In 'Passage', Caro Mines LBJ's Changing Political Roles
For the past 37 years, Robert Caro has devoted his life to writing the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson. So far, The Years of Lyndon Johnson has four acclaimed volumes and has shown readers just how complex the 36th president was, as both a politician and a man.
There was the Johnson who grew up poor in the Texas hill country; the Johnson who blackmailed a fellow student to win a college election; and the Johnson who, as a congressman, humiliated loyal aides for fun and brazenly stole votes to get into the Senate. And yet there was the Johnson who worked long hours teaching poor Mexican-American children in South Texas, and who believed passionately in government's obligation to help people.
The fourth — and latest — volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson is The Passage of Power, winner of the 2012 National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards. Now out in paperback, it covers the years 1958-1964. During this time, Johnson goes from powerful Senate majority leader to powerless vice president mocked by the Kennedy brothers, to again being handed the reins of power when he assumes the presidency following John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Caro says that from the moment in that Dallas hospital when Johnson was first told that JFK was dead and he was now president, the change in his demeanor was visible and immediate.
"Johnson during the vice presidency had been so humiliated that he had a hangdog look," Caro tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "His shoulders slumped. He lost a lot of weight. He was downcast. ... As he's standing there in this little cubicle [in the hospital] for about 40 minutes, wondering what fate has in store for him, [those around him] see a transformation in Johnson back to the old Lyndon Johnson who ran the Senate as no one has ever run it before. Lady Bird says his face turned into a ... bronze image."
The change was not just physical. Johnson returned to leadership full throttle. The first few months of his administration saw historic civil rights legislation that had stalled under Kennedy passed through Congress. Caro, who also wrote The Power Broker, the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses, argues that Kennedy simply wouldn't have been able to do what Johnson did to advance social justice and economic equality in America.
But it's not the mere facts that compose the lives of influential men that attract Caro to biography.
"These books are not just about Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson," he says. "They're not. I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of the life of a great man. What I'm interested in is using those lives to show how political power works. Not the textbook variety — the textbook things we learn in high school and college — but how power really works, the raw, naked reality of political power. ... We live in a democracy, so basically power at the end comes from us, from the votes that we cast at the ballot box. So the more that we know about how political power really works the better — theoretically, at least — our votes should be and the better our democracy should be."
On the relationship between Johnson and the Kennedys
"The crucial thing with Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys was his relationship with Robert Kennedy. There was a real hatred there. You know, as a writer you hate certain words because they sound too loaded, and one of them is 'hate.' But hate isn't too strong of a word to describe the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. So, when Johnson is Jack Kennedy's vice president — which is a powerless position — Robert Kennedy makes sure that he doesn't have any power and, in fact, he systematically sets out to humiliate Johnson and does during the three years of his vice presidency. ... And [Johnson's] really reduced for three years to being a powerless figure, a ridiculed figure. You know, they used to call him — the Kennedys mocked him — they called him 'Rufus Corn Pone' or 'Uncle Corn Pone.' They even had a nickname for him and Lady Bird. They said, 'Uncle Corn Pone and his little pork chop.' "
On Johnson's experience of JFK's assassination
"There've been — whatever — a hundred, a thousand books on the assassination and they all tell the story of the assassination from Jack Kennedy's point of view, but in that motorcade, that assassination made Lyndon Johnson president, so he's a crucial figure in it. ... In the front [of Johnson's car], next to the driver, is a Secret Service agent named Rufus Youngblood. When the first shot rings out, people think it's a motorcycle backfiring or they think someone burst a balloon. ...
"As the shot sounds, Youngblood ... looks forward and sees Kennedy sort of falling to the left. He whirls around, and in an instant, he grabs Johnson's right shoulder and just pushes him down on the back floor of the back seat of the car, jumps over the back of the front seat and lays on top of Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson can hear over Youngblood's radio that [was] connected to the other Secret Service agents words like, 'He's hit! He's hit!' 'Let's get out of here!' 'Hospital!' and the three cars — Kennedy's, the Secret Service agents' and Johnson's — roar up a ramp to an expressway, roar down the expressway and then off and into the emergency bay of Parkland Hospital. Youngblood says to Johnson, 'When we get to that hospital, don't look around, don't stop. We're going to get you to a secure place.' "
On Johnson's speech to the joint session of Congress the Wednesday after the assassination
"The night before the speech ... he's still in his home in Spring Valley and four or five of his advisers are gathered around the kitchen table working on that speech and they all say to Johnson ... 'You can't make civil rights a priority. You can't fight for that in this speech. It's a noble cause but it's a lost cause. You can't win. You can't waste your time on a lost cause.' You know what Lyndon Johnson says to them? 'Well, what the hell's a presidency for then?' And in this speech his says, 'Our first priority is civil rights. We've talked about civil rights for 100 years. We've talked about it too long. Now it's time to write it into the books of law,' and he immediately takes Kennedy's two bills and gets them started to passage."
On Johnson as a "great reader of men"
"When a new aide, a young aide [arrived] ... he'd tell them how to talk to someone. He'd say, 'Watch their eyes. Watch their hands. What they're telling you with their eyes or their hands is more important than what they're telling you with their mouth.' He used to say, 'Never let a conversation end because there's always something that the man doesn't want to tell you and the longer a conversation goes on, the easier it is for you to figure out what it is he doesn't want to tell you.' He had a unique ability to know what a man really wanted, what a man really was afraid of and of playing on those fears and those desires."
On how civil rights leaders regarded Johnson
"They come in suspicious, you know. Johnson always wanted to meet with people one-on-one. ... A friend of his said, 'One-on-one he's the greatest salesman who ever lived.' So a group of civil rights leaders — Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer — want to meet with him. One of his secretaries says, 'Should I schedule them as a group?' And he says to her, 'No, one at a time,' and each one has the same reaction. ... I think it's Roy Wilkins who says this: that [he] 'went in there suspicious and then Johnson pulled up almost knee-to-knee [to] me and leaned into my face and told me how much he wanted civil rights and for the first time I had real hope that this bill was going to pass.' "
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In three previous books, biographer Robert Caro has given us some remarkable images of Lyndon Johnson's life and career; growing up poor in the Texas hill country; blackmailing a fellow student to win a college election; as a congressman humiliating loyal aides just for the fun of it, and brazenly stealing votes to get into the U.S. Senate.
He also described a Johnson who worked long hours teaching poor Mexican-American children in South Texas and who believed passionately in government's obligation to help people. In his fourth volume, "The Passage of Power," Caro deals with Johnson's vice presidency, his sudden ascension to the White House after the Kennedy assassination, and Johnson's remarkable success in the first few months of his administration to get historic civil rights legislation through Congress.
Kennedy, Caro argues, simply wouldn't have been able to do what Johnson did to advance social justice and economic equality in America. Robert Caro is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. One of those was for "The Power Broker," his biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses. His latest Johnson volume, "The Passage of Power," won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It's now out in paperback.
Robert Caro, welcome to FRESH AIR. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, one of the most powerful men in the country. And in your third volume you write about how he had mastered the legislative process. He sought the - his party's presidential nomination in 1960, lost it to John Kennedy. What was his relationship with Jack Kennedy and the Kennedy group, the Kennedy clan, after that campaign?
ROBERT CARO: Well, with Jack Kennedy there was always this sort of, I would say, wary respect. The crucial thing with Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys was his relation with Robert Kennedy. And there was a real hatred there. You know, as a writer, Dave, you hate to use certain words because they sound too loaded, and one of them is hate. But hate isn't too strong a word to describe the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy.
So when Johnson is Jack Kennedy's vice president, which is a powerless position, Robert Kennedy makes sure that he doesn't have any power and that in fact he systematically sets out to humiliate Johnson and does during the three years of his vice presidency.
DAVIES: Yeah, in the book you - there are some great descriptions of some of his early encounters with Robert Kennedy, when Kennedy was a Senate staffer. And yeah, this relationship was poisoned from the beginning. Lyndon Johnson, you know, thought seriously about whether he should accept the vice presidential nomination. Back then the vice presidency I think lacked some of the visibility it does today. It was considered a dead end.
DAVIES: He took it and had ambitions of making it something because he was a guy who knew, understood power and thought he could do more with it. What was he able to do? What was his status? How was he treated by the Kennedy crew as vice president?
CARO: Well, you know, at the very beginning he tries a typical Lyndon Johnson maneuver to get more power than any vice president has had before. He drafts and gives to Jack Kennedy to sign, perhaps thinking he wasn't, Kennedy wasn't going to read it thoroughly enough, an executive order which would have in effect given Johnson power over a number of government agencies.
But Kennedy of course handles it - just sort of ignores it in a very graceful way. And Johnson realizes - he says, you know, that young man is a lot smarter than I thought he was and a lot tougher too. Then Johnson tries another maneuver. He tries to keep control of the Senate Democrats, although he's now vice president, he's no longer majority leader. They won't have that.
And all of a sudden he has no power, this man, the mighty majority leader, the most powerful Democrat in the country for this past six years, has no power at all. And the Kennedys don't give him any. And he's really reduced for three years to being a powerless figure, a ridiculed figure. You know, they used to call him - the Kennedys mocked him. They called him Rufus Cornpone or Uncle Cornpone.
They even had a nickname for him and Ladybird. They said Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop. That's the way Johnson was regarded by them.
DAVIES: Now, they didn't say these things to his face?
CARO: Well, those particular words I don't think were ever used to his face. But he knew they were using them because it was in the Washington gossip columns and reporters were reporting that. And you know, the big headline in 1963, before the assassination, and a lot of newspapers were doing analytical articles about Lyndon Johnson, and you know what the headline was on all of them? Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson? He has become a figure of ridicule.
DAVIES: In a town that he just held so much sway in, over just a few years earlier.
DAVIES: And then that day in November, in Dallas, November 22, 1963, in Dallas, changes everything.
CARO: Yes, in the crack of - yes.
DAVIES: Yeah. Now, Johnson was in the presidential motorcade in Dallas, not in the car that carried the president and Texas Governor John Connally and their wives. He was some cars back. What did he see and experience?
CARO: There are three - the first - in the first car, Jack Kennedy is riding with Jackie and the governor of Texas. John Connally, a very handsome man with a leonine head of white hair, is riding with his wife, Nellie Connally, a beautiful woman, once the sweetheart of the University of Texas. In the car behind them is a Secret Service car. It's so heavily armored it's called the Queen Mary.
And there are four agents on the running board, and inside there are more agents with their automatic rifles concealed on the floor. Then there's a 75-foot gap. The Secret Service insisted on that. And then there's Lyndon Johnson's car. He is in the back seat on the right-hand side; in the center is Ladybird; on the left is the Texas senator, Ralph Yarborough.
And in the front, next to the driver, is a Secret Service agent named Rufus Youngblood. When the first shot rings out, people think it's a motorcycle backfiring, or they think someone burst a balloon. It's interesting. John Connally told me: But I was a hunter. I knew the moment I heard that shot it was from a hunting rifle.
As the shot sounds, Youngblood looks, the Secret Service agent looks forward and sees Kennedy sort of falling to the left. He whirls around and in an instant he grabs Johnson's right shoulder and just pushes him down on the back floor of the back seat of the car, jumps over the back of the front seat and lays on top of Lyndon Johnson.
And Johnson can hear, over Youngblood's radio that connected him to the other Secret Service agents, words like he's hit, he's hit, let's get out of here, hospital. And the three cars, Kennedy's, the Secret Service agents', and Johnson's, roar up a ramp to an expressway, roar down the expressway and then off and into the emergency bay of Parkland Hospital.
Youngblood says to Johnson, when we get to that hospital, don't look around, don't stop, we're going to get you to a secure place. Don't look around and stop. Johnson is yanked out of the car by four Secret Service men and run in that hospital down one corridor, to the left of the corridor, to the right, looking for a secure place until they find one.
DAVIES: And then he soon learns that Kennedy is dead and that he is at that moment president. And you know, one of the fascinating parts of the story is that at that moment, when he goes to Texas to accompany the president on this visit to his home state, almost at the instant of the assassination, you tell us, there were events taking place in Washington and New York which threatened Lyndon Johnson's very career. Let's just focus on those for a second.
CARO: It's almost unbelievably dramatic in terms of the time sequence. There was a scandal in Washington. Lyndon Johnson's aide for years had been a man named Bobby Baker. The Bobby Baker scandal, which involved kickbacks and payoffs and that sort of thing, had put Baker on the front cover of Life, of Time, of Newsweek, really every magazine in the country.
The magazines would refer to him as Lyndon's boy. He was known as Little Lyndon in Washington. But nobody had connected Lyndon Johnson to the Bobby Baker scandal. At the very moment that morning, back in Washington, in a closed little room in the Senate office building, the man who was going to connect Johnson to that scandal, a man named Don Reynolds(ph), was testifying before Senate investigators.
And he was pushing across the table to them the checks and the invoices that would prove that Lyndon Johnson was involved in the Bobby Baker scandal, which was the huge scandal of that time. He was doing this at approximately the time that the motorcade was going through Dallas and the shots rang(ph) out.
And another thing was happening at that same moment. Life magazine had for the first time - no one had ever looked into Lyndon Johnson's fortune. You know, he had come to Washington as a very poor boy, very poor young congressman, and he had become very rich. Life magazine was planning to run a story on that fortune. They were going to call it something like "Lyndon's Money" - that very next week.
And the editors and reporters involved were, at the moment of the assassination, meeting to discuss that article. So Johnson's career was hanging by as tenuous a thread as it ever hung at the moment of the motorcade in Dallas.
DAVIES: All right, so going back to Dallas, he's at Parkland Hospital, he learns that the president is dead, and...
CARO: Well, he doesn't learn for about 45 minutes. The Secret Service agents finally find a secure room; it's in what they call the Parkland Hospital Minor Medicine Section. They put - it's a room divided into three cubicles by hanging white sheets like you see in hospitals, muslin curtains. They put Johnson in the back room against the wall and they draw the blinds over the windows.
Right in front of Johnson is Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent. In the middle room, middle cubicle, there are two Secret Service agents. And at the door, Youngblood stations another one with the instructions: Don't let any human being past you unless you personally know his face.
Johnson stands there, they bring in a chair for Ladybird, and Ladybird sits down next to Lyndon, against that wall. They bring in a chair for Johnson, but he does not sit down. He stands there, and it's really - we don't know really the time, 40 or 45 minutes. He keeps asking, you know, about Kennedy. Has Youngblood sent someone out to ask how Kennedy is?
The only word that comes back, Dave, is that the doctors are still working on the president. Then after about 40 minutes - as I say, it's hard to get an exact time - Kenny O'Donnell, who was one of Kennedy's aides who had been campaigning with him all his life, walks into the room. And Ladybird Johnson was to say: Seeing the stricken face of Kenny O'Donnell, who loved him, we knew.
And a moment later, another Kennedy aide runs into the room, runs over to Johnson and addresses him as Mr. President. That's the first time anyone's called him that or that he really knows that he's president.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Caro. His fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power," is now out in paperback. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and our guest is Robert Caro. The fourth volume of his study of the life of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power," is now out in paperback.
So in Dallas in 1963, Johnson is suddenly the president, and there are many decisions that have to quickly be made, logistical decisions about does he go back with Jackie on Air Force One, where and under what circumstances is the swearing-in, a whole lot of things. But as you walk us through these events, you say that many, many people notice that it seems to be a different Lyndon Johnson. How?
CARO: Yes, I'm glad you picked out that point. You know, Johnson during the vice presidency had been so humiliated that he had a hangdog look. His shoulders slumped. He lost a lot of weight. He was downcast. You know, people always said about Lyndon Johnson, he was always - if he had a cold you would think he had pneumonia. He always complained about every little thing.
But they said, and Ladybird said it, if there's a tough time, Lyndon is a good man to have on your side. And as he's standing there in this little cubicle for about 40 minutes, wondering what fate has in store for him, they see a transformation in Johnson back to the old Lyndon Johnson who ran the Senate as no one has ever run it before.
Ladybird said that his face turned into a graven bronze image. And the Secret Service men have come running in after he's told that Kennedy's dead, and they say to him we have to get you back to Washington, the White House is where we can keep you secure. Remember, Dave, no one knows if it's a conspiracy or not; not only the president was shot, but the governor of Texas was shot.
And we're only 13 months away from the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we almost had a nuclear - were on the verge of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. No one knows if it's a conspiracy and they're after Johnson. So they said we've got to get you back to the plane, and the plane has to take off immediately for Washington.
Johnson immediately is decisive. No, he says, I'm not leaving this hospital without Mrs. Kennedy. They said, well, she won't leave without her husband's body. Johnson says then we'll go to Air Force One, but we'll wait there for her to arrive with the body. And that's what happens.
And on the plane he has to - you know, it's very interesting. They say today that 11 weeks, the time between Election Day and the inauguration, is too short a time for a president to get ready to assume the many responsibilities and duties of the office. Lyndon Johnson's transition period was two hours and six minutes.
He takes the oath of office on Air Force One, and two hours and six minutes later, the length of the flight, he has to get off and be president of the United States. And you see him on the plane taking charge of the country, doing the steps that are necessary to keep it calm and assure it that although the president has been murdered, government is under control.
DAVIES: Right. I mean there are so many decisions of logistics, there are decisions of substance and decisions of symbolism. And it was clear one thing that he needed to do was to associate himself with the fallen president. He wanted Jackie in that photo where he's taking the oath.
DAVIES: He returns to office, and it was unthinkable, I suppose, to move into the White House and the Oval Office at that moment, which was full of President Kennedy's personal effects. He goes to the Executive Office Building, where he had long worked.
DAVIES: But he gets very busy. And it's fascinating, even in those few days, over which the funeral occurs, and the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby occurs, Johnson is busy. Now, when does he begin thinking about his legislative agenda?
CARO: Well, you know, Kennedy had two vitally important bills, which were in Congress at the time of his death. One was the Civil Rights Bill. The civil rights movement was raging through the streets of the South. It was desperately necessary to get a civil rights bill through Congress. But the Southern Democrats controlled Congress, and they had stopped that bill cold.
It wasn't going anywhere. He had also - his other great piece of - major piece of legislation was a tax cut bill needed to get the economy going because the unemployment rate, Dave, was rising toward a totally unacceptable five percent. People couldn't stand that. But Congress had stopped both these bills.
Johnson has to give his first speech to Congress on the Wednesday after the assassination, to the Joint Session of Congress. The night before the speech, he's still - he's not in the White House yet. He's still in his home, in Spring Valley, and four or five of his advisors are gathered around the kitchen table working on that speech.
And they all say to Johnson - Johnson walks in, they all say you can't fight for - you can't make civil rights a priority. You can't fight for that in this speech. It's a noble cause, but it's a lost cause. You can't win. You can't waste your time on a lost cause. You know what Lyndon Johnson says to them? He says, well, what the hell is a presidency for then?
And in this speech he says our first priority is civil rights. We've talked about civil rights for a hundred years. We've talked about it too long. Now it's time to write it into the books of law. And he immediately takes Kennedy's two bills and gets them started to passage.
DAVIES: Right, and there are a lot of fascinating meetings and phone calls that you describe that he makes to congressional leaders. He meets with a bunch of governors who happen to be in Washington. And you know, they're an important part of getting pressure to their congressional delegations. There was the other issue of could Johnson give a speech.
I mean, he was an incredibly powerful man one to one. I mean I love your descriptions of him grabbing a congressman by the lapel and pointing the finger in his chest. But he wasn't - he kind of missed as a public speaker. How did he prepare for this? This was a big, big moment for him and the country.
CARO: And he knows he can't speak well in public. I mean he's known this all his life. So he knows one of the things that he does, Dave, is he rushes through the speech, you know, like you do when you're nervous and insecure. I saw the very - his very reading copy of the speech. You know what he does? He writes the speeches in, like, one or two sentence paragraphs.
Between each paragraph he writes in handwriting, you can see it on the speech, pause. When he's got an important point, he writes after it pause, pause. And he gives the speech, and it is a great speech. You know, we remember it as the speech in which he says, about Kennedy's program, let us continue.
Kennedy set let us begin, I say let us continue. So for this one speech, at least, he is a magnificent speaker.
DAVIES: Robert Caro will be back in the second half of the show. The fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power," is now out in paperback. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro. The fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power," is now out in paperback. The book describes Johnson's powerlessness and humiliation as vice president, his experience in Dallas when JFK was assassinated, and his sudden ascension to the presidency, where Caro writes Johnson summoned all of his skill and experience to pursue an aggressive agenda.
In some respects, the heart of the story here is Johnson's remarkable achievements in Congress during the first, you know, I guess five or six months of his presidency, getting the Kennedy tax cut - which was going nowhere - and the Civil Rights Bill, which had been locked up for decades by...
DAVIES: ...you know, by Democratic leaders in the Senate that - particularly from the South - well, and Congress, too. First of all, what did Lyndon Johnson have that Kennedy lacked when it came to dealing with Congress, in a general way?
CARO: You know, I use the phrase in my book that he was a great reader of men. He used to have rules for reading men. When a new aide - when a young aide came, and he'd tell them how to talk to somebody. He'd say, watch their eyes. Watch their hands. What they're telling you with their eyes or their hands is more important than what they're telling you with their mouth. He used to say: Never let a conversation end, because there's always something that the man doesn't want to tell you. And the longer the conversation goes on, the easier it is for you to figure out what it is he doesn't want to tell you. He had a unique ability to know what a man really wanted, what a man really was afraid of, and of playing on those fears and those desires.
I'll give you an example. You say: How did he get Kennedy Civil Rights Bill started? The Republicans were keeping it bottled up in the House Rules Committee, which was chaired by a Southern racist named Howard W. Smith of Virginia - Old Judge Smith, they called him. And they couldn't get it out of the Rules Committee, because there weren't enough votes there to let the Rules Committee release it to the floor of the House.
Johnson calls in the Republican leader of the House, Charles Halleck of Indiana. He realizes, listening to Halleck, that what Halleck really wants is - the largest employer in his district is Purdue University. And Purdue has built new space laboratories, and it's not getting as many contracts from NASA, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as it wants. Johnson calls the administrator of NASA, a man named James Webb, and tells him this, and says he wants Halleck to meet with him - Webb - and to be satisfied by what NASA does. Webb says something like, well, I hope when he leaves my office, he'll be happy.
Lyndon Johnson, you have to hear his voice. Lyndon Johnson says, no, you don't understand me. I don't want you to think he's happy. If he's not happy when he leaves your office, you'll be hearing again from me. Halleck gets what he wants, and the Republicans on the Rules Committee vote to let the bill out. Johnson had a genius with dealing with individuals. He would threaten them or cajole them or charm them, whatever he had to do to get votes.
DAVIES: You know, Johnson was an ambitious man. And, you know, you write that he desperately wanted to become president, from an early age. So when events thrust him into the office, because of the Kennedy assassination, he has a few months to plan to keep the office. He has to secure the Democratic nomination. It's not at all clear what, you know, the Kennedy folks might do, and try and win - he needs to win the 1964 election. And you can look at his pursuit of the tax cut and of civil rights legislation and the war on poverty - which he also announces in this period - as in service of his presidential ambitions. So the question is how genuine was Lyndon Johnson's commitment to social justice?
CARO: You know, that's a really good question. I mean, you're certainly right that ambition was the driving force in Johnson's life. But there always was this deep compassion. Let me tell you one incident that I think was very revealing. Johnson - when Lyndon Johnson is going to college, he's very, very poor. And he has to drop out between his sophomore and junior years to earn enough money to continue.
What he does during that year is teach in what they called the Mexican School. It was a school for Mexican-American children of migrant workers down in a little town south of San Antonio called Cotulla. You know, I wrote in my first volume that no teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared. He thought it was very important that they learned to speak in English, not Spanish. So he would spank the boys if he heard them using any words in Spanish. He would tongue-lash the girls. And, I mean, he would go - they didn't have baseball teams. They didn't have debating teams. He would go to the corrugated tin shacks of these migrant families and persuade the fathers - who could ill-afford to lose a day's pay in the field - to drive their kids so they could go to debating teams and have sports teams like the white kids had.
He didn't just teach the kids. He taught the janitor. He bought - the janitor's name is Tomas Caranaro. And he was to say that Johnson bought him a textbook, and every day before school and after school, he would - Johnson would sit with Caranaro and the textbook on the steps of the school, Caranaro says: Johnson would spell. I would repeat. Johnson would pronounce. I would repeat.
Now it's 40 or 30 years later. Johnson is president, and he's fighting for civil rights. And one of Kennedy's aides, a man named Richard Goodwin - a great speechwriter, a great political figure - says to him the same question that you just said to me, wonders how genuine it is. Johnson says to him: You know, I swore then - he means down in Cotulla - that if I ever had a chance to help those kids, I was going to use it. Now I have the power. And I'll tell you a secret: I'm going to use it.
Whatever the other elements of Lyndon Johnson are - Some of them are very unpleasant. Certainly what you said is exactly right about his driving, overwhelming ambition. I think there was a true desire, from his earliest days, to help poor people, and particularly poor people of color.
DAVIES: And I guess we have to note for people that haven't read the rest of the story, that when Johnson was, you know, a very, very powerful leader in the United States Senate, he cooperated with Southerners in delaying and defeating a number of civil rights bills. But when he had the presidency, he moved on it.
CARO: What I didn't say was people didn't believe it, because for 20 years before he became president, he - when he was in Congress and in the South, he not only voted against every civil rights bill, he was not just to vote against civil rights, he was one of the key Southern strategists who devised the strategy to defeat these civil rights bills for 20 years.
DAVIES: Right. And so when, as a new president, he starts moving on civil rights, I'm curious how the civil rights leaders of the day - I mean, Martin Luther King and others - regarded Johnson. Did they work together?
CARO: Oh, those are terrific questions. They come in suspicious. You know, Johnson always wanted to meet with people one-on-one-on-one. You know, they said about Johnson, one on - a friend of his said one-on-one, he's the greatest salesman who ever lived.
So a group of civil rights leaders - Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer - want to meet with him. One of his secretaries says: Should I schedule them as a group? And he says to her, no, one at a time. And each one has the same reaction. I can't remember which, I think it's Roy Wilkins, who says this: that he went in there suspicious, and then Johnson pulled up almost knee-to-knee with me and leaned into my face and told me how much he wanted civil rights, and for the first time, I had real hope that this bill was going to pass.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Caro. His fourth volume about Lyndon Johnson's life, "The Passage of Power," is now out in paperback. And we'll talk some more after a quick break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Robert Caro. He wrote "The Power Broker" years ago about Robert Moses. And his fourth volume of his series chronicling the life of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power," is now out in paperback.
I think you began on the Lyndon Johnson project what, 37 years ago, in 1976? Does that sound about right?
DAVIES: This is what I've read.
CARO: Unfortunately, it does. Yeah.
DAVIES: This is what I've read. And as, you know, as I read this volume, I mean, there are so many cases where you cite interviews with...
DAVIES: ...with the players, you know, most of whom I'm sure are no longer with us. And it struck me that you must have - back in the '70s and '80s - conducted, you know, dozens - I guess hundreds - of lengthy interviews at which you talk to people who knew Johnson about the whole story, beginning to end.
DAVIES: And so now, as you reach the later parts of Johnson's life, you go back to interviews - which I can't imagine how old they must be - you don't use a computer. Everything is handwritten, right?
DAVIES: How do you manage...
CARO: Or typed. Or typed.
DAVIES: OK. OK. How do you manage it?
CARO: Well, you know, I do it the same way I did when I was young and a newspaper reporter. I take notes in a - like, a stenographer's notebook. I'm very good at shorthand of getting, you know, every word. And my rule is that I type up that interview, transcribe it before I go to bed that same night.
The reason is I want to remember the exact face as much as I can, the exact facial expressions and the tones of the voice. So you're right. I mean, I've recently been working with something that involves John Connally, and those interviews, you know, occurred in 1981. Of course, Governor Connally is long dead. But at that time, he had me down to his ranch. He had a great ranch in Floresville, in South Texas.
He used to wake me up very early in the morning. In my memory, it's 5:30 or 6. I may be exaggerating in my mind, but it was early. He had a stable of quarter horses then, and he would wake me up and we would go over and watch the Mexican vaqueros exercise them in the early morning. Sometimes they would bring a couple of little chairs for us to sit on. Sometimes we would sit on the top rail of the fence.
And he said to me something very - basically, very complimentary about my first book, and said he would answer any question that I asked. And, in fact, he answered every question, except one, that I asked. And I think I was there four days. I mean, we had other interviews, but he talked to me - this man who was, for a long time, closer to Lyndon Johnson than anyone else - talked to me with the utmost frankness for just page after page that I still - of interviews that I still go back to.
DAVIES: What's the one question he wouldn't answer?
CARO: What Lyndon Johnson said about Robert Kennedy. You know, Lyndon Johnson hated Robert Kennedy. They hated each other with a passion that's almost unbelievable. You know, the first time that they met was in 1953. Lyndon Johnson was the powerful Democratic leader of the Senate, this great power. Robert Kennedy has just gone to work. He's a young junior staffer on the McCarthy Committee.
DAVIES: Joe McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin. Right? Yeah.
CARO: I'm sorry. Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Senator McCarthy, every morning in the Senate cafeteria, had a big - there was a big round table right near the cashier's desk, and he took that table with four or five of his staffers every morning. Lyndon Johnson walks in one morning with two of his staffers, George Reedy and Horace Busby. McCarthy jumps up, as all senators did, and his staff jumps up, differential to Johnson. Great job yesterday, Mr. Leader. Don't know how you did it, Mr. Leader. Just miraculous, Mr. Leader. Anything I can do for you, Mr. Leader?
Johnson walks around the table, shaking their hands. One person at that table doesn't stand up. He's this young staffer, Robert Kennedy. Well, Johnson knows what to do about that. There was never a personal encounter that he wasn't going to win. He sort of stands in front of Kennedy with his right hand sort of half-extended so that Kennedy either has to stand up and shake it, or really be deliberately, ostentatiously rude. He has to stand up and - and take it.
I asked Reedy and Busby: What was the reason? And they gave a number of reasons, that Johnson had once insulted Kennedy's father, and several - excuse me - had several times insulted Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy. But they said it was more than that. And Reedy said to me - that was Johnson's press secretary, George Reedy. He said to me: Did you ever see two strange dogs come into a room, and all of a sudden, they growl, and the hair rises on the back of their necks?
That's the way Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson was. For their entire lives, they were two men who couldn't stand to look at each other.
DAVIES: You write in this volume that you're really writing not just about Lyndon Johnson, but about, you know, the acquisition and use of power in the middle of the 20th century. And I wonder, do you follow politics in Washington today? I mean, Washington is, in many ways, such a different place than it was in the '50s and '60s. I wonder if you think the way power is acquired and used has changed in any fundamental way.
CARO: Yes. Can I answer that obliquely at first?
CARO: Why - you know, as you say, these books are not just about Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. They're not. I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of a life of a great man. What I'm interested in is using those lives to show how political power works - not the textbook variety, the textbook things we learn in high school and college, but how power really works, the raw, naked reality of political power.
The more that we know about how political power really works, the better - theoretically, at least - our votes should be and the better our democracy should be. But what I try to do is examine the particular kind of political power that a Robert Moses or a Lyndon Johnson uses. How does the Senate work? What does it take to run an expressway through a neighborhood? How is power used for good and for ill? That's what I try, to find out how it's used and try to explain it. That's what I've been trying to do.
DAVIES: And when you look at Washington today, does the use and exercise of power seem different than it was in the period you're writing about?
CARO: Well, you know what I - you ask good questions, but the answer is the one thing I think I've learned is that you don't really know how power is being used until years later when papers and documents are open, and people are more willing to talk in interviews. Then you go back and you see what was really happening. So I'm really - I follow things in Washington today, but I wonder what I don't know.
CARO: Now, in this last volume, I'm writing about Vietnam. It's going to be much darker than the other volumes. But some would - of the - now we have the minutes - not minutes, because you wouldn't allow minutes to be taken - but the notes of the meetings in which the Vietnam decisions were made. We can see the cable traffic going back and forth between Washington and Saigon. So many of the things, I wouldn't say they're not true.
But it's like what we read in the newspapers at that time was like the shadow to the substance of what was happening. Now we see the substance. So I always wonder, as I say, what it is I don't know about what's happening today.
DAVIES: Well, Robert Caro, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us. It's been interesting.
CARO: This was great. Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: The fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power." is now out in paperback. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews some archival recordings of Bing Crosby. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.