TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. On behalf of Tom McNaught, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming, and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation, and our media partners, the Boston Globe and WBUR.
Let me begin, Mr. Caro, by welcoming you back to the Kennedy Library. We are always honored by your presence. In the acknowledgements to his masterful new book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro praises one of his best sources, George Reedy, who served as a top aide to LBJ. President Johnson himself once quipped, "When you ask George the time, he tells you how to make a watch." [laughter]
It might be said that when you ask Robert Caro about power, he tells you -- in meticulously researched detail -- how men like Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson amassed and then used power to build highways, electrify hill country towns, win elections, get rich, pass legislation, secure the Presidency, and then use our nation's highest office to advance monumental social change.
In President Kennedy's last address in his home state of Massachusetts, he touched upon the topic of power when dedicating a new library at Amherst College to Robert Frost, who he described as one of the granite figures of our time, whose contributions were "not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our selfcomprehension."
The draft of that speech, which JFK was given by Arthur Schlesinger, included the line, "when power inebriates, poetry invokes sobriety," which, in Kennedy's own hand, we see changed to how he delivered it, "when power corrupts, poetry cleanses."
Robert Caro has spent a lifetime analyzing what the use (and at times abuse) of political power reveals about us and our leaders. His newest volume focuses on how LBJ used the power that was bequeathed to him after the tragic events in Dallas to new ends, ultimately describing Johnson's assumption of power as perhaps his life's finest moment, "not only masterful but, in its own way, heroic."
Through Mr. Caro's richly painted canvas, we also get dazzling splashes of Johnson's colorful persona and persuasive powers. "That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and then beat your head with it" [laughter], Senator Richard Russell remarks. And he was a friend. [laughter] In conversations with Johnson, noted civil rights leader Roy Wilkins said, "You never quite knew if he was out to lift your heart or your wallet."
Our moderator this evening is Mark Feeney, arts critic for the Boston Globe; author of Nixon at the Movies; winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his penetrating and versatile command of the visual arts, from film and photography, to painting; and a frequent and welcome guest on this stage. [applause]
Our national landscape is adorned with memorials to past leaders, from the profiles on Mount Rushmore, to the monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln off the National Mall, and the more recent memorials to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a place for such public art that elicits national pride and lifts our self-esteem, but, perhaps more importantly, a greater gift to our people and to posterity are the words carved so carefully and often so poetically by Robert Caro.
In one of the final chapters of his new book, which is on sale in our Museum store, Mr. Caro describes the steps Lyndon Johnson took while at his ranch in Texas during his first Christmas as President to hatch a strategy, to pass revolutionary civil rights legislation, and launch the war on poverty. The chapter concludes with this marvelous image:
"The ranch was just down the road from the Junction School where as a small boy LBJ had scrawled his name across two blackboards in letters so large that his schoolmates, become old men, still remembered the huge „Lyndon B‟ on one blackboard and „Johnson‟ on the other. The program that he would announce in his first State of the Union in January was of dimensions so sweeping that with it he was trying to write his name across the long whole slate of American history."
Robert Caro has left his own mark on that slate by interpreting these defining moments in our national story. He is indeed one of the granite figures of our time, whose books will stand for centuries as lasting monuments to our shared history, contributing, in President Kennedy's words, "to our spirit, our insight, and our self-comprehension."
Please join me in welcoming Robert Caro and Mark Feeney to the Kennedy Library. [applause]
MARK FEENEY: We're all here at the John F. Kennedy Library, and of course we're here to talk about John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But before we do that, I'd like to talk about John F. Kennedy and someone else – Robert A. Caro. If my math is right, the second Presidential election you were eligible to vote in was the 1960 election. I won't ask you which candidate you voted for, but I would be curious to know what the young Bob Caro thought of the still relatively young Jack Kennedy.
ROBERT CARO: He touched something in me. I still remember, actually, his inaugural address; I think it touched something in my whole generation. Someone once said to me at Harvard, one minute everybody was going to law school or business school, and the next minute they were all in the Peace Corps or going to join the Justice Department. I think that's the way I felt about him.
MARK FEENEY: Next week you'll be appearing at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, which, of course, is in the former Texas Book Depository. Do you remember where you were when you first heard of President Kennedy's assassination?
ROBERT CARO: Actually, I do. I was one of the last people in the United States to hear about it. No one ever asks me that. [laughter] I was then in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I was an investigative reporter for Newsday, and one of the things I had done a series on were these fraudulent retirement home sites in the sun country developments, in the middle of the Mojave Desert where there was no water. But they were selling them to retired policemen and firemen who couldn't afford better retirement homes; they were just $1,000 down, $100 a month. I had discovered they were fraudulent, and I'd written a series of articles on it. The Senate had decided to investigate, so they sent a couple of investigators down with me, because four or five people -- all elderly ladies -- tried to live down there; they'd taken their life savings and given it to these developers and had gone down there. There was no water or anything, and we had found these people; they all had to carry water a half-mile to their homes. I was trying to find them again so the Senate could bring them back and have them testify. You couldn't get radio reception, at least on our car radio, in that desert. So we were there all day and as we were heading back toward the main highway, just before it turned up to Las Vegas where we were staying, a truck driver started waving frantically at us and we pulled over and he said the President had been killed.
That was how I found out.
MARK FEENEY: You write a great deal in the book about the relationship between John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Could you talk a little bit about that for the audience here now?
ROBERT CARO: Sure. It was a fascinating relationship. It started when Johnson really was the Majority Leader and Jack Kennedy was a young senator, not that interested in the Senate. To Johnson, all that mattered was how effective you were in the Senate, and he had absolute contempt for Jack Kennedy. His actual quote, if I recall it from my book, is he was pathetic as a Senator. He didn't even know how to address the Chair.
President Kennedy was then, of course, in very bad health, and his back was terrible, and he had these two operations. Johnson mocked that; he said, "Did you ever see his ankles? They're only this big around," he used to say, "and he's sickly, yellow, yellow, not a man's man." Therefore, when Jack Kennedy starts to run against him for the Presidency in 1958 … And as for Kennedy's feelings about Johnson, of course if you were in the Senate, you knew Johnson was this incredibly formidable man. But Jack Kennedy was a great politician in his own right, and he realizes something that Lyndon Johnson doesn't realize: the Senate isn't the place to run for the Presidency. He realizes the power of television, and he realizes that if he travels around the United States – often with only a single aide, Ted Sorensen; often for much of this time he and Sorensen would travel around in a little plane together. Someone once said, the best hopes of America were in that plane. So he's running around the United States, getting delegates, making speeches. Johnson doesn't realize what's happening to him. Johnson thinks he has the Presidential nomination. By the time he wakes up, it's really too late.
MARK FEENEY: But Kennedy would later say that he could not have won the election without Johnson.
ROBERT CARO: Yes, that's one of the Kennedy statements. Most history books don't give him that credit. Jack Kennedy puts Lyndon Johnson on the ticket, really, because no Democrat is going to carry the country without carrying Texas. What no one remembers is that Texas, although we think of it as a Democratic state, actually Eisenhower had carried Texas in both 1952 and 1956 and in 1956 by over 200,000 votes. So Kennedy has to have Texas.
Even more, Eisenhower had taken five of the 11 supposedly solid South states. Kennedy had to get some of those states back. Johnson wins them back in this incredible whistle-stop tour across the South. Really, Kennedy would not be President without him.
MARK FEENEY: Would he have kept him on the ticket in '64?
ROBERT CARO: [laughter] Everyone wants to know if he would have kept him. I don't know.
But it's such a fascinating question, because the first thing you have to say is every time President Kennedy was asked this question, which he was asked with increasing frequency in September and October and November of 1963, he said of course he'll be on the ticket.
But a number of things were happening. There was this great scandal in Washington, the Bobby Baker scandal. Bobby Baker – some of you I see nodding your heads – his picture was on the cover of every national magazine. He was on the front page of every newspaper. But although his nickname was Little Lyndon, nobody had yet linked Lyndon Johnson directly to Bobby Baker.
That very morning, as President Kennedy's motorcade is driving through Dallas, a witness is testifying in a little room in the Senate Office Building in Washington, and he's giving the investigators for the Senate Rules Committee documents which for the first time will link Lyndon Johnson to this tremendous scandal. At the same time in New York, as the motorcade is driving through Dallas, Life magazine has been investigating Lyndon Johnson's finances for months. They have nine reporters who have been going around Texas, and they discover that although Johnson was always throughout his life on a government salary, he had become a millionaire many times over. They had been assembling a series on what one of them called "Lyndon Johnson's money." They were preparing to run the very first of those articles in the next week's issue.
So things were about to change. How much it would have changed, we don't really know. And something about doing research, what's so great about it, you come across this testimony by this witness, which is in itself fascinating, because in the Rules Committee documents, which nobody has ever apparently written about before – at any rate, whether they looked at them or not, I don't know – you're reading this fascinating stuff. Then you go back to the front to start taking notes in more detail and you see the date, November 22, 1963. And you say, when was he testifying?
Then later on you see somebody saying, "So we started this morning at 10:00" – that's about the time Kennedy was getting on the plane for Dallas – "and he testified till 2:30 in the afternoon." That meant while he was testifying, the President was shot, taken to Parkman Hospital.
Why didn't they stop? Because no one remembered, in the excitement of the day, that they were there in this room. About 2:30, a secretary comes running into the room saying the President has been killed and they adjourn the testimony.
MARK FEENEY: Shortly after Johnson became President, you quote him in the book as saying to Ted Sorensen, "Well, your man treated me better than I would have if the positions were reversed." Could you talk a little bit about how Kennedy treated Johnson in office, and how President Johnson might have treated Kennedy?
ROBERT CARO: Well, the first part I can talk about pretty specifically. It's a very sad story, sort of a poignant story, because when Johnson becomes Vice President, he, of course, makes his own power grab. Although Kennedy has won the Presidency and beaten him for the nomination, he's still underestimating him. Shortly after the election, he has drafted and presents to Kennedy, assuming that he will sign it, an Executive Order that actually would have given the Vice President supervisory power over several government departments. He also asked Kennedy for an office in the White House, in fact, right next to the Oval Office, and he asked for an enlarged staff.
Kennedy handles it with such grace. He simply says, "No, give him an office across the street in the Executive Office Building." He doesn't give him anymore staff; he has a very small staff. As for the Executive Order, Kennedy simply ignores it. He never mentions it again.
Right about that time, Johnson says to someone – I think it's George Reedy in fact – "You know, he's a lot smarter than I thought he was, [laughter] and a lot tougher, too." So Kennedy thereafter, for a number of reasons, some of which you wonder about, some of which are quite specific.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jacqueline wrote to Ted Sorensen, I think the exact quote is, "You must know how frightened my husband was that Lyndon Johnson might become President one day.,", because of Johnson's hawkishness during the crisis.
But whether it was because of that or whether it was because of personal reasons, the Kennedys cut Lyndon Johnson out of power completely. You have to say Johnson is possibly the greatest lawmaker, the greatest legislator, the greatest passer of legislation possibly in the history of America, certainly in the 20th century. Yet, he once was to say to Larry O'Brien, who was Kennedy's aide for legislative affairs, Johnson once was to say that O'Brien hadn't asked him for advice once in two years. So Johnson is cut completely out of power.
The Kennedy people, many of them despised him; they looked on him with real contempt. They have a nickname for him, Rufus Cornpone. They say that Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird they called Uncle Rufus and this little pork chop. They won't call him Mr. Vice President to his face; they call him Lyndon, which he can't stand. And this, of course, becomes common knowledge in Washington. So the newspaper headlines are saying things like "Whatever Became of Lyndon Johnson?"; "What Happened to Lyndon Johnson?" And it's a terrible time for him. It's the worst time of his life.
MARK FEENEY: Of course, his greatest antagonist in the Administration was Bobby Kennedy.
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
MARK FEENEY: Can you talk a little bit about Lyndon and Bobby? A little may not be the right word to you.
ROBERT CARO: [laughter] Well, the Lyndon Johnson/Robert Kennedy story is quite a story.
Sometimes when you try to analyze things, you can put political interpretations on things and sometimes you just have to say they're just personal. I always felt that way because of the first time that Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ever met each other. We know about it because two of Johnson's assistants – George Reedy and Horace Busby, his speechwriter – were present and they told me about it.
It's 1953. Lyndon Johnson is the Democratic leader of the Senate. He's this huge, towering figure, this mighty figure, to whom everyone on Capitol Hill gives deference. Robert Kennedy has just been appointed Assistant Counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigating committee. He's a 27-year-old brand new staffer.
Every morning, Lyndon Johnson has breakfast in the Senate cafeteria, which is on the second floor of the Old Senate Building, and Senator McCarthy has a big table near the cashier's desk that he sits at with four or five of his staffers every morning. So this morning Johnson walks in and there's a new staffer there, Robert Kennedy. Senator McCarthy jumps up, as everybody did on Capitol Hill, to pay deference to Johnson. He says, "Good morning, Mr. Leader. Great job yesterday, Mr. Leader. Anything I can do for you, Mr. Leader?" And all of his staff jumps up so Johnson can shake their hands.
One person doesn't get up at that table, and it's Robert Kennedy. Well, Johnson knows what to do in every encounter of that type. He walks around the table shaking hands and stops in front of Robert Kennedy and sort of puts his hand partway out like this, so Robert Kennedy has to get up and take it.
In trying to explain to me what happens, Reedy said, "Did you ever see two dogs that didn't know each other that came into a room and all of a sudden there's a low growl and the hair starts to rise on the back of their neck?" He says, "Those two guys just hated each other from the moment they saw each other."
Of course, in the course of this book, you see that there are other reasons, to come later. I don't know if you want me to go into it, but President Kennedy, when he gets the Democratic nomination in 1960 and offers Johnson the Vice Presidential nomination, Robert Kennedy comes down the back stairs in the Biltmore Hotel three times to try and get Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the ticket. Johnson hated him for that till the end of his life. When Johnson would have visitors down at his ranch in Texas, he'd take them by the lapels and lean his face into them and try to persuade them that it wasn't Jack Kennedy's doing, that it was Robert Kennedy doing it on his own.
So there were so many sources of real, real hatred between the two of them, and that feeling between them is going to become … I spend so much time going into it in this volume, because it's going to become a not-so-small factor in the way the history of the United States and Vietnam unfolds in 1967 and 1968.
MARK FEENEY: You were mentioning earlier your excitement when you were looking at the transcripts of the House Rules Committee investigation about the Baker case. Can you say which gives you more pleasure, research or writing?
ROBERT CARO: [laughter] I can answer, it's research. [laughter] Writing is always hard.
MARK FEENEY: But you do take great pleasure in it.
ROBERT CARO: Did I say that? [laughter]
MARK FEENEY: Fair enough. Last fall, in the New York Times Magazine, there was an interview with Philip Levine, the US Poet Laureate and he said of President Obama, "I voted for a man who is not as able and confident as I thought. It's foolish to say this, but the guy we need right now is Lyndon Johnson." Do you ever have people talk to you about how they wish Johnson were here? Do you ever think, "Hmm, I wonder how Johnson would handle this?” ROBERT CARO: Well, I have people asking me that constantly. I often think about how Johnson would handle things, because he had such a unique legislative genius in getting things through Congress. However, I'm not comparing him with Obama here. If you watch the Sunday talk shows, you hear over and over again that this deadlock in Congress is unprecedented, that there has never been anything like it before. But of course, that's not true.
After Franklin Roosevelt tries to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, the Southern Democrats and the Midwestern Republican conservatives unite to stop the court-packing plan and realize they still have the power in Washington; they are the committee chairmen. So for the next 25 years, incredible as it may seem, no President gets a major piece of social welfare legislation through Congress.
When Johnson takes office in 1963, after the assassination, I'm not sure this is right, but I think of the 16 standing committees of the Senate, Southerners are chairmen of nine and their allies are chairmen of most of the others. They have stopped Kennedy's legislation cold, not just the Civil Rights Act, but his tax cut bill, which was so vital to try to get the economy moving again. Unemployment was unacceptably high at 5%. [laughter] The economy was stagnating and you needed more revenue, which a tax cut would provide by boosting business for social welfare problems. And this has been bottled up.
I'm just going to give one example of how Lyndon Johnson dealt with Congress, what legislative genius is and a knowledge of Congress. So this bill was introduced by President Kennedy on January 11, 1963. Now it's November 22, 1963, and the bill is still in Harry Byrd's Senate Finance Committee and it's going nowhere and it's not about to go anywhere. There are still, I think, 183 witnesses, if I remember the number right from my book. Senator Byrd is saying, "Well, we can't have any hearings this week because I can't get a quorum." And Senator Byrd has said, in sort of an offhand way, because he was a very courtly Southern gentleman, he says, "You know, it would have been nice if the budget was about $100 billion." There has been no peacetime budget over $100 billion. The Kennedy people think that because he's so polite, anything near $100 billion will be okay, and it's really talking about $102 billion; they're sure that would be all right. They're saying, "Well, we can go around Harry Byrd and the Finance Committee." They keep talking about going around Harry Byrd and the Finance Committee.
The very night, not the Friday night, but the Saturday night after President Kennedy is assassinated, Lyndon Johnson calls to his office – he's not in the White House yet – he calls to his office in the Executive Office Building Kennedy's three top economic advisors – Walter Heller, who's the Chairman of the Economic Advisors; Douglas Dillon, Treasury Secretary; and Kermit Gordon, the Budget Director -- and they start talking about the problems with the budget and the tax cut bills and getting them out of Harry Byrd's Finance Committee.
Johnson says to them, "You don't understand. If Harry Byrd mentions $100 billion, he doesn't mean about $100 billion; he means you're either going to bring it under $100 billion or he's not going to release the budget or the tax cut bill." Then they start talking about, "Well, we can go around Harry Byrd in Committee." Johnson says, "You can't go around Harry Byrd in Committee." They ask why, and he says, "Because there are 17 votes on the Finance Committee and Harry Byrd has nine." They say, "How do you know he has nine?" Lyndon Johnson says, "Because Harry Byrd always has nine." [laughter] All of a sudden – it's quite remarkable the great things you find -- both Walter Heller and Kermit Gordon, Douglas Dillon, excuse me – come out of that meeting and write memos for the record on what happened. They both described the conversation and they both say, "All of a sudden the problem was solved; we give Harry Byrd what he wants on the budget and we can have the tax cut." All of a sudden, that bill starts to move. And that's an example of this great, really a talent beyond talent, I call it, that Lyndon Johnson had with Congress.
MARK FEENEY: Is there anybody today who has anything like that talent for exercising power or for understanding how Congress works?
ROBERT CARO: I don't think that there … You're talking about, really, how you use the phrase "a talent beyond talent," the gift that was more than a gift and was genius. I can give you another example of it, if you want, just the striking, unbelievable thing. So the other bill that President Kennedy wanted was the Civil Rights Bill and that's going absolutely nowhere.
On, I think it's the very night of the assassination, as soon as he gets back to Washington, because what Johnson did was count votes; he was a vote-counter. He calls a Senator who was just as pragmatic about that as him, George Smathers of Florida. He asks what's the chance for the Civil Rights Bill and Smathers says, "There is no chance for a Civil Rights Bill, the Civil Rights Bill is dead." He says, "Let's recess for Christmas and go home."
Johnson remembers that a representative named Richard Bolling of Missouri has introduced a Discharge Petition in the House. The Civil Rights Bill has been bottled up for all these months in the House Rules Committee, which was run by another Virginian, Judge Howard W. Smith. Not only will Judge Smith not even hold hearings on the bill, he wouldn't even give a date when he might hold hearings on the bill. But Johnson remembers that a representative named Richard Bolling of Missouri has introduced a Discharge Petition which would allow the House to take the bill away from Judge Smith's Committee. Now, a Discharge Petition is almost never passed because it means violating the sacred prerogatives of the Committee Chairman. A President never supports a Discharge Petition because that would get Congress – if he was interfering with Congress -- that would get Congress's back up.
Johnson puts in the call to Richard Bolling, and it's Lyndon Johnson at his best. The first five or six minutes of this call is Lyndon Johnson telling Bolling, "Of course, we can't push a Discharge Petition; that would violate the sacred House petitions." Then Johnson asks Bolling, "But do you see any other way of getting this bill passed?" [laughter] And he has Bolling say, "No, it's the only lever we've got." As I wrote in the book, if there was only one lever, Lyndon Johnson was going to pull it. [laughter] Or push it.
In fact, sitting in the front row here tonight is Anthony Lewis, the great reporter of the New York Times [applause], who was covering this very fight. Johnson in fact then has a meeting of the Congressional leaders and works them around in the same way, to say, well, this Discharge Petition they have to support.
And Tony Lewis wrote in the New York Times – I don't remember the exact lead, but it's approximately what I said before – "The mood for civil rights changed on Capitol Hill yesterday. President Johnson was throwing his weight behind the Discharge Petition."
As long as I'm going on about Johnson's great skills, Johnson realizes that the civil rights groups, strong as they were and heroic as they were, do not have enough clout on Capitol Hill to persuade the conservatives to back a Discharge Petition. But who does? Church groups. Johnson hears that, that very weekend, 4,000 Protestant ministers are having a convocation in Philadelphia and he sends word, "Don't go straight home to your districts, go through Washington." And newspaper reporters start to write, "The halls of Congress are filled with clerics' collars." And the civil rights bill starts to move. That's really genius, unique genius.
MARK FEENEY: I know that many in the audience have questions, so I'll turn it over to them in a moment. Before I do that, I'd like you to read a passage from your book. And for someone who looks askance at taking pleasure in writing, I don't know how anyone could not take pleasure is writing this passage, which describes the situation on Air Force One after the assassination of President Kennedy and the swearing-in of Vice President Johnson.
I would add, there are two microphones. And so if you do have questions, please come to one of the microphones so that people can hear you when you ask your question. And we'll start with those questions after Bob reads this magnificent passage.
ROBERT CARO: It's in the compartment of Air Force One and Lyndon Johnson is preparing to take the Oath, and he's arranged everybody where he wants them.
One witness was still missing, the most important one. He told Judge Hughes that, as the judge recalls his words, "Mrs. Kennedy wanted to be present and we would wait for her." "Do you want to ask Mrs. Kennedy if she would like to stand with us?" he asked O'Donnell and O'Brien. When they didn't respond at once, the glance he threw at them was the old Johnson glance, the eyes burning with impatience and anger. "She said she wants to be here when I take the oath," he told O'Donnell. "Why don't you see what's keeping her?"
The scene was still eerie – the gloom, the heat, the whispering, the low insistent whine of the jet engine, the mass of dim faces crowded so close together. But one element had vanished – the confusion. Watching Lyndon Johnson arrange the crowd, give his orders, deal with O'Donnell and O'Brien, Liz Carpenter, dazed by the rush of events, realized that there was at least one person in the room who wasn't dazed, who was, however hectic the situation might be, in complete command of it. She wrote, "Your mind was so dull, but one of the thoughts that went through my mind was, 'Someone is in charge.'"
Carpenter, like Jack Valenti, was an idolater, but the journalists had the same feeling. On the ride out to the airport, Sid Davis, who, as he recalls, "had not known this man except as Majority Leader and as someone who was thought of by some as Colonel Cornpone," had said to his colleagues in the car, "It's going to be hard to learn how to say President Lyndon B. Johnson."
As Davis watched Johnson in the stateroom now, it was, suddenly, no longer hard at all. "Soon – immediately – we started to see the measure of the guy and his leadership qualities." Part of the feeling stemmed from his size. As he stood in front of Judge Hughes, towering over everyone in the room, the photographer Cecil Stoughton realized for the first time how big he was – "Big. Big. He loomed over everyone."
But part of it was something harder to define. As Lyndon Johnson arranged the crowd, jerking his thumb to show people where he wanted them, glancing around with those piercing dark eyes, Valenti's initial feeling that this was a different man from the man he had known before was intensified. Johnson was suddenly something larger, harder to fathom than the man he had thought he knew. He looked, in fact, for the first time in three years, like the Lyndon Johnson of the Senate floor. Now, he had suddenly come to the very pinnacle of power.
However he had gotten there, whatever concatenation of circumstance and tragedy, whatever fate had put him there, he was there, and he knew what to do there. When O'Donnell, obeying his order, went to her bedroom and asked Jacqueline Kennedy if she wanted to be present at the swearing-in, she said, "I think I ought to. In the light of history, it would be better if I was there," and followed O'Donnell out to the door of the stateroom.
"A hush, a hush; every whisper stopped," the report Charles Roberts recalls. She was still wearing the same suit, with the same bloodstains. Her eyes were "cast down," in Judge Hughes's phrase. She had apparently tried to comb her hair, but it fell down across the left side of her face. On her face was a glazed look and she appeared to be crying, although no tears were coming out. Johnson placed her on his left side, and nodded to the judge who held out the missal. He put his left hand on it – the hand, mottled and veined, was so large that it all but covered the little book – and raised his right hand as the judge said, "I do solemnly swear."
Valenti, watching those hands, saw that they were "absolutely steady" and Lyndon Johnson's voice was steady, too – low and firm – as he spoke the words he had been waiting to speak all his life.
The oath was over. His hand came down. "Now let's get airborne," Lyndon Johnson said. [applause]
MARK FEENEY: This gentleman here?
QUESTON: Hi, I wanted to ask you, you're a very prolific writer. I know you've had to suffer a lot of your prose being edited during the editing process. With modern technology you can publish now without paper, and obviously the focus now is on this book and in finishing the series. Do you anticipate a day maybe when you might release an author's edition, similar to a director's version on DVD, where the writer has full control of what gets to be included.
ROBERT CARO: Well, I'd like to do that. I think what you're talking about more is The Power Broker. I haven't really cut very much out of – possibly by mistake [laughter] – I haven't really cut very much out of the Johnson books. Out of my first book, The Power Broker, we had to cut -- because the publisher only wanted the one volume -- we had to cut out 350,000 words [laughter], which is a lot of words. Yes, the book as you read it is 700,000 words but as I finished it, it was 1,050,000 words. I would like that to be published one day. But I have to first find out where all the missing chapters are. [laughter]
MARK FEENEY: Over here.
ROBERT CARO: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: What was the reaction of the Senators Byrd and Russell and Eastland when they realized that Lyndon Johnson, a man they had raised to power in the Senate, was going to betray their dream of a segregated South?
ROBERT CARO: Could you all hear that question? Yes? That's a great question. Lyndon Johnson had persuaded these people – you're quite right, they had raised him to power in the Senate. The South was behind him; that's how he became Majority Leader. They believed that he was on their side in civil rights.
I once went down to ask Senator Talmadge how Lyndon Johnson had done that, and since you are black, I'm going to choose my words carefully. He said, "Well, he persuaded us that he was on our side." I said, "How did he feel? What was his view of the role of white and black?" And he said, "Master and slave." So they truly believed this. Richard Russell truly believed it, so to think what was their reaction when he, in his first speech to Congress … If I can just digress for just a second. I'm sorry, I don't want to go on too long; I'll try to cut this as short as I can. [laughter]
Johnson becomes President and he has to give his first speech to Congress, the joint session of Congress. And around his home, the Wednesday following the assassination, on the Tuesday night around his home, four or five of his people are speech writing, putting together a speech. And Johnson is sitting there, not saying anything. They're advising on civil rights, "Don't spend your political capital right at the beginning on civil rights. The Southerners control Congress; if you antagonize them, they'll stop your whole program. It's a noble cause, but it's a lost cause. Don't fight for a lost cause." You know what Lyndon Johnson says? He says, "Well, what the hell's the Presidency for?" [applause]
And in his speech he says, "The first thing we have to do, the most important thing we have to do, is pass Jack Kennedy's civil rights bill." So as those words come out of his mouth, you see in the news reels the Southern Senators -- Russell, Byrd, Talmadge, the rest of them -- are sitting, because they're the senior Senators, in this row. And what was in their minds when they realized they had raised the man to power who was now going to do this. Yes, I'm sorry to go on.
[applause] Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Hi, my name is David Brousell. I'm a fellow journalist. Thank you for taking my question. I've read all three books. I'm about a third of the way through this one. All through the books you write about Lyndon Johnson's thirst for becoming President since he was a boy and his pursuit of the ultimate power. When he finally did get that ultimate power, was it everything he expected it to be? Everything he hoped it would be? Everything he wanted it to be? Or what?
ROBERT CARO: No. Because the story of his Presidency after this book is a very dark story. The story of his Presidency is Vietnam. Whatever he wanted to do, whatever he started to do was ultimately swallowed up by Vietnam. So I think it turned out to be sort of terrible for him, actually. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Obviously, the theme of these books isn't just Lyndon Johnson, but it's the acquisition and the use of power. Earlier in the volumes, you sort of almost remove your eyes from how he's grabbing all this power. But then once he gets it, there's sort of a grudging admiration for him. But I also sense from the liberal lions in the Senate in the '50s – Humphrey and Douglas – that while you're sympathetic to their liberal viewpoints, it almost seems like you have almost contempt for the way they don't know how to wield power as Johnson knows how to wield power. Is that an accurate assumption?
ROBERT CARO: Well, it's a good question. I don't have contempt for them. I have a feeling of exasperation, like you will see in this book. Johnson gets Humphrey, makes him his lieutenant in 1964 and basically teaches him how to count and how to get things through the Senate, what strategic moves to make. And you really say why didn't he know, why didn't Hubert Humphrey know these things before? It is true that the liberal block in the Senate could not get anything passed before Lyndon Johnson took up their cause. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: One of the most difficult portions of your writing, your vivid writing, for me was early in Master of the Senate when you detail his treatment of his wife, Lady Bird. My questions are two: Did she ever speak of the pain of that to anyone as an anodyne, as a relief? And number two, did she speak with you about that? Did you have sources, that you‟re able to mention, who were able to help you invade that private space of his family and his relationship with Lady Bird?
ROBERT CARO: Well, Mrs. Johnson did speak to me for seven long days. She stopped speaking long before I published any books. I don't know why. But she was very helpful. She brought up the subject of a particular mistress of Lyndon Johnson. I go into as little as possible his affairs because most of them don't have any significance. But as those of you who have read the first volume, though, there's one that did have great significance, a woman named Alice Glass.
Mrs. Johnson brought up Alice Glass and spoke of her in the words I simply quote. We were at her dining room table and she was sort of sitting here and I was sitting here. We'd had lunch, and I had my notebook here. She started talking about Alice Glass, saying – it's been so many years since I wrote that book – that she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen and she taught Lyndon so much that he was grateful, and played such a role in his political career, which at a number of crucial points she did. I myself, to tell you the truth, was so embarrassed I just sat there taking notes. I don't think I asked the question. This was such a part of Lyndon Johnson's life that you can't talk to his secretaries or his assistants; they've written about it in books, and you can't talk to them without this subject coming up. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: I just feel like I've almost grown up with you. I started reading Power Broker in 1974, and then I began waiting for the next publication in the Lyndon Johnson books. I read this book you have here tonight; I read that last week. I couldn't put it down. My question is this:
We've been together for 40 years [laughter], how long do I have to wait for the next book? [laughter/applause]
ROBERT CARO: That started out as such a nice question. [laughter] Actually, I'm hoping -- but why would you believe me! [laughter] -- that this one will go faster because the book you finished was originally supposed to be just like the first third of one book. So I did most of the research, the bulk of the research for the whole book, and that is done. So I'm hoping this will go a lot faster.
QUESTION: Just one last point. Did you actually live in Vietnam? I read that somewhere.
ROBERT CARO: No, were going to live in Vietnam.
QUESTION: Were going to, okay.
ROBERT CARO: Yes. Yes, sir?
QUESTON: Hi. I was wondering if you'd speak about Richard Russell during the start of the Johnson Administration. He's such a dramatic figure in the previous book and in this one it seems almost like he's LBJ's lieutenant a bit.
ROBERT CARO: Well, that's going to stop right at the beginning of the next book because Johnson is determined to pass this civil rights legislation, and it's Russell's last stand to stop it.
However, it's not so much that he's his lieutenant; loneliness plays a big part in the Richard
Russell story. That's how Lyndon Johnson gets close to him when he first comes to the Senate in 1948 and 1949. There is this towering figure, who simply is the most powerful, the most respected Senator, but yet is this horrible, worst kind of segregationist who won't even vote for legislation against lynching. So Johnson gets close to him. Johnson sees men's weaknesses. He has this unbelievable sense.
Everyone thinks Russell is unapproachable. But he's a bachelor and he goes home every night to a bachelor apartment in Washington, reads all the time. His only life is the Senate. So Johnson starts to stay late. First, he gets himself put on Russell's committee, then he starts to stay late at the Capitol because Russell's always staying late. Russell gets a hamburger at some place -- I forget the name -- near Capitol Hill; Johnson starts to get a hamburger there. He says, "Come on home for dinner" after a while. Russell doesn't go to people's homes for dinner. Johnson says, "Come on, you've got to eat somewhere." And he comes to the Johnson home for dinner and Lady Bird is there, who just wins over everybody's heart. She's quite a charming, wonderful person and a personification of the Southern womanhood that Richard Russell idolized. The two girls are there, and gradually, very gradually, but steadily, Richard Russell spends more and more time with Lyndon Johnson. So when you say why didn't Russell oppose him on everything after he became President, you really have to think that there's an element there, a personal element, that Lyndon Johnson's friendship was very important to Richard Russell. And I think that's a big part of the explanation.
QUESTION: Hello. When I visited the Lyndon Johnson Library this past January, I was very shocked to see a copy of a letter that Senator Goldwater wrote in July of 1960, which included this sentence: "It is difficult to imagine a person like you" – and this is written to Lyndon Johnson – "running in a second spot to a weaker man." Now, it's not surprising that Senator Goldwater would write this letter, but I was surprised to see it on public display in the Johnson Museum. Because if you go through our Museum here – our Museum [laughter], I practically feel that way – you'll never see anything disparaging about Lyndon Johnson. So I was wondering if you could comment on that.
ROBERT CARO: I'm not sure that I have a thought on that. It's an interesting letter. Just at least on the Johnson side, it would be silly to pretend that there isn't any feelings about the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. Johnson regarded himself as trapped between the two of them in history, as in a way he is. He regarded himself, if you read this book, The Passage of Power, you'll see how he felt so keenly that not only that they were better educated, that he had been cheated out of an education because he had to go to what he called the poor boy's college, that he felt that they had social graces, that he had worked his way up and they were two rich kids who had a rich father. He felt these things terribly deeply. I have to put it in the past tense because they're just about all dead now, but when you talk to the Johnson people, this feeling so pervades them. They may say for the record that it wasn't the case, but that is the case.
Of course, on the Kennedy side, what they did to Johnson … On the rare occasions that Lyndon Johnson was invited during the Camelot years out to Robert Kennedy's home, Hickory Hill, he would be at what Ethel called the losers' table and Johnson knew it was the losers' table. The insults on both sides are really just startling.
The fact that they haven't really been written about, that's not true; they have been written about, but I don't think they've ever been written about in the depth necessary to explain why they were such a factor in the unfolding of American history. I don't think that has been done. They're very strong feelings. Yes, ma'am?
QUESTION: My question goes along the lines of what you were just talking about. I'm wondering whether Robert Kennedy's hatred of Johnson was exacerbated in hindsight when they realized that they hadn't used his power to get Kennedy's legislation passed, and whether Robert felt that way, and whether in hindsight any of the other members of the Kennedy Administration felt that regret.
ROBERT CARO: No. I think I can say they didn't feel any regret. I think there is a real feeling – and it's a very complicated subject; it's going to be gone into in the beginning of the next book. Would the civil rights legislation have passed if President Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, if he had been elected to a second term? That's such a complicated question.
I know -- because we know from Robert Kennedy's oral histories -- that he felt very strongly that Lyndon Johnson was getting credit for stuff that they had started and they would have passed anyway. That's a tremendously strong feeling. And the feeling is just as strong on the side of Johnson partisans that it wouldn't have been passed if Johnson hadn't become President.
MARK FEENEY: What do you think?
ROBERT CARO: I think I'm going to have to examine it. It's such a complicated thing. There are so many ifs – if Goldwater hadn't been the nominee, if – there are a hundred ifs. So I'm going to take a pass on a flat answer to that, because I don't think there is a flat answer to that. Yes, ma'am?
QUESTON: Wonderful presentation. I'm just wondering what advice could our President Obama, or what could he learn from Lyndon Johnson?
ROBERT CARO: Well, I have a much higher opinion of President Obama than a lot of people who ask that question have. [Applause] I think he's accomplished quite a bit, considering. So I'm not going to answer it in that way.
You could say, what could President Johnson have learned from President Obama? How to inspire people; the importance of rhetoric which touches things in people. Anybody, not just President Obama, would learn from Lyndon Johnson things about legislation, because he is the greatest legislator. Johnson says – I can't remember if it's the title of one of my chapters or not – to write it in the books of lore. It is, yeah, and in that first speech to Congress he says, "We've been talking about civil rights for 100 years. It's time to write it in the books of lore." So for Lyndon Johnson that was, in his view, the job, certainly a job of the President – to write it in the books in lore, to pass legislation. It's not enough to talk about legislation, Lyndon Johnson wanted it passed.
In England, fascinating thing – this is sort of a boastful thing to say – but in England, politicians, cabinet ministers of both parties are at least talking about my books because they are parliamentarians. They are legislators. And Lyndon Johnson was the great legislator.
So I think anybody would learn from Lyndon Johnson. I am constantly. I told you a story about the civil rights bill, the nine-to-eight, and I told you a story about the – sorry, the tax cut bill and the civil rights bill, the discharge. I am amazed by the things that he pulls off. You cannot believe when Johnson starts, in the last book, to pass the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction.
So you say this is impossible and you can see the tally sheets; Johnson kept a tally sheet every day. They're long, thin, Senate tally sheets with the names of the Senators down the middle and a little line on each side. Johnson would put in a number on each side as he got each vote, and the sheets are smudged. I asked a various number of Johnson's people something and they said, "You see the smudges? That was Johnson's thumb." Because he wouldn't move it on to another number, to the next line, until he knew which side that Senator was one. He's a great legislator.
QUESTION: Hi. It's been 30 years since you published your first book and my question generally is in that 30 years, have any of your opinions of the man changed? Has anything evolved? And in particular, in your introduction to the first book, which I just was reading as I got here, you speak of "the unusual degree to which the workings of his personality were, perhaps not the surface but in reality, unencumbered by philosophy or ideology." And in the introduction to your newest book, it really seems, though, that he does have a philosophy or at least some kind of ideology for the little man. And I'm wondering if that has changed.
ROBERT CARO: Well, if that's how you define ideology, you are right. But my opinion of him, I would call it compassion, an overriding, vast compassion for poor people, and particularly poor people of color. I think in that first book, there's a chapter there called "Cotulla." And what this is about – I know I've said this a couple times recently – when Johnson was 20 years old, he's in college and he's very poor and he doesn't have enough money. He has to drop out for a year, between his sophomore and junior years, to get enough money to continue.
He teaches that year in what was called the Mexican School in this little town of Cotulla, down near the Rio Grande border. And those kids, they gave oral history reminiscences, and I wrote after reading them, "No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not; this teacher cared." So you might say that that was just Lyndon Johnson trying to do the best job he could in whatever job he had, which was indeed a characteristic of Lyndon Johnson. But the reason I feel he truly cared was that he didn't just teach the kids, he taught the janitor. The janitor's name at the school was Thomas Coronado, and Johnson feels it's very important that he learn English, that he's going to get ahead. So he buys him a textbook and every day before and after school, Johnson sits with him on the steps of the school with a textbook and Coronado says, "Johnson would spell, I would repeat. Johnson would pronounce, I would repeat."
I think he, all his life, had this compassion. When he gets to be President and he gives this speech, Richard Goodwin – another one of his aides for a while and, of course, a Kennedy assistant as well – says something to him and he says, "I'll tell you something: I swore then," meaning back in Cotulla, "that if I ever had the power to help these kids, I was going to do it. Now I have the power and I'll tell you a secret: I mean to use it." And I feel that's a continuing thread through his life. [applause] Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Do you have any idea why Bill Moyers won't talk to you?
ROBERT CARO: No. [laughter] Yes, sir?
QUESTION: You've done much research in archives, and interviews, and listening to tapes. What were some of the occasions when you were so surprised or upset or thrilled that you couldn't sleep that night?
ROBERT CARO: Well, there have been a lot of things like that. You find stuff in these papers that if you care about political power, it's sort of thrilling to watch Lyndon Johnson do it. One of the things is when I realized what he was doing – let's see if I can do this short – in passing the civil rights bill of 1957. So on these tally sheets, he's so far behind. He knows he's not going to be able to get this bill passed one at a time; he's got to find a block of votes and he finds one, in a flash. If you were talking about an artist, you'd call it an epiphany. It's a flash of inspiration that there are 12 western Senators who want a dam called the Hells Canyon Dam. If he could some way find a way to link them up with the South, there's a willingness to let the bill go one step further in the legislative process without filibustering. And he finds that way. You almost see him putting this together and you say, wow, this is really genius. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Hi. The question is after 30 years of writing about one person, how have your personal feelings about him changed? And can you write for 30 years, do research and not love the person? And does that bias you?
ROBERT CARO: I don't think love is an applicable term. People usually ask do I like or dislike Lyndon Johnson. I really say – as I think I once said to Mark years ago in an interview -- those aren't applicable terms to me. I'm in awe of Lyndon Johnson because these books are, in my view, they're not supposed to be about just Lyndon Johnson. They're supposed to be about America in the second half of the 20th century and how political power changed. It's about the workings of political power. And as I said a moment ago, I won't repeat it, watching Johnson doing it you're just awestruck by what he can do.
QUESTON: Thank you.
ROBERT CARO: Thank you. Yes?
QUESTON: First, Mr. Caro, thank you for your books and your excellent fact-based, erudite, historical and political analysis; it's been great. I heard you speak over at the Kennedy Center, and I first wanted to speak to one of the issues you just mentioned. At that time, you talked about Johnson as the super legislator. Shortly thereafter, I had the privilege of talking to Ted Sorensen and Nicholas Katzenbach who were on the dais. I had to ask the question that you more or less implied, and that is would the civil rights legislation have gone through? Katzenbach said he thought Kennedy would have done it. Sorensen, he said possibly not. So I just wanted to give you that.
ROBERT CARO: Thank you, I didn't know that.
QUESTION: Second, your research is phenomenal. How much of your success do you think you owe to your wife, who's an historian and researcher?
ROBERT CARO: Well, Ina, I owe a lot of my success. I owe the very fact that I'm a writer to Ina because when I was starting The Power Broker, we were really broke. I was doing this book on what we called the world's smallest advance. That got less funny as time passed. [laughter] So there was a point where we didn't know how I could go on doing it. I came home one day and Ina said, "We sold the house." Ina loved that house; I didn't really care about it. [laughter]
And in the first place you have to say Ina is a brilliant historian. She's written two books about the intersection of history and travel in France; she's a medieval historian – The Road from the Past and Paris to the Past. These books are brilliant books in themselves.
She's also the only person I could ever trust to do research, because Ina has an absolute integrity. If she says, "I'll go down to the Russell Library," as she did, "and I'll find everything there is to find. I'll go through all his papers on the Civil Rights Act of '57," you know she will go through every paper. She also understands what it is that I want. So if she calls and says, "This isn't what you asked for, but I found something." She's the only person, as I've written, as I call her, the whole team. She's the only researcher on the books. Yes, ma'am?
QUESTON: I'd like to tell a little anecdote about Lyndon Johnson, if I may.
ROBERT CARO: Okay, sure.
QUESTION: JFK, of course, was Irish Catholic, a Boston Democrat, all of which I was. I was able for the first time in my life to vote in the election for Kennedy. About a year later, the four of us -- recent graduates from college -- went down to Washington, DC, for the first time. We happened to go into the Senate Building and were getting on to an elevator and the door opened and Lyndon Johnson was on the elevator going up. So there we were, just the five of us.
So overcome with excitement and enthusiasm about Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson, I started to tell him we were from Massachusetts and how exciting it was to be there. And one of the girls -- she was from Massachusetts but she didn't mention that -- said she was from Rhode Island, because she was working up at the naval base. And he immediately ignored us and turned to her and started waxing enthusiastically about Senator Green. [laughter] And being fairly intelligent, I realized he doesn't want to talk to us at all. I made a big mistake. So that's the impression, just that personal thing.
ROBERT CARO: That's a wonderful anecdote.
QUESTION: Well, I never forgot. I wasn't really impressed meeting him at all; I didn't know that much about him. But I had followed and worked for the Kennedy campaign and everything, and it was my first introduction to politics, and everybody in Boston was so excited.
ROBERT CARO: Thanks a lot. [applause]
MARK FEENEY: One more question, last question.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for taking my question. Like a lot of people here, I've read most of these books. I've read the first three, I haven't started the fourth volume.
ROBERT CARO: It's okay. The test isn't till Tuesday. [laughter]
QUESTION: But as I read these three volumes, I've never come across an American figure, political or otherwise, that has as much drive, determination and single-mindedness of purpose than LBJ. And one thing that I can't seem to square or reconcile -- and I'm sure that your forthcoming volume will address this -- how do you take a man like LBJ that has that drive and determination and sense of purpose, and how do you square that with him not running in '68? I realize that the country was falling apart at the seams, I realize it was after Tet, and I realize his approval ratings were probably at an all-time low. But if what you touched upon earlier -- if for no other reason than to spite Robert Kennedy -- how does he not run in '68? How does he drop out or choose not to run?
ROBERT CARO: That's another very good question that I haven't come to my conclusions on yet, as to why he does that. It's another very complicated thing where you have a lot of conflicting accounts. So those are things I haven't gotten to yet; I'll have to take a pass. Thank you. There's only one more person. One more question.
QUESTION: A few years ago on Presidents' Day weekend, I sat in this room at a forum on Presidential tapes, and they played Presidential tapes from FDR through Richard Nixon, each President. They played one of Lyndon Johnson speaking to Dick Russell. I think it was 1965. I remember this very well because it made an impression. He was talking to Russell and he said, "Dick, I know I can't win this war, but I'm goddamned if I'm going to be the first US President to lose one." Now you must be familiar with that.
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
QUESTION: And my question, and what's been bothering me for more than 40 years is, how could Lyndon Johnson -- such a smart, experienced, clever man and politician -- how could he be so blind as to the consequences of knowing that he couldn't win it, but refusing to stop it. Anything you could shed on that would be very …
ROBERT CARO: Well, I can't shed much on it tonight because, again, I wouldn't want to talk about it until I've written about it, until I've gotten my conclusions. But I will say what you say is so accurate because it is a great mystery. Because when you read the notes -- Johnson wouldn't allow minutes to be taken of the meetings of which the key Vietnam decisions were made -- but there are notes that were taken, and each time you read the notes you think, “Oh, they're going to deescalate, they have to deescalate. The arguments have been time he escalates.” Most times he escalates. So it's a mystery all right. Thank you very much. [applause]
MARK FEENEY: Copies of Bob's books are available for sale, and he will be inscribing him after his talk. Thank you all very much.