Book Four of Robert A. Caro’s monumental The Years of Lyndon Johnson displays all the narrative energy and illuminating insight that led the Times of London to acclaim it as “one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age. A masterpiece.”
The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career—1958 to1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassin’s bullet to reach its mark.
By 1958, as Johnson began to maneuver for the presidency, he was known as one of the most brilliant politicians of his time, the greatest Senate Leader in our history. But the 1960 nomination would go to the young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Caro gives us an unparalleled account of the machinations behind both the nomination and Kennedy’s decision to offer Johnson the vice presidency, revealing the extent of Robert Kennedy’s efforts to force Johnson off the ticket. With the consummate skill of a master storyteller, he exposes the savage animosity between Johnson and Kennedy’s younger brother, portraying one of America’s great political feuds. Yet Robert Kennedy’s overt contempt for Johnson was only part of the burden of humiliation and isolation he bore as Vice President. With a singular understanding of Johnson’s heart and mind, Caro describes what it was like for this mighty politician to find himself altogether powerless in a world in which power is the crucial commodity.
For the first time, in Caro’s breathtakingly vivid narrative, we see the Kennedy assassination through Lyndon Johnson’s eyes. We watch Johnson step into the presidency, inheriting a staff fiercely loyal to his slain predecessor; a Congress determined to retain its power over the executive branch; and a nation in shock and mourning. We see how within weeks—grasping the reins of the presidency with supreme mastery—he propels through Congress essential legislation that at the time of Kennedy’s death seemed hopelessly logjammed and seizes on a dormant Kennedy program to create the revolutionary War on Poverty. Caro makes clear how the political genius with which Johnson had ruled the Senate now enabled him to make the presidency wholly his own. This was without doubt Johnson’s finest hour, before his aspirations and accomplishments were overshadowed and eroded by the trap of Vietnam.
In its exploration of this pivotal period in Johnson’s life—and in the life of the nation—The Passage of Power is not only the story of how he surmounted unprecedented obstacles in order to fulfill the highest purpose of the presidency but is, as well, a revelation of both the pragmatic potential in the presidency and what can be accomplished when the chief executive has the vision and determination to move beyond the pragmatic and initiate programs designed to transform a nation. It is an epic story told with a depth of detail possible only through the peerless research that forms the foundation of Robert Caro’s work, confirming Nicholas von Hoffman’s verdict that “Caro has changed the art of political biography.”
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About the Author
Caro’s first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, everywhere acclaimed as a modern classic, was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. It is, according to David Halberstam, “Surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” And The New York Times Book Review said: “In the future, the scholar who writes the history of American cities in the twentieth century will doubtless begin with this extraordinary effort.”
The first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, was cited by The Washington Post as “proof that we live in a great age of biography . . . [a book] of radiant excellence . . . Caro’s evocation of the Texas Hill Country, his elaboration of Johnson’s unsleeping ambition, his understanding of how politics actually work, are—let it be said flat out—at the summit of American historical writing.” Professor Henry F. Graff of Columbia University called the second volume, Means of Ascent, “brilliant. No review does justice to the drama of the story Caro is telling, which is nothing less than how present-day politics was born.” The London Times hailed volume three, Master of the Senate, as “a masterpiece . . . Robert Caro has written one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age.” The Passage of Power, volume four, has been called “Shakespearean . . . A breathtakingly dramatic story [told] with consummate artistry and ardor” (The New York Times) and “as absorbing as a political thriller . . . By writing the best presidential biography the country has ever seen, Caro has forever changed the way we think about, and read, American history” (NPR). On the cover of The New York Times Book Review, President Bill Clinton praised it as “Brilliant . . . Important . . . Remarkable. With this fascinating and meticulous account Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.”
“Caro has a unique place among American political biographers,” The Boston Globe said . . . “He has become, in many ways, the standard by which his fellows are measured.” And Nicholas von Hoffman wrote: “Caro has changed the art of political biography.”
Born and raised in New York City, Caro graduated from Princeton University, was later a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and worked for six years as an investigative reporter for Newsday. He lives in New York City with his wife, Ina, the historian and writer.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 30, 1935
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Princeton University, 1957; Nieman Fellow at Harvard University
Read an Excerpt
The Passage of PowerThe Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV
By Robert A. Caro
VintageCopyright © 2013 Robert A. Caro
All right reserved.
When he was young—seventeen and eighteen years old—Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren’t paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.
With little mechanical equipment available, the road was being built almost entirely by hand, and his job, when he wasn’t half of a pick-and-shovel team with Ben Crider, a burly friend—six years older—from Johnson City, was “driving” a “fresno,” a heavy two-handled metal scoop with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. Standing behind the scoop, between its handles, as the mules strained forward to force the scoop through the hard Hill Country caliche soil, he would push as they pulled. Since he needed a hand for each handle, the reins were tied together and wrapped around his back, so for this work—hard even for older men; for a tall, skinny, awkward teenager, it was, the other men recall, “backbreaking labor,” “too heavy” for Lyndon—Lyndon Johnson was, really, in harness with the mules. But at lunch hour each day, as the gang sat eating—in summer in whatever shade they could find as protection from the blazing Hill Country sun, in winter huddled around a fire (it would get so cold, Crider recalls, that “you had to build a fire to thaw your hands before you could handle a pick and shovel . . . build us a fire and thaw and work all day”)—Lyndon would, in the words of another member of the gang, “talk big” to the older men. “He had big ideas. . . . He wanted to do something big with his life.” And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: “I’m going to be President of the United States one day,” he predicted.
Poverty and backbreaking work—clearing cedar on other men’s farms for two dollars a day, or chopping and picking cotton: on your hands and knees all day beneath that searing sun—were woven deep in the fabric of Lyndon Johnson’s youth, as were humiliation and fear: he was coming home at night to a house to which other Johnson City families brought charity in the form of cooked dishes because there was no money in that house to buy food; to a house on which, moreover, his family was having such difficulty paying the taxes and mortgage that they were afraid it might not be theirs much longer. But woven into it also was that prediction.
In many ways, his whole life would be built around that prediction: around a climb toward that single, far-off goal. As a young congressman in Washington, he was careful not to mention that ambition to the rising young New Dealers with whom he was allying himself, but they were aware of it anyway. James H. Rowe Jr., Franklin Roosevelt’s aide, who spent more time with Johnson than the others, says, “From the day he got here, he wanted to be President.” When old friends from Texas visited him, sometimes his determination burst out of him despite himself, as if he could not contain it. “By God, I’ll be President someday!” he exclaimed one evening when he was alone with Welly Hopkins. And an incident in 1940 showed the Texans how much he wanted the prize he sought, how much he was willing to sacrifice to attain it.
Lack of money had been the cause of so many of the insecurities of his youth, and his election to Congress, far from soothing those fears, had seemed only to intensify them: he talked incessantly about how his father, who had been an elected official himself—a six-term member of the Texas House of Representatives—had ended up as a state bus inspector, and had died penniless; he didn’t want to end up like his father, he said. He talked about how he kept seeing around Washington former congressmen who had lost their seats—as, he said, he would inevitably one day lose his—and were working in low-paying, demeaning jobs; over and over again he related how once, while he was riding in an elevator in the Capitol, the elevator operator had told him that he had been a congressman. Hungry for money, he had already started accepting, indeed soliciting, financial favors from businessmen who wanted favors from him, and had been pleading with two important businessmen—George R. Brown of the Texas contracting firm of Brown & Root and the immensely wealthy Austin publisher, real estate magnate and oilman Charles Marsh—to “find” him a business in which he could make a little money of his own. So when, one autumn day in 1940, the three men—Johnson, Brown and Marsh—were vacationing together at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, lying on a blanket in front of their adjoining cottages, and Marsh offered Lyndon Johnson a business in which he could make a lot of money, the two businessmen were sure the congressman would accept it. Marsh, who, in Brown’s words, “loved Lyndon like a son,” told him he could have his share in a lucrative oilfield partnership, a share worth three-quarters of a million dollars, without even putting up any money; he could “pay for it out of his profits each year.” To the surprise of both men, however, Johnson said that he would have to think about the offer—and after a week he turned it down. “I can’t be an oilman,” he said; if the public knew he had oil interests, “it would kill me politically.”
Believing they understood Johnson’s political ambitions—Lyndon was always telling them about how he wanted to stay in the House until a Senate seat opened up, and then run for the Senate, about how the Senate seat was his ultimate goal in politics; never had he mentioned any other office, nor did he mention one during his week at the Greenbrier—Marsh and Brown were shocked by his refusal. Being known as an oilman couldn’t hurt him in his congressional district, or in a Senate race in oil-dominated Texas. But then they realized that there was in fact one office for which he would be “killed” by being an “oilman.” And then they understood that while Lyndon Johnson might hunger for money, that hunger was as nothing beside his hunger for something else.
And unlike others—the many, many others—in Washington who wanted the same thing he did, who had set their sights on the same goal, Lyndon Baines Johnson, born August 27, 1908, had mapped out a path to that goal, and he refused to be diverted from it.
The path ran only through Washington—it was paved with national, not state power—and it had only three steps: House of Representatives, Senate, presidency. And after he had fought his way onto it—winning a seat in the House in 1937 in a desperate, seemingly hopeless campaign—he could not be persuaded by anyone, not even Franklin Roosevelt, to turn off it. In 1939, the President offered to appoint him director of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration. The directorship of a nationwide agency, particularly one as fast-growing, and politically important, as the REA, was not the kind of job offered to many men only thirty years old, but Johnson turned the offer down; he was afraid, he said, of being “sidetracked.” In 1946, he was urged by his party to run for the governorship of Texas. If he did, he knew, his election was all but assured, and at the time his path seemed to have reached a dead end in Washington: stuck in the House now for almost a decade, with little chance of any imminent advancement to its hierarchy, he seemed to have no chance of stepping into a Senate seat. In the 435-member House, he was still only one of the crowd of junior congressmen, and, as a woman who worked with him when he was young put it, he “couldn’t stand not being somebody—just could not stand it.” But he still wouldn’t leave the road he had chosen as the best road to the prize he wanted so badly. The governorship, he explained to aides, could never be more than a “detour” on his “route,” a detour that might turn into a “dead end.” (Some years later, when his longtime assistant John Connally decided to run for the governorship, Johnson told him he was making a mistake in leaving Washington. “Here’s where the power is,” he said.) In 1948, still stuck in the House, he was about to turn forty, and a new assistant, Horace Busby, saw that “He believed, and he believed it really quite sincerely . . . that when a man reached forty, it was all over. And there was no bill ever passed by Congress that bore his name; he had done very little in his life.” Hopeless though his ambition might seem, however, Lyndon Johnson still clung to it. Instructing Busby to refer to him in press releases as “LBJ,” he explained: “FDR–LBJ, FDR–LBJ. Do you get it? What I want is for them to start thinking of me in terms of initials.” It was only presidents whom headline writers and the American people referred to by their initials; “he was just so determined that someday he would be known as LBJ,” Busby recalls.
That year, frantic to escape from the trap that the House had become for him, he entered a Senate race he seemed to have no chance of winning; during the campaign, and during post-campaign vote-counting, he went beyond even the notoriously elastic boundaries of Texas politics, and won.
But the Senate, into which he was sworn in January, 1949, was also only a step toward his goal, only the second rung on a three-rung ladder.
It was a rung on which he seemed very much at home. Lyndon Johnson was, as I have written, a reader of men. He had promulgated guidelines for such reading, which he tried to teach his young staff members. “Watch their hands, watch their eyes,” he told them. “Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.” Teaching them to peruse men’s weaknesses, he said that “the most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say”—and therefore it was important not to let a conversation end until you learned what the man wasn’t saying, until you “got it out of him.” Johnson himself read with a genius that couldn’t be taught, with a gift that was so instinctive that one aide, Robert G. (Bobby) Baker, calls it a “sense.” “He seemed to sense each man’s individual price and the commodity he preferred as coin.” And Johnson also had a gift for using what he read. His longtime lawyer and viceroy in Texas, Edward A. Clark, was to say, “I never saw anything like it. He would listen at them . . . and in five minutes he could get a man to think, ‘I like you, young fellow. I’m going to help you.’ ” Watching Lyndon Johnson “play” older men, Thomas G. Corcoran, the New Deal insider and quite a player of older men himself, was to explain that “He was smiling and deferential, but, hell, lots of guys can be smiling and deferential. Lyndon had one of the most incredible capacities for dealing with older men. He could follow someone’s mind around, and get where it was going before the other fellow knew where it was going.” These gifts served Lyndon Johnson better in small groups—men marveled at his ability to “make liberals think he was one of them, conservatives think he was one of them”—since that tactic worked best when there was no member of the other side around to hear. It worked best of all when he was alone with one man. “Lyndon was the greatest salesman one on one who ever lived,” George Brown was to say. These gifts had gone largely wasted in the House, whose 435 members “could be dealt with only in bodies and droves,” but the first time Lyndon Johnson walked into the Senate Chamber after his election to that body, he muttered, in a voice so low that his aide Walter Jenkins, standing beside him, felt he was “speaking to himself,” that the Senate was “the right size.”
This assessment proved accurate with ninety-six men in that body, there were only a relatively small number of texts to be read, and because of senators’ six-year terms, these texts were not constantly changing, as they were in the House, and therefore could be perused at length—some Senate subcommittees had only three members, so on these subcommittees it was literally necessary for the great salesman to sell only one man to obtain a majority for his views—and he rose to power in the Senate with unprecedented speed. In a body previously dominated by the strictures of seniority, he became Assistant Leader of his party in 1951, two years after he arrived there; in another two years, still in his first term, he became the party’s Leader; two years later, in 1955, when the Demo-crats became the majority party in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson became the Majority Leader, the most powerful man in the Senate, after just a single term there, the youngest Majority Leader in history, the most powerful man in the Senate after just a single term there.
The youngest—and the greatest. By 1955, in the opinion of its journalistic chroniclers and a growing number of historians and political scientists, the Senate was the joke it had been for decades, only more so—so much an object of contempt that, increasingly frequently, a suggestion was being heard that perhaps the institution might be dispensed with entirely: its “obsolesence,” said the era’s most authoritative work on Capitol Hill, George B. Galloway’s The Legislative Process in Congress, “may lead the American people in time to recognize that their second chamber is not indispensable.” Revolutionizing the Senate, not only pushing long-stalled social welfare legislation through it but making it, for the first time in over a century, a center of governmental energy and creativity, Lyndon Johnson brought a nineteenth-century—in many ways an eighteenth-century—institution into the twentieth century. The role of Leader—legislative leader—was, furthermore, clearly a role he was born to play. As he stood at the Leader’s commanding front-row center desk in the Senate Chamber directing the Senate’s actions with the surest of hands, as he strode the aisles of the Chamber and Capitol with colleagues addressing him by title—“Good morning, Leader.” “Could I have a minute of your time, Leader?” “Mr. Leader, I never thought you could pull that one off”—he was completely in charge, a man at home in his job. His twelve years in the Senate, his wife, Lady Bird, was to say, “were the happiest twelve years of our lives.”
To him, however, the Senate remained only a rung on the ladder—as was demonstrated in 1956, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He had stayed out of the primaries and other pre-convention maneuvering because he had concluded he had no chance to win the party’s presidential nomination, but when at the very last moment, on the very eve of the convention, he suddenly came to feel that he did have a chance, he grabbed for the prize. Although his effort lasted only two days, the frenzied urgency with which, during these days, he grabbed (“Deep down, he understood the realities,” Jim Rowe recalls, “but he wanted to be President so much.” Adds Tommy Corcoran: “On most things, you could talk sense to Lyndon. But there was no talking to him about this”) showed how desperately he wanted it. And when the two days were over, and with another two days still remaining before the actual balloting, it became clear that the ballot would be only a formality and that Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois was assured of an overwhelming victory, Johnson, in the past invariably the most pragmatic of politicians, nevertheless refused to withdraw his name—against all logic, in the face of every pragmatic consideration—his supporters felt they understood the reason. After explaining that Johnson’s actions “made no sense to anyone, myself included,” John Connally added that in politics “you can always have a dream,” that “you always have hope”—and that Johnson had simply been unable to bring himself to give up his great dream. “He wanted it so much he wasn’t thinking straight,” Corcoran said. Resting up at Brown & Root’s hunting lodge in Falfurrias, Texas, after the convention, Johnson spent hours talking to George Brown, who says, “He hadn’t thought he would be so close . . . and then when all of a sudden, he felt he was close, he got carried away with the thought that he might get it, and he simply couldn’t bear to just admit he didn’t have a chance.” That was the explanation, Tommy Corcoran agrees; Johnson hadn’t withdrawn “Because he couldn’t bear to.” And these men knew he would try again—at the next convention, in 1960. Standing ankle-deep in discarded sand- wich wrappers, coffee containers and Johnson placards on the Convention floor after Stevenson had won (he received 905 votes, Johnson 80), Connally shouted defiantly, “Don’t you worry, this was just a practice run. We’ll be back four years from now!”
One obstacle made climbing to the next—the top, the ultimate—rung, reaching the prize of which he had so long dreamed, especially difficult for him. He was from the South, from one of the eleven states that had seceded from the Union and formed the rebel Confederacy, and that, despite America’s Civil War almost a century before, still largely denied basic civil rights to their black citizens—to the indignation and anger of the heavily populated northern states, the states whose convention votes determined the Democratic nominee. With growing black protests focusing attention on southern injustice, northern anger against the South was mounting steadily during the late 1950s. No southerner had been elected President for more than a century,* and it was a bitter article of faith among southern politicians that no southerner would be elected President in any foreseeable future; when members of the House of Representatives gave their Speaker, Sam Rayburn, ruler of the House for more than two decades, a limousine as a present, attached to the back of the front seat was a plaque that read “To Our Beloved Sam Rayburn—Who Would Have Been President If He Had Come from Any Place but the South.”
During his first twenty years in Congress, through 1956, Lyndon Johnson’s 100 percent southern voting record on civil rights and his work as a southern strategist, a Richard Russell lieutenant, against rights bills—work that had won him the trust and respect of the “Georgia Giant” so completely that Russell anointed him to one day succeed him, and the Southern Bloc raised him to the Senate leadership—had put what one journalist called “the taint of magnolias” on Lyndon Johnson; in 1956, there had been no realistic possibility that the North would support him for the nomination, or that it would, should he be nom- inated, vote for him for President. He could never scrub off that taint completely, but during the year following the 1956 disappointment, he managed to remove part of it. Throughout his life, there had been hints that he possessed a true, deep compassion for the downtrodden, and particularly for poor people of color, along with a true, deep desire to raise them up. During his previous career, that compassion, subordinated always to ambition, had revealed itself only in brief flashes, quickly suppressed, but in 1957, compassion and ambition had finally come into alignment, pointing at last in the same direction. His allies in Washington told him bluntly what he already knew: that the crux of the North’s animosity to him was its belief that he was opposed to civil rights, and that the only way to dilute that animosity was to pass a civil rights bill. “Consequential action . . . is essential for LBJ,” warned a confidential memo he received from his supporter Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. Otherwise, Graham told him, he might wind up his career as only another southern legislative leader, “only to be (another) Dick Russell.” Corcoran, that ultimate Washington insider, was, as always, blunter; he was to recall telling Johnson flatly in 1957 that “If he didn’t pass a civil rights bill, he could just forget [the] 1960 [nominawtion].” And these warnings were being given to a man who didn’t need them. “If I failed to produce on this one,” Lyndon Johnson himself said, “everything I had built up over the years would be completely undone.” In 1957, he set out to pass a civil rights bill. And when, after months of effort, that attempt seemed to have failed, and he retreated to his ranch, as if to avoid being identified with another civil rights defeat, Rowe pursued him with a memo warning him that he had no choice but to come back and fight: “This is Armageddon for Lyndon Johnson. . . . I would not like to see the 1960 nomination go down the drain because of . . . 1957.” It had been upon receipt of that memo at the ranch that Lyndon Johnson had returned to Washington, and, in a monumental feat of legislative maneuvering, of bullying, cajoling, threatening, of lightning tactical decisions on the Senate floor, and of parliamentary genius on a grand scale, including a strategic masterstroke that brought into line behind his efforts, in a single trans- action, a dozen western senators, had succeeded in persuading his twenty-one fellow southern senators—the mighty “Southern Caucus”—to allow the passage of the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, eighty-two years earlier. It was not a strong bill. By the time Johnson had finished fashioning a compromise that the southerners would accept, provisions that would have enforced school desegregation and banned racial segregation in housing, hotels, restaurants and other public places—provisions liberals considered essential—had been removed; only a single civil right, voting, remained, and the provisions for enforcing that lone right proved largely useless. But the mere fact of the bill’s passage—that after eighty-two years in which every civil rights bill that reached the Senate had died there, one had finally been passed—was of historic signifi- cance. “It opened a major branch of American government to a tenth of the pop- ulation for which all legislative doors had been slammed shut,” Johnson’s longtime press secretary, George Reedy, said. And Johnson argued—in a con- tention that would be vindicated by history—that although there was only one right remaining in the bill, that was the right that mattered: that it gave blacks the power to at least begin fighting for other rights. Furthermore, he pointed out, once a bill was passed, it could be amended to correct its deficiencies. “It’s just a beginning,” he said. “We’ll do it again, in a couple of years. . . . Don’t worry, it’s only the first.”
Although passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act did not eliminate the distrust with which liberals viewed him—far from it; his previous record on civil rights was too long, and too southern, for that, the bill he had forced through too weak—his Washington allies felt that the sharpest edges of that distrust had been blunted. As for the southern senators, a key reason they had allowed the measure to pass was their hope that enactment of a bill with which Johnson was identified might, by lessening northern distrust of him, enable the South to get its first Pres- ident in a century; they were confident that as President, Johnson would keep civil rights reform to a minimum. He had, in years of private conversations, con- vinced the southerners that in his heart he was on their side. “We can never make him President unless the Senate first disposes of civil rights,” Russell had explained to Reedy. So if he ran for the 1960 nomination, expectations were that the eleven southern states would be solidly behind him—a bloc of 352 votes out of the 761 needed for nomination in the Democratic convention. And he had a real chance, political observers said, to go into the convention with a large bloc of votes from the West as well. Now, at last, was the moment Lyndon Johnson had been waiting for all his life. While Adlai Stevenson was still the idol of many Democratic liberals, his two losses in presidential campaigns disqualified him in the eyes of party professionals, and anyway he had said quite definitively that he would not be a candidate. The party’s perennial hopeful, Estes Kefauver of Ten- nessee (Adlai’s running mate in 1956), was distrusted by these same profession- als because of his stubborn independence. And Kefauver, like the other potential candidates, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Stuart Symington of Missouri, was a senator, and he, Lyndon Johnson, was the Senate’s Leader, their leader, the man they had to come to—and had been coming to, for years—for every large and small favor in the Senate pantry. As Lyndon Johnson surveyed the field in early 1958, none of these men seemed a particularly formidable opponent.
If he won the nomination, furthermore, he would not have to face Eisenhower, since the beloved President would have served the two terms the Constitution allowed. Neither of the two potential Republican nominees—William Knowland of California and Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon—would be nearly as formidable. Lyndon Johnson had positioned himself as well as was possible for a southern candidate. Now was the moment to strike.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: "What the hell's the presidency for?" ix
Part I Johnson vs. Kennedy: 1960
1 The Prediction 3
2 The Rich Man's Son 27
3 Forging Chains 54
4 The Back Stairs 109
5 The "LBJ Special" 144
Part II "Rufus Cornpone"
6 "Power Is Where Power Goes" 159
7 Genuine Warmth 176
8 "Cut" 199
9 Gestures and Tactics 251
10 The Protégé 275
Part III Dallas
11 The Cubicle 307
12 Taking Charge 319
Part IV Taking Command
13 Aboard Air Force One 339
14 Three Encounters 373
15 The Drums 378
Part V To Become a President
16 EOB 274 391
17 The Warren Commission 437
18 The Southern Strategy 452
19 "Old Harry" 466
20 "The Johnsons in Johnson City" 484
21 Serenity 503
22 "Old Harry" II 552
23 In the Books of Law 558
24 Defeating Despair 571
25 Hammer Blows 587
26 Long Enough 598
Debts, Sources, Notes 607
What People are Saying About This
“Brilliant . . . Important . . . Remarkable . . . With this fascinating and meticulous account Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.” —Bill Clinton, The New York Times Book Review (front cover)
“A breathtakingly dramatic story [told] with consummate artistry and ardor . . . It showcases Mr. Caro’s masterly gifts as a writer: his propulsive sense of narrative, his talent for enabling readers to see and feel history in the making and his ability to situate his subjects’ actions within the context of their times . . . Caro manages to lend even much-chronicled events a punch of tactile immediacy . . . Johnson emerges as both a larger-than-life, Shakespearean personage—with epic ambition and epic flaws—and a more human-scale puzzle . . . Taken together the installments of Mr. Caro’s monumental life of Johnson so far not only create a minutely detailed picture of an immensely complicated and conflicted individual, but they also form a revealing prism by which to view the better part of a century in American life and politics during which the country experienced tumultuous and divisive social change . . . Mr. Caro’s descriptions of Johnson—and those of John and Robert Kennedy—have a novelistic depth and amplitude. He gives us a rich sense here of how past experiences shaped their interactions, how one encounter or misunderstanding often snowballed into another, and how Johnson and Robert Kennedy evinced a capacity to grow and change. Even more impressive in these pages is Mr. Caro’s ability to convey, on a visceral level, how daunting the challenges were facing Johnson upon his assumption of the presidency and the magnitude of his accomplishments in the months after Kennedy’s assassination . . . Mr. Caro uses his storytelling gifts to turn seemingly arcane legislative maneuvers into action-movie suspense, and he gives us unparalleled understanding—step by step, sometimes minute by minute—of how Johnson used a crisis and his own political acumen to implement his agenda with stunning speed: a test of leadership and governance that political addicts and more casual readers alike will find fascinating, given the gridlock in Washington today . . . Engrossing.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The fourth volume of one of the most anticipated English-language biographies of the past 30 years . . . A compelling narrative . . . that will thrill those who care about American politics, the foundations of power, or both . . . Before beginning the Johnson biography, Caro published a life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), a book many scholars consider a watershed in contemporary biography. The Johnson project deserves equal praise.” —KirkusReviews (Starred)
“A great work of history . . . A great biography . . . Caro has summoned Lyndon Johnson to vivid, intimate life.” —Newsweek
“Unrivaled . . . Caro does not merely recount. He beckons. Single sentences turn into winding, brimming paragraphs, clauses upon clauses tugging at the reader, layering the scenery with character intrigue and the plot with historical import. The result is irresistible . . . Passage covers with all the artistry and intrigue of a great novel events that are seared in the nation’s memory. In an era defined by fragmented media markets, instantaneous communication, gadflies and chattering suits, Caro stands not merely apart, but alone.” —William Howell, San Francisco Chronicle
“An addictive read, written in glorious prose that suggests the world’s most diligent beat reporter channeling William Faulkner. Passage is an essential document of a turning point in American history. It’s also an incisive portrait of one great, terrible, fascinating man suddenly given the chance to reinvent the country in his image.” —Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly
“One of the greatest biographies in the history of American letters.” —Bob Hoover, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Caro has once again shown that he might well be the greatest presidential historian we’ve ever had . . . Although the amount of research Caro has done for these books is staggering, it’s his immense talent as a writer that has made his biography of Johnson one of America’s most amazing literary achievements . . . Caro’s chronicle is as absorbing as a political thriller . . . There’s not a wasted word, not a needless anecdote . . . Most impressively, Caro comes closer than any other historian could to explaining the famously complex LBJ . . . Caro’s portrayal of the president is as scrupulously fair as it is passionate and deeply felt . . . The series is a masterpiece, unlike any other work of American history published in the past. It’s true that there will never be another Lyndon B. Johnson, but there will never be another Robert A. Caro, either. By writing the best presidential biography the country has ever seen, he’s forever changed the way we think, and read, American history.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
“Making ordinary politics and policymaking riveting and revealing is what makes Caro a genius. Combined with his penetrating insight and fanatical research, Caro’s Churchill-like prose elevates the life of a fairly influential president to stuff worthy of Shakespeare . . . Reading Caro’s books can feel like encountering the life of an American president for the first time . . . Caro’s judgment is solid, his prose inspiring, and his research breathtaking . . . Robert Caro stands alone as the unquestioned master of the contemporary American political biography.” —Jordan Michael Smith, The Boston Globe
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson, when completed, will rank as America’s most ambitiously conceived, assiduously researched and compulsively readable political biography . . . When Caro’s fifth volume arrives, readers’ gratitude will be exceeded only by their regret that there will not be a sixth.” —George F. Will
“This book shows the mastery of Johnson in politics, and also the mastery of Caro in biography.”
—David M. Shribman, Bloomberg BusinessWeek
“Epic . . . A searing account of ambition derailed by personal demons . . . a triumphant drama of ‘political genius in action’ . . . Caro combines the skills of a historian, an investigative reporter and a novelist in this searching study of the transformative effect of power.” —Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times
“Riveting . . . Shakespearean . . . It’s a roller-coaster narrative as Johnson plummets from the powerful Senate majority leader post to vice-presidential irrelevance, hated and humiliated by the Kennedy brothers, then surges to presidential authority with the crack of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle and forces a revolutionary civil rights act through a recalcitrant Congress . . . Caro’s tormented, heroic Johnson makes an apt embodiment of an America struggling toward epochal change, one with a fascinating resonance in our era of gridlocked government.” —Publishers Weekly(Boxed, Starred)
“Caro’s strength as a biographer is his ability to probe Johnson’s mind and motivations . . . Riveting . . . A roller-coaster tale.” —The Economist
“Riveting . . . Masterful . . . An insightful account of what it means and what it takes to occupy the Oval Office.” —Steve Paul, The Kansas City Star
“The latest in what is almost without question the greatest political biography in modern times . . . Nobody goes deeper, works harder or produces more penetrating insights than [Caro].” —Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman
“A major event in biography, history, even publishing itself . . . Caro has once more combined prodigious research and a literary gift to mount a stage for his Shakespearean figures: LBJ, JFK, and LBJ’s nemesis Robert F. Kennedy.” —Library Journal (Starred)
“A masterly how-to manual, showing Johnson’s knowledge of governing, his peerless congressional maneuvering and effective deal-making. The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a compact library: brilliant biography, gripping history, searing political drama and an incomparable study of power. It’s also a great read . . . And, after thousands of pages spent with Lyndon Johnson, one of Caro’s singular achievements is that you want more.” —Peter Gianotti, Newsday
“As riveting as a thriller . . . The next book will crown an achievement in presidential biography unmatched among presidential histories.” —David Hendricks, Houston Chronicle
“A meditation on power as profound as Machiavelli’s.” —Lara Marlowe, Irish Times
“Long live Robert Caro . . . Truly epic political history and character study . . . Riveting . . . It elevates Caro’s tale to Shakespearean drama, as the coldhearted, Machiavellian maneuvering and hot-blooded rivalries of supremely ambitious men play out with the fate of the free world at stake.” —Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Brilliant . . . Riveting reading from beginning to end . . . The real tour de force in this stunning mix of political and psychological analysis comes in the account of the transition between administrations, from November 23, 1963 to January 8, 1964 . . . An utterly fascinating character study, brimming with delicious insider stories . . . Political wonks, of course, will dive into this book with unbridled passion, but its focus on a larger-than-life, flawed but fascinating individual—the kind of character who drives epic fiction—should extend its reach much, much further. Unquestionably, one of the truly big books of the year.” —Booklist (Starred)
For proof that the greatest stories come from history rather than imagination --
that we can best discover the outer limits of the human experience by measuring what those before us have done -- we have the lifework of Robert Caro. The author of the multivolume biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson has won shelves of awards, and they are well deserved.-Michael O'Donnell
"What can a president be? What can a president do?": Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Robert A. Caro
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
The Barnes & Noble Review: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: You're probably right.
RC: Well, let's say hundreds.
BNR: 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.
BNR: Well, it's beautiful.
RC: Thank you.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: [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?
BNR: 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.
BNR: "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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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."
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.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?
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.
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.
BNR: 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, "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.
BNR: 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.
BNR: 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.
October 30, 2012