Once a decade, readers are prompted to remember one of the most ambitious, accomplished, and astonishing historical and biographical works of our time: Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The fourth volume of this monumental exploration of political power in the second half of the twentieth century was published earlier this year to both critical and popular acclaim. The Passage of Power encompasses in its narrative the 1960 presidential election; LBJ’s unsatisfying, often humiliating stint as John F. Kennedy’s vice president; Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent national crisis of grief and government; and, with incisive attention, the dramatic — one might aptly call them heroic — first seven weeks of Johnson’s tenure in the White House. Continuing the story previously unfolded in earlier volumes — The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), and Master of the Senate (2002)– The Passage of Power makes riveting reading in this election year, continuing what I can’t help but characterize as an ongoing public works project so grand that even Robert Moses, the subject of Mr. Caro’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Power Broker, might be jealous.
During the summer, I was fortunate to spend several hours talking with Robert Caro in his office in midtown Manhattan — a sparely decorated room dominated by bookshelves, file cabinets, and a cork-lined wall on which were posted sheets outlining the fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a work in progress. The only machinery in sight was a small portable typewriter. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. — James Mustich
James Mustich: Obviously, the research that you do is enormous. How do you start to structure that into a narrative?
Robert Caro: Do you want me to take you through it step by step?
RC: Can I start by saying I am not giving advice to other writers? Everybody has to work out their own method. This is what works for me. It took me a long time to figure it out, because when I was doing The Power Broker, I had compiled this mass of stuff, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
I try to do all of the research before I start writing. That never really works out the way you planned it, of course, because when you get into the actual writing of a chapter you always realize there’s something you need and didn’t get. But I do the great bulk of the research before I start writing. While I’m researching — going through files and interviewing — I try to make myself not think about what shape the book is going to take so that I won’t influence which way I’m looking. I’m just doing the research.
After I’ve done most of the research, I make myself sit down and try to think through the book, so that I can say what it’s about in one paragraph, or two. For The Passage of Power, actually it took three. That, in a way, is the hardest part of all. What, at its heart, is this book really about? What do you want to say in it? Figuring this out can take quite a long time. You have to make yourself just sit there, sometimes for many days, and think. It’s not an easy thing for me. If I told you how many days — weeks — it takes sometimes, you wouldn’t believe me. But if I’ve done it, boiled the book down to just a very few sentences, everything after that becomes simpler for me.
I type those sentences on an index card and tack it up on this corkboard beside my desk. I’ve taken the card for Passage down now because I’ve finished, but it sat up there all the time I was working on the book.
Doing that first solves what otherwise would be a major problem with my books: the fact that they contain long digressions, like biographies of Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell, or a narrative of the Texas Hill Country, or a history of the Senate. The digressions have a purpose: to give the reader a picture of the times and places you’re writing about, of the historical forces — segregation in Russell’s case, Texas populism in Rayburn’s, for example — that are embodied in the careers of these figures. But a digression has to get back to the main thread of the book. And as long as I have the theme simply stated — as long as I have the basic theme of the book in a compact form on that index card — I can write the digressions, keep them tied to the main thread of the book, and at the end bring them back to the main thread of the book, so that the book doesn’t lose its momentum. Whenever I start to feel lost — which is frequently — I can look at that one or two paragraphs, and bring the digression back to it, and that helps to keep the book moving forward.
The second thing I do is what you see here [points to cork-lined wall, roughly ten feet high and fifteen feet long, populated with legal sheets of typed notes]. That’s what those sheets on the corkboard are. It’s a detailed outline of the whole book. These sheets are for the next book, the fifth volume. Once I have the theme, I make this outline. If you’d come before I finished Passage, you would have seen an outline that covered the whole wall.
Then the next step is, I go to these notebooks [points to a row of binders on his desk] and I elaborate the outline in mostly handwritten notes, my thoughts and whatever. I don’t know if you’re interested in this stuff.
JM: Yes, I am.
RC: [referring to open notebook that deals with Passage] This is the part about him going down to the ranch. Somewhere up on the wall on those outline pages, there was probably a sentence saying, for instance, that when Johnson was down on the ranch he was seized with euphoria because of all he was accomplishing in the presidency. So then I elaborated that into, “and as deep as his depression had been only a few weeks before, that was how high his euphoria was.” Then I go to my files [rises and crosses room to bank of file cabinets and opens a drawer] and I put in — in red numbered annotations — the material that demonstrates that.
All these files are numbered. I go through the files one at a time. These are my interviews. I index these interviews into those notebooks I was showing you. So as I am elaborating the outline, I ask myself, “What do I have to prove?” And I go through the relevant interviews and show where I found that. If I say, “He was depressed before, but now he was happy,” and I have a quote from one of his assistants saying, “Boy, he was happy.” Here you can see it [opens an interview file]: “His euphoria carried him away.” Then I transfer the interview number to the notebook in red. That’s all the handwritten stuff you can see in the notebooks, with a lot of red stuff — that’s how I do it.
Can I say again, I’m not trying to give anyone advice. This is just what I’ve found works for me. I really worked it out, out of desperation, really, if you want to know the truth, to try and find a way of handling all this material.
JM: So you take the outline, you flesh it out with the research, and then you compose from that notebook that has everything you need at hand.
RC: Exactly. I’ll tell you why I do that. When I realized I really wanted these books to be written, not just a collection of facts, that I wanted them to have moods and rhythms just like a novel, I said, “I don’t want to be stopping and having to go and look through a lot of files. I want to be able to just write.” But I want to know every point has been proven and tied back to the research.
JM: You say you want them to be written, and I’d like to talk about that very thing. Because in reading the book, I kept coming upon passages that were marvelous examples of how you’ve achieved that end. There’s one in the chapter, called “The Drums.” You’re describing the procession carrying Kennedy’s casket from the White House to the Capitol. Let me read this passage:
After three blocks, the procession wheeled around the corner by the Treasury Building, and suddenly, facing the marchers a mile away, rearing up — huge, gleaming, almost dazzlingly white against the clear blue sky, thrusting up out of a base so long that it seemed to fill the horizon — was the dome of the Capitol. Stretching along the base, the building that held the two chambers of Congress, were tall white marble columns and the pilasters that are the echo of the columns, and the dome was circled with columns, too, circled by columns not only in its first mighty upward thrust, where it was rimmed by thirty-six great pillars (for the thirty-six states that Union had comprised when it was built), but circled by columns also high above, hundreds of feet above Pennsylvania Avenue, where, just below the Statue of Freedom, a circle of thirteen more slender shafts (for the thirteen original states) made the tholos, a structure modeled after the place where the Greeks let sacrifices to the gods, look like a little temple in the sky. As that long procession moved down that broad avenue before the packed, silent throng, to the thunderous roll of the muffled drums, it was moving toward columns atop columns, columns in the sky — a procession carrying the body of a republic’s slain ruler, in all the stateliness and pomp a republic could muster, toward a structure that represented, and embodied, all a republic’s majesty.
When I read that, I said to myself, “There is real joy in those sentences” — a joy of authorship the reader can feel, despite the sorrowful scene it presents. The tone is set with such resonance — it’s like the prose is summoning the mood you’re describing out of the past. The narrative flow perfectly captures the solemnity of what’s going on. It’s written in just the way you mentioned earlier.
RC: Well, what’s interesting to me is that you picked out that exact paragraph — so much work went into it, and no one has ever mentioned it to me before.
But I’ll go back to the writing thing. In my opinion, if a work is going to endure, the prose — whatever you want to call it; the narrative, the rhythms — has to be written at the same level as a work of fiction that endures. Let’s say these books are about political power ultimately, and as the author you think you’ve found out stuff that you’d like people to know about political power and how it works in this country. Let’s say that you think that you’ve found that out. You don’t want to just tell that to one generation of kids, right? You want the book to last. You want to tell it to generations that are to come. What makes a book last? Well, what historians last? Macaulay. Gibbon. Francis Parkman.
So this is what I did: while I was writing The Power Broker, I took the historical novel which most resembles a long work of history — War and Peace, in my opinion — and I took Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I read a couple of chapters of War and Peace and then a couple of chapters of Gibbon, then went back and forth between the two books. And I can tell you I found they are both composed at the same level of writing.
I spend an awful lot of time on the writing. You said there was a lot of joy in that passage you read, but there was a lot of work as well. Here’s another thing. I said to myself, “There’s been a thousand books on the Kennedy assassination.” I don’t even think that’s an exaggeration.
JM: You’re probably right.
RC: Well, let’s say hundreds.
JM: Hundreds for sure.
RC: But in all of the examples I’ve read, I’ve never felt myself the emotions of that day, the reason we remember the Kennedy funeral as powerfully as people felt those emotions at the time. I just haven’t found it in any of those many books. That means that in a couple of hundred years, out of books, people wouldn’t be able to recreate the reality. I said, “I want to describe the whole Kennedy assassination and funeral ceremonies, to find out what made the days after it so unforgettable. The whole nation is riveted to the television set. What riveted them?” You picked out the exact paragraph in which I tried to accomplish that. I watched the newsreels of the funeral procession and said, “What am I seeing?” The caisson carrying Kennedy’s body comes out of the White House, and then events unfold as I describe. The procession turns a corner, and there’s the Capitol, and suddenly it’s the most moving sight, and it’s beyond moving — there’s something else. I kept asking myself: “What is it?”
Then I remembered what Hemingway said about the problem he had when he was trying to re-create the emotions he felt while he was watching a bullfight and a matador was gored. What is the precise thing that created the emotion? He thought and thought about that. In Death in the Afternoon, he says he finally realized that it was the whiteness of the bone that you suddenly saw when the bull’s horn sliced open the guy’s thigh.
Watching those newsreels of John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, I thought, “What am I seeing?” And when I played them over and over again, I said, “What I’m seeing is columns atop columns, columns in the sky.” I wrote that paragraph I can’t tell you how many times. I wrote that paragraph over and over again. Thirty times, forty — I don’t know. My office was littered with discarded attempts. I’m so happy that you picked that out. I mean, no one has ever mentioned that to me.
JM: Well, it’s beautiful.
RC: Thank you.
JM: And it captures perfectly what it was about that experience that meant so much to people.
As long as they are, the books are written in short episodes, three-four pages usually, and then there’s a break. How conscious are you of orchestrating those? They’re like movements in a piece of music.
RC: Yes. All this stuff — like the breaks, the use of semicolons — is very important to me. There’s a big difference between a semicolon and a comma, or a semicolon and a colon. It has to do with the rhythm. I know I use a lot of semicolons. My editor is always saying, “You’re using too many. Look at this — semicolon, semicolon.” I say, “I don’t care.” He puts in periods, but I take most of them out. Or he puts in commas. And I take them out, too. Because that’s not the rhythm I want. I want the rhythm, a certain rhythm, and the breaks, of course, are a big part of that.
JM: Within the episodes, you’ll go from very long sentences with several clauses, as in the passage I read, to short telegraphic sentences that are like a sharp musical phrase. The way you adjust the rhythm tells the story, it points things up, and it feels like the events themselves could unfold no other way.
RC: Oh, you’re making me feel so good.
JM: [laughs] Well, it makes me feel good reading it.
RC: When I asked myself, “What is missing from most of the descriptions I’ve read, what am I seeing in the newsreels?” And the word “majestic” came to me. But it’s one thing to say it’s majestic — that’s telling something. You want to show something. You want readers to see it as you’re seeing it. So I always had in mind that what I had to do is show not just the grief of the event, but the majesty of what’s happening. There is a part in Means of Ascent (the second installment in The Years of Lyndon Johnson) where Johnson’s in the helicopter, the flying windmill. He’s behind in the race, and it looks like he’s going to lose, and his last hope is the helicopter, and he is flying around Texas in that helicopter in real desperation. I remember I taped a note on this lamp [points to lamp], saying, “Is there desperation on this page?” I tried to make the rhythm reinforce that emotion, and if I succeeded — if I made the reader feel Lyndon Johnson’s desperation — it’s because I got the rhythm right. In The Passage of Power, I used rhythm to try to make the telling of the funeral procession majestic. The drums. The drums. The roll of the drums. Can you hear them?
JM: I’m going to read you this paragraph about writing history, which I’ve always found interesting. I wanted to see what you think of it, because I searched for it when I was thinking about this interview. It’s from an introduction Louis Menand wrote to an edition of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station.
JM: “The test for a successful history is the same as a test for a successful novel — integrity and motion. It’s not the facts, snapshots of the past that make a history. It’s the story, the facts run by the eye at the correct speed. Novelists sometimes explain their work by saying that they invent a character, put the character in a situation, and then wait to see what the character will do. History is not different. An historian’s character has to do what the real person has done, of course, but there was an uncanny way in which this can seem to happen almost spontaneously. The figures in the landscape come to life together, and the chart of their movement makes a continuous motion — a narrative.”
That seems to me to be just what we are talking about, the orchestration of the prose you’ve been describing. To give the narrative a motion that makes it seamless, that makes “the facts run by the eye at the correct speed.” You do that through variations in the length of the sentences, in the length of the paragraphs, in the length of those episodes.
RC: I agree with some of what he is saying there. In Master of the Senate [Book Three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson], when Johnson is trying to get the first civil rights bill passed, you would have been excited if you were actually in the Senate. His fight for that bill is a fight against great odds — against the power of the South. If you were there you would have been thrilled. So, if the historian is to tell the story truly, he has to make it as exciting as it would be if you were really there watching it. That’s the historian’s job. You’re not supposed to make it exciting if it’s not exciting. You’re not supposed to make the funeral procession majestic if it’s not majestic. But if it is majestic, it is your job to make it majestic by your rhythms, by the narrative, the pace of the narrative — by your rhythms, by the words you use, by the things you describe. Just to stay on that point you’re talking about: you watch all the newsreels, and there’s the terrible, poignant moments when the caisson comes up to the steps of the White House. Let me look it up and show you.
RC: It’s page 381. They wheel the caisson up to the White House, and for a moment it’s there, standing in front of the portico, and the only people present are the military honor guard. Then all of a sudden, Jackie Kennedy comes out, holding the two kids. There’s a moment there, on the film, before she comes out, where it seems so heartbreaking. But what is the thing that makes it heartbreaking? This is what I tried to make the reader see. Let me read it.
Two heavy black straps had been attached to the caisson. It stood there, in front of the portico, for a while, black and bare, the straps dangling. Then, without ceremony except for the coming to attention, rifles held high, of the dress-uniformed men flanking the doorway and the steps down to the driveway, eight military pallbearers brought the flag-draped coffin out of the doorway and down the stairs, and lifted it onto the gun carriage. The straps were laid across the coffin, black against the bright red and white stripes, and buckled fast so that it couldn’t fall off.
And suddenly you think, “Jack Kennedy was so vibrant. But now he has to have straps to hold his body in place.” So I just wrote it that way. I wanted the paragraph to build up to the straps, to the buckling of the straps.
Then the next sentence is, “There was a pause, and suddenly in the doorway, there she was.” I worked on it very hard — I can’t tell you. I don’t say I succeeded in doing what I was trying to do, but I did really try to make readers feel what was special about these moments, what makes them live in American history and in our memory forever.
JM: Let’s switch gears a little bit. You do the research meticulously, but in the writing you reach for an imaginative grasp of the situation that you want to convey to the reader. It was interesting to me in reading the new book and going back through the earlier books how, in a different way, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Moses in his field, were masters of narrative in their own rights, although “narrative” may not be the right word. But Johnson understood politics in a certain way; he could look at something and piece together the story very quickly.
JM: Moses, too. There’s a little passage I love, from a piece you wrote for The New Yorker in 1998, the 100th Anniversary of New York City. You were looking back on the power of Robert Moses and the way he shaped the city and the surrounding area.
JM: This is about Moses, when he was talking to you, but it seems to describe Johnson, in a way, too.
And he remembered things a lot bigger than votes and decisions, and in the remembering taught me about something much larger than the workings of politics, about a particular type of vision, of imagination that was unique and so intense that it amounted to a very rare form of genius, not the genius of the poet or the artist, which was the way I had always thought about genius, but a type of genius that was, in its own way, just as creative, a leap of imagination that could look at a barren, empty landscape and conceive on it, in a flash of inspiration, a colossal public work, a permanent, enduring creation.
Now, there are moments in The Passage of Power, when you talk about what Johnson did in that first week after the assassination, where you describe him doing the same thing. He looks at a seemingly minor amendment, attached to a wheat bill, that would have limited the president’s power, an amendment the Kennedy team couldn’t defeat, but didn’t think was important, and says, “This is not the kind of thing that you think it is; it’s another kind of thing entirely.”
RC: Exactly. Yes. That’s genius.
JM: Talk about what he saw in that wheat bill. It’s an example of something important.
RC: Well, it’s an example, yes, of presidential genius. In a way, this book is about the enormous potential in the presidency of the United States, very seldom realized — very seldom realized — but fully realized in the first few weeks after Lyndon Johnson becomes president. This is one of the great insights into government that Johnson has, and into how to effect change. Congress has been dominant over presidents for twenty-five years, since 1938. They’ve never been more dominant than on the day Kennedy is assassinated. They are not letting Kennedy’s bills through. Lyndon Johnson comes in and just sees in an instant this is the situation, and it must be changed. It’s like he’s saying, “What can I do to change it?” — it’s an epiphany. If you were talking about an artist or a writer, you’d say it’s an epiphany. It’s genius. He says: “The wheat bill — I can use that to teach Congress they’re not dealing with Jack Kennedy any more. I can teach Congress they’d better be afraid of me. And how do I do it? I’ve got to beat this bill, and I’ve got to beat it big.”
When he says, “It’s not enough to beat it; I’ve got to murder it,” you understand. He’s saying, “I want to teach them.” As he writes in his memoir, it was at that moment that power began flowing back from Capitol Hill to the White House. And he is right!
The reason I concentrate on these few weeks is you see in them the full potentiality of the presidency of the United States if it’s used by a man who understands political power with incredible insight. The wheat bill is an example of that insight: here is a sort of minor amendment to a bill, but it’s not minor to these conservatives. They think they’re going to teach the president a lesson. He says, “No. I’m the president. You’re not going to teach me a lesson. I’m going to murder your bill.” When he first asks his congressional leaders, Mansfield and Humphrey, “When is the vote?” They say, “The vote is Tuesday.” He says, “Well, you can’t have the vote Tuesday.” They said, “Oh, we promised it would be Tuesday.” Lyndon Johnson says, “You’ve got an excuse; you don’t have to do it.” Mansfield and Humphrey don’t even get that it could be delayed. Then he says something like, “But I suppose you have the votes [to defeat it],” and they say, “Oh yes, we’ve got the votes.” But Lyndon Johnson really counts votes, and he says, “You’re going to lose.” So he works the phones, getting enough votes not just to beat it but to murder it. The whole thing is a great example.
JM: Let’s talk a little about counting votes, because this is a theme throughout Master of the Senate and all the books. Talking about Kennedy’s tax-cut bill, when Johnson’s trying to figure out how many votes the Democrats have, you have a great line: “It was his Administration now, his legislative program. He was going to be held responsible for its success or failure. He had to find out what the situation was on Capitol Hill. To find out, he turned not to the Senate leader, Mike Mansfield, because he felt that he would be no help, but to a Senator who knew how to count.”
RC: [laughs] Yeah.
JM: Talk a little bit about that. It seems an obvious thing that that’s what you would do; but part of Johnson’s genius was raising the obvious to the level he did.
RC: Well, this is a very important point about Lyndon Johnson. Let me take a step back and describe the sense of place that shaped him. If you go to the place, the Hill Country of Texas, as my wife Ina and I did when we were researching the early books, you find out some very telling things. In the first volume, his father, Sam, pays too much for the Johnson Ranch. Too much because the soil can’t produce enough cotton to pay off the mortgage, and he loses the ranch. It looks beautiful to Johnson’s father, but the soil isn’t deep enough, and he doesn’t realize that.
When I was living in the Hill Country, person after person said to me, “You’re a city boy; you don’t understand nature.” I heard variations of this a hundred times. “You don’t understand nature. You’re a city boy; you don’t understand nature. If you don’t understand nature, you can’t understand Lyndon Johnson.” I just thought that was bullshit. I said, “This is like a really bad Western.”
Then the following thing happened. I spent a lot of time with Lyndon’s cousin Ava, Ava Johnson Cox. We became friends. She was trying to explain things to me about Lyndon Johnson. We used to drive around the Hill Country together, and one day she drove me out to a spot near the Johnson Ranch, and she said, “Now, get out of the car.” She said, “Kneel down and stick your hand into the ground.” The spot was a field, covered with grass, seemingly lush and fertile. I stick my hand in, and it won’t even go the length of my fingers before it hits rock. There’s hardly any soil on top of the rock, which means that if you plant the field with cotton, the first time it rains, the soil is going to wash away. She said, “That’s what Sam didn’t understand.” Then she said something like this: “You can’t make a mistake out here. This isn’t like a city.” I can’t remember the exact quote, but what she meant was this isn’t like a city where you have other options. In the Hill Country, if you make a mistake, you lose your home. There’s no margin for error.
That explains a lot about Lyndon Johnson. When he first comes to Washington, he’s friends with this group of young New Dealers — Jim Rowe, Abe Fortas, Tommy Corcoran. What did they all say about him? Well, you know what they used to do at parties? I think I have this in the first volume; if I don’t, I certainly should have put it in. Instead of playing charades after dinner, these guys used to count votes. They used to say, “You’ve got this Roosevelt bill coming up in the Senate; what is the vote going to be?” And when I spoke to them years later, they told me, “Lyndon was always right. Lyndon was the best vote-counter.”
I had to think, “This is a really important part of politics, and what makes Johnson the best vote-counter?” Politicians all boast about being vote-counters, but very few of them are really good. And this guy was the best. You get these quotes from Bobby Baker and Johnson’s other aides; they knew they could never go back to Johnson and say, “I think this guy is going to vote this way.” Johnson would say: “Thinking is no good to me. I have to know.” And why is he going to be sure of every single vote? Because he learned the cost of mistakes. His father made a mistake, he didn’t look at reality.
So then you ask yourself, “What is it about reality?” Because most people, they hear what they want to hear. You go to a Senator and he says, “Oh, this is a great bill,” and so on and so forth, but you don’t really know which way he’s going to come down at the end. In Master of the Senate, one of the dramatic things that I found was how Johnson kept his Senate tally sheets. They’re long, thin pieces of paper with the 96 names of Senators and a little line on each side. Johnson would count. When he knew a Senator’s vote, he’d fill in one side or the other. But not before he knew. He did it in pencil, and the things are really smudged. I asked his assistants, and I can’t remember which one it was who said, “I can still see Johnson holding that tally sheet, and his thumb would move down the list of senators, and it wouldn’t move to the next name until he was sure which way to put the number.”
I said to myself: this all goes back to his boyhood. Now you understand something about him, or you think you understand something about him — why he was the best vote-counter. People ask me why does it take so long to do my books. Well, if we hadn’t lived in the Hill Country, I never would have found that out. It took a long time to get these people to talk to me — to really talk to me. And it took a long time to get to know Ava, to really get her to talk to me. It took a long time to realize what they meant when they said, “You don’t understand nature, so you don’t understand Lyndon Johnson.”
JM: Let’s take a moment to talk about the Johnson project in a longer view. In the course of thinking about his life for three decades now, has your idea of him shifted at all? Or have you found yourself able to connect the dots of his character across all that time?
RC: My view of him hasn’t shifted. It’s the same guy. Is he ruthless in the first volumes? Yes. And he’s still ruthless in The Passage of Power. Look in this volume at what he does with the newspaper people in Texas. He learns Margaret Mayer, a tough reporter, is starting to investigate his fortune, and he in effect says to her editor, “We’ll have the Internal Revenue Service investigate you.” I don’t want to go beyond what I say in the book. But he’s clearly threatening investigations of tax returns. He hasn’t changed.
But there is one thing that has changed: now he has the power of the presidency. Everybody likes to quote Lord Acton, “All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, the more I’ve worked on my books, the more I believe that that’s not always true. What I believe is always true is that power reveals. When a guy gets enough power to do whatever he wants, then you find out what he’s wanted to do all along, and I believe that’s very much true of Lyndon Johnson and his passage of civil rights legislation. Did he want to do this? Has he always wanted to do this? For me, the proof of it is when he was able to talk to the civil rights leaders, like Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, one-on-one, in his office. I write that he was talking to these men about matters that, at bottom, had to do with color, and when it had to do with color, they were very hard people to fool. But they all come out of that office saying, “Now we understand him; we’ve got a champion in there.” And that goes back to his days teaching as young man in Cotulla, when he vowed to do something to help poor people of color if he ever got the chance.
Yes, to use your phrase, you can connect the dots. It is the same Lyndon Johnson. The only thing that happens is, in the first couple of volumes, he doesn’t have power. He is desperate for power, and he is going to do almost anything necessary to get it. Steal an election. Did he steal an election? He stole an election. All the Johnson people say, “We don’t really know if he stole it.” He stole it. Did he blackmail a young woman in college to get her out of the race for the campus organization? He blackmailed her. Was he known as “Bull” Johnson — for bullshit — at college? When you say, “Are all the dots connected?” Yes: he’s “Bull Johnson” in college. And what’s one of the most notorious legacies of his presidency? The Credibility Gap of Vietnam. Isn’t that the same thing?
But on the other hand he always wanted to help poor people — particularly poor people of color. And when he gets the power to do so, he does. So people may say, “Oh, Caro’s view of Johnson has changed.” But it hasn’t changed at all. It’s the same guy I see.
JM: There’s a wonderful theme in Master of the Senate and in this book throughout, and it emanates from Johnson’s almost tender relations with his congressional elders and mentors, especially Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell. In the new book, you can see how those real bonds of affection and respect and opportunity working both ways, are stretched and strained. Those old men are watching the creature they made turn on them in subtle and then not so subtle ways. Every time Russell comes into this book, I kept thinking of Falstaff being banished by Prince Hal.
RC: God, that’s great! I never thought of that, and it’s one of my favorite things in Shakespeare.
With Russell — well, yes, there are some elements of great similarity there.
JM: There was a real bond between them that Johnson has to sever; he betrays these guys with the tools they taught him how to use. It’s very interesting.
RC: Yes. And exploiting their weakness, as he did with Harry Byrd. Old people are worried that they’re losing something. Johnson takes advantage of that with Byrd. He had a genius for seeing the weakness in a man, and he sees it in Harry Byrd. And the weakness that he exploits results in the passage of bills that probably weren’t going to pass otherwise. With Russell, he sees the loneliness, and he plays on it. He’s made a lot of investment to make himself indispensable to Russell, because Russell is lonely. Rayburn is lonely. So if Johnson sees the loneliness in someone, he’ll play on the loneliness. There’s an eye for weakness that is in a way very terrible to witness.
JM: The end of the book is stunning. You’ve taken us through Johnson’s ineffective 1960 election campaign, his humiliating vice presidency, the shock of the assassination, the venomous distrust between him and Bobby Kennedy, and then the seven weeks of extraordinary political genius that he mustered under unprecedented pressure in the aftermath of national tragedy, and then you punctuate that long, engrossing tale with real — well, here’s that word again — majesty. Let me read aloud the final page.
The story of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson will be different in tone from the story of the transition in part because the elements of his personality absent during the transition were shortly to reappear. Yet for a period of time, a brief but crucial moment in history, he had held these elements in check, had overcome them, had, in a way, conquered himself. And by doing so, by overcoming forces in him that were very difficult to overcome, he not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice. In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, as a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic.
If he had held in check these forces within him, had conquered himself, for a while, he wasn’t going to be able to do it for very long.
But he had done it long enough.
That’s a magnificent ending. You mentioned earlier that originally this book was conceived as the first part of the complete story of Johnson’s presidency. When did the thought to stop here, after the first seven weeks of that tenure, occur to you?
RC: Well, I was going along through that outline we talked about, but when I got to this point I said, “This is a book right here.” That was like a flash. It had nothing to do with any intelligent thought, but, it turns out, it had everything to do with what these books are trying to do.
Let me put it this way: we live in a democracy in which, in a lot of ways, the power is held by us — the people — because of the votes we cast at the ballot box. Therefore, the more people know about how political power really works, the better our democracy should be. In all of my books, I am trying to explain how political power worked in America in the second half of the twentieth century. And in each of the books you could say I examine a different form of political power. Robert Moses in New York City, Lyndon Johnson in the House and in the Senate. And I knew in a flash that if I ended this book after Johnson’s first seven weeks, I had a book about a particular form of political power, the presidency in a crisis — when you see presidential power needed to its full, and used to its full, by a great master in the use of political power. If I ended it here, you could see the full potential of the presidency. What can a president be? What can a president do?
You can only see the answer to those questions if you focus on the presidency in a time of crisis, of real crisis — in this case the crisis caused by Jack Kennedy’s death and Johnson having no time for a transition. As I write in the Introduction [reads from book], “a way to gain insight into the most fundamental realities of any form of power is to observe it during its moments of deepest crisis, during its most intense struggles.” So in trying to understand presidential power, the transition of 1963 — the seven-week-long passage of power — is one of those moments. Because as Johnson takes over, he has to use the power of the presidency to the limit — and we can see what the limits are when a genius is pushing them. We see what a president can do. I said, “If I stop the book here, anyone who wants to know what a president can do, the immense power he has and the way he can start to transform a country, will be able to see it.” If it hadn’t been for Vietnam, maybe he would have made the great effort to continue that transformation. But by stopping the book where I did, we can examine the matter without any of the complications that came in later.
Did I think of that all at once? No. I just said, “This is a book.” It was a flash. It was not even conscious thought at the beginning.
JM: We’re in the midst of another presidential election season. Reading this book is very instructive in thinking about where we are today. The standoff in Congress now, which I think many people feel is unique, we discover, in reading The Passage of Power, is not unique at all. You quote Walter Lippmann writing, in 1963, that “This Congress has gone further than any other in memory to replace debate and decision by delay and stultification.” In fact, looking back on the relations between presidential power and congressional power, as you do in these books, you could almost make the argument that only FDR in a time of crisis, and with consummate political skill, and Johnson in a time of crisis, also with consummate political skill, were able to break that logjam.
JM: It has always struck me as the tragic irony of American liberalism that Johnson was the guy who could advance civil rights and the other causes, and ended up being, in a way, gleefully (if understandably) vilified by the Left, when his peculiar mixture of genius and guile was exactly what was needed to advance the causes. We’re again at a time of delay and stultification, a time when not only does the liberal agenda lack an effective champion, it seems that many of the advances that agenda won fifty years ago are not just stopped — they’re being unraveled, or under threat of being unraveled.
JM: What do you see when you look at the political landscape today, informed by what writing your books has taught you about the usages of political power?
RC: If you look at the whole landscape of American history, this upcoming election to me stands out as one of the towering, significant moments. Because this dilution of the liberal agenda must be ended. I think if you want to know the power of a president to pass bills and, more than just passing bills, to set the nation on a transformational course, a course that will let the cause of social justice start advancing again, you see it in The Passage of Power. That, in a way, is what The Passage of Power is about. It’s why it concentrates so much on what happens when the power of the presidency passes into the hands of someone with a great gift for using it.
That is not said in reference to President Obama. I think he has great accomplishments for which he is not given nearly the credit he deserves. It’s said in reference to American history, and where I believe we are at this moment. Before I studied Lyndon Johnson in these seven weeks, I had never realized the immensity of the potential that an American president has to change the country. But I realize it now, and I try to make it clear to anyone who reads this book.