southerners have the power in the Senate …for a hundred years, the Senate has stopped Civil Rights legislation. Johnson sets out, and you know you see him, I mean you see him … it’s legislative genius. You know … well, you ask such good questions … I always go off in tangents because they’re complicated answers. But we don’t have much examination in America of what legislative genius is. In England you have it because they have Disraeli and Gladstone and a parliamentary system. But here we don’t really know what legislative genius is, as opposed to executive, Presidential genius. But in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson is showing true legislative genius. And the threads, the bright threads of his life, start to now show up. But that does not mean, because I don’t anyone to get the wrong idea, that does not mean that there not going to be dark threads … they’re still there now. Johnson’s life is a very complicated life.
HEFFNER: Why do you protest. Why are you concerned about someone getting the idea….
HEFFNER: … that Caro suddenly has changed his view of Johnson?
CARO: Well, because you asked me, “how will the Johnson people”, you know, “feel about it”? None of my books are going to be complimentary enough of Lyndon Johnson to suit them. I’m really just answering your question.
HEFFNER: Well, now, you know that then brings us back to what the criticism of the first two volumes … now, you know, I’m aware that you’re so totally immersed in your work, and it’s such a delight … and the program we just finished on The Power Broker and Robert Moses … anything else we’ve ever done together, your enthusiasm for what you’re doing, you’re total immersion in what your writing is so great, that I know that if I wanted to be a real son of a bitch, I could get Caro to go on with his enthusiasm about Johnson in the Senate, and you would do what I now you really don’t want to do at this point and that is to talk at too great length about a book that hasn’t yet appeared. So I’m not going to do that.
HEFFNER: But I am going to take you back to this question of the criticism at the time of the first two volumes that you had made up your mind about Johnson before you ever began the massive, massive research that led to those two volumes.
CARO: What do you mean, “made up my mind”…
HEFFNER: About him.
CARO: By the paragraphs
HEFFNER: About him.
CARO: … by the paragraphs that you read?
HEFFNER: No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no. Because those were several paragraphs that appeared at the beginning…
HEFFNER: … of the second volume which then is a devastating picture…
CARO: I hope so.
CARO: Because what he did was devastating.
HEFFNER: A devastating picture of what he did.
HEFFNER: … and I want to know, because I keep saying to those who are that critical, that isn’t true, Caro is a real historian and a real journalist in the best sense of both terms. And that he went to find out about Johnson and what he found out is what you read…
HEFFNER: … in these hundreds and hundreds of pages. Now, how do you, how do you confront those who say, “no, he had an ax to grind”.
CARO: Oh, I don’t confront it at all. You know, I just go along … the second volume is about Lyndon Johnson stealing an election. That’s why it’s called Means of Ascent. How does he get to power? How does he get to the Senate? He gets it in the way that I describe. Now when he’s running for the Senate in 1948, we see, I mean, you know, before … when I started I said, well, everyone said, “no one will ever know if Lyndon Johnson stole that election”.
HEFFNER: Now we know.
CARO: Well, I would hope so. Because it wasn’t even … I mean, it isn’t even necessary to rely on interviews. We have the contemporary evidence which apparently no one had ever bothered to look at. And it certainly not in any detail. There were three, in effect, trials. They’re called Federal Masters and Chancery Hearings, in which dozens … I used to know the number … but scores of witnesses testified to exactly what happened in that election. And I was able to find the very election judge, you know, who was responsible for the district that six days after the election they found this box with the extra votes. Now, if anyone thought that I shouldn’t write that and write it in detail, that’s their problem. I believe that it’s very important to show what a stolen election is. You know, in this country, people say, “oh, all elections are stolen”. Absolutely right. They don’t say, “all elections”, they say, “many elections, you know, you have stolen votes”. Absolutely right. Is that a reason not to really show what a stolen election is? I don’t think so. And I thought this was the perfect election to show it because it changed the course of American history because without it Lyndon Johnson would not have been President. He would not, he was going to leave politics forever if he had lost, and therefore that election was historically significant. But more than that, we live in a democracy. And power in a democracy is supposed to come from a ballot box, not from a dictator’s gun, but from a ballot box. If the electoral process is poisoned to the extent that it is poisoned that, to that extent, the democratic political power is poisoned at its very core. When I came across this story. I said, “I’m going to show this. I am going to show people exactly what a stolen election is”. I don’t have anything else to say.
HEFFNER: Well, you did it…
HEFFNER: … you did it to a fare-thee-well and I was standing there on the sidelines cheering because of the excellence of your reportage. It was real history and real journalism. But, of course, in the first volume you weren’t surprised when you got to the second and to the election, the stolen election and what happened to Coke Stevenson. You weren’t surprised because you had painted…
CARO: Oh, well…
HEFFNER: … very much a parallel picture in his earlier years.
CARO: Well, of course … just to stay on stolen elections. In the … you know in Lyndon Johnson’s Path To Power I have some phrase which I don’t quite remember any more, was paved with stolen elections. We see it. In college, in an election which really, basically, didn’t mean very much, before he came along. He saw on this little college campus that a campus election could give him real power because the President of that …whatever position he had there, I forget, dispensed campus jobs and this was a poor people’s … poor boys … poor young people’s college in the middle of the hill country. The guy who gave out these little campus jobs had the power to tell these farm and ranch young people if they were going to be able to stay in school. He wanted it, and there was the first election. I couldn’t believe that, you know … I mean you went to the yearbooks, you know, and I had no idea of these things. When I went … you say, well a college career, how much are you going to give to the college career? How much time are you going to spend on it in a book? Not very much I certainly plan. Then you start reading the college yearbook and the college newspaper and you see that the opinion that his fellow classmates had about him was so much like the opinion that the country got about him when he was President. You say, “well, this is really significant”. In a way, it’s almost more significant if you’re doing a biography because in the college years you see the personality without the complications of international or national policies or complications. You see the, the character. If you’re doing a biography, you see … I don’t mean only the bad side. But you see the character and then, of course, when he gets to Washington the first thing he does … he becomes a member of something called “The Little Congress” which is the organization of Congressional Secretaries. He wants to be head of that because it means power among the world of Capitol Hill. And he steals that election, too. So you certainly, you have the same, what you would call dark threads, what I call dark threads, running through his life. As you do …his inability… you know, when he’s President, we see the credibility gap. That was the, you know, the beginning of the major distrust of this century of an American President. And we see him … in college what is he known as … he’s known as Bull, for bullshit, Johnson. And when you would talk to the people who knew him, they would say the thing abut him is you would find him lying one day, and you’d catch him in the lie and then the next day you’d listen to him and he’d be telling the same story again, as if you hadn’t caught him. Now, on the other side, I have to say, that in the first volume, we also see the bright threads. We see him teaching the Mexican American kids. Now that’s the other side. And there he’s the first teacher who ever cared, the first Anglo teacher who ever cared if those kids learned or not. And his devotion to them and his working long hours to teach them English, to get them … to get them so they had baseball games like the White kids had. That’s simply wonderful and noble. And, of course, we see that now in civil rights. He’s going to now carry that thread on a national scene. We also see in the first volume how he transforms the lives of the people of the hill country by bringing them electricity. He brings them into the twentieth century. The anti-poverty program. I would say that on both the dark and the bright sides, everything we see as Lyndon Johnson as President is pre-figured in his early life.
HEFFNER: Now, turning back to the dark threads … or let’s be neutral about it, just the use of power. I mean again the question of power, The Power Broker, Robert Moses, Ascent To Power, the uses of power. I ask you a question, we’ve just completed a program that deals essentially with your book on Robert Moses. I asked you a question to begin with in that program, and I’m going to put it to you again, and we’ll read it…
HEFFNER: … so I don’t say the wrong thing because we never really got around to it. And it was a legitimate one. And I said, right now, this last … the last program we did, I want to focus on The Power Broker and on Robert Moses, as the basis for asking Mr. Caro, from today’s perspective, what his reactions are to Thomas Carlyle’s well-noted assertion 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”. Now I know you haven’t finished Johnson, but on what you have done on Johnson and what you did do on the Broker and your life. How do you respond to that notion?
CARO: Why, I respond in a less … my feeling would be a little less direct than those two quotes. I feel that when you’re examining history, history is an equation in which a lot of different factors come into … and one of them is the factor of personal power. Sometimes with weak Presidents, say, or weak Mayors or whatever, that personality has less weight than other factors. But in the case of both Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, these two men of immense and opposite personalities, that factor of personality has a huge weight and turns the tide of history. It doesn’t shape history all by itself as those quotes would indicate, but you really say with Robert Moses the history of New York would have been different had Robert Moses never lived. You can’t say that New York would have been a better city if he had never lived, or a worse city if he never lived. But you have to say, after examining his life, that New York would have been a different city had Robert Moses never lived. And with Lyndon Johnson, when I finish I think we will see that his Presidency was a watershed in American history— the 20th century. A watershed … I used that in a sort of a precise meaning, it’s like a continental divide, that’s what a watershed … a divide is what a watershed is … on one side of it the waters run one way, the other side they run the other way … with Johnson that’s both for the better … the Great Society, affirmative action, Head Start, Civil Rights, and for the worse … Vietnam, foreign policy, distrust of the Presidency.
HEFFNER: Why are you so attracted to this theme in history or in, in your writing? Great men. Great in the sense of very important men.
CARO: Well, that’s … I don’t know that I’m attracted to very important men in general. See I use … I never thought of my books as simply biographies. I never was interested in simply writing a story of a great man. I turned to Robert Moses because I felt that if I could, through his life, since he was never elected to anything, yet he had more power than anyone who was elected … if I could show where he got that power, how he used it and how he shaped the City with it, I would be showing something about urban power. Not just power in New York but power in all the cities of America. Then I wanted to do Lyndon Johnson because he does national power, he understood national power better than anyone since Roosevelt. That’s the reason I…
HEFFNER: How would you contrast the two men?
CARO: Oh, in one very important way, they’re the same, they both wanted to change the world. Robert Moses to change New York. Lyndon Johnson to change the world. In other ways, they’re so opposite … because Johnson you think of … he deals with human beings, he’s the great reader of men. He puts his arm around you, grabs your label, he leans into you and tells you whatever is going to persuade you to his way of thinking. Robert Moses despised human beings, had contempt the individual human beings, and thought he was smarter than everyone. When I think of Lyndon Johnson I think of the arm around … with Moses it’s like this … he didn’t want anyone touching him, and he … his way of getting power was to retreat from people. To take his yellow legal pad into this private office, to shut the door, and write this legislation which no one understood, but which when the Legislature passed it, they could never get him out of power.
HEFFNER: Both means quite effective.
CARO: [Laughter] Two men who changed the world.
HEFFNER: Two men who changed the world. You mentioned before something about, like Roosevelt, which one? I mean I know that from re-reading and reading The Power Broker that Roosevelt and Moses were just enemies…
CARO: Terrible, terrible…
HEFFNER: … to start with and to end with.
CARO: … enemies. Yeah. But Roosevelt and Johnson, you know there was a close affinity. And Roosevelt, you know, met Johnson when Johnson was this 28 year old Congressman just coming to Washington. And immediately there was this affinity. And they became quite close and Roosevelt once said to, I think, Jim Rowe … “you know this kid could be the first Southern President of the United States”. And I asked Jim Rowe, who was one of Roosevelt’s confidants and assistants … what Roosevelt saw in him. He said, “You’ve gotta understand. These were two political geniuses”. Roosevelt was a political genius and most people didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. Lyndon Johnson since the first time he met Roosevelt you could see he understood it all. And I think Roosevelt knew that.
HEFFNER: And the connection, therefore, was that … the political genius here and the political genius there, grasping on to each other…
CARO: I think in large part, yes. There were other considerations, but in large part, yes.
HEFFNER: You haven’t researched Roosevelt’s life, but you know a good deal about it.
CARO: Well, I had to actually spend a lot of time going through Roosevelt’s gubernatorial papers to look … because Moses was one of his appointees. And Roosevelt is just such a big figure in both the first two volumes, you know, on Johnson.
HEFFNER: I’m so glad that you make that point, because I want to ask you then as to what your researches, over the years and there have been many years now, lead you to think about Roosevelt.
CARO: The more you deal with, the more you encounter Roosevelt, the greater you feel that he is. You really do feel that on the eve of his coming to power America was on the brink of chaos. I mean we don’t even remember it anymore. The farmers marching, the farmers’ strikes … the banks … on 42nd Street the depositors for The Bowery Savings Bank lined up, four abreast to withdraw their money. He comes into office, he gives his great, “the only thing we have to fear itself” speech and wonderful uplifted head and when the banks re-opened the lines are gone. The country … he changed the world and I …you’re just lost in admiration for Roosevelt. You know if you had enough lifetimes you’d really like to write a biography of him.
HEFFNER: Would you?
CARO: Oh, yes. [Laughter] But I won’t.
HEFFNER: Black threads and red threads?
CARO: Well, with Roosevelt you really … with Roosevelt I haven’t researched the early life … I don’t know that I can … with Roosevelt it’s very bright. You know, to try to compare Lyndon Johnson with Roosevelt … you say, “well, Roosevelt brought American out of the Great Depression and he won a war against Fascism, against the totalitarian forces of the world”. Lyndon Johnson’s war was Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson did not leave the country unified, going ahead as Roosevelt did. Great difference.
HEFFNER: Do you think that if you researched Roosevelt, if you dug the way you dug into Johnson’s life that you would feel differently?
CARO: Well, you never, you never know the answer to that very good question…
HEFFNER: But your assumption is no.
CARO: Well, my assumption is because of what I said to you.
CARO: Look at The Power Broker … was it on this program that I said I used the epigraph of Sophocles, “one must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been”. If you look at the evening of Roosevelt’s life, the end of Roosevelt’s life … what a great life. Now you cannot look at Lyndon Johnson’s life, honestly, and say it was a triumph and that when he left the Presidency, I mean he couldn’t run again, and he was very unpopular, the country was in chaos. It took many years for the country to recover from the divisions that started in the 1960’s. Were they all do to Lyndon Johnson? No, of course not. But you can’t really equate the two Presidents.
HEFFNER: That’s interesting to say that, that it’s such an absolute statement on both sides that you’re making in terms of the two men … or the three men. You’re absolutely convinced about Moses and absolutely convinced about Johnson … and posed against them for Franklin Roosevelt. I want you to do…
HEFFNER: Franklin Roosevelt, therefore. Is there any counterpart … we have less than a minute left … is there any counterpart to the approach that you’ve taken with a major figure in our history? The approach that you’ve taken with Moses and with Johnson … can you think of other biographies that…
CARO: Well, you know, one thing that…
HEFFNER: In a half minute…
CARO: In a half minute? I do a lot of … I always work in the original documents and with the original people through papers and interviews to a terrific– great extent.
HEFFNER: And I’m being told to say good-bye. Good bye, Robert Caro
CARO: Very nice being here.
HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another 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.