Susan Glasser and Peter Baker are veteran political journalists who closely covered the presidency of Donald Trump, he as the New York Times chief White House correspondent, she as a…
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro has spent nearly four decades researching and writing about President Lyndon Johnson. His fourth book on the LBJ, “The Passage of Power,” follows Johnson from 1958 to 1964. Lyndon Johnson was perhaps the most powerful majority leader of the senate. Yet he found himself virtually irrelevant as vice-president in the Kennedy administration. At perhaps his lowest point, a shot changed everything and Johnson immediately took the reins as the thirty sixth president. Caro calls it, without a doubt, Johnson’s finest hour. Diane will talk to Caro about spending four decades researching and writing about the 36th U.S. President.
- Robert Caro Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer
On November 22nd, 1963, Lyndon Johnson became the 36th president of the United States after President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Johnson had to reassure a shocked nation and use his political skills to push through Kennedy’s stalled agenda. Robert Caro, details all of this in his fourth book on LBJ. It’s titled “The Passage of Power.”
Johnson As A Senate Leader
In 1958, when Caro’s book begins, Johnson was the Senate majority leader. He was called the second most-powerful man in Washington at the time, after the president. “He runs the Senate as if it’s heis personal fiefdom,” Caro said. In 1960, he decided to run for president, but he got into the race very late. By the time he did, the young senator Jack Kennedy had already been racing around the country corralling delegates and votes. “Johnson doesn’t even realize that the nomination is being taken away from him,” Caro said.
Bobby Kennedy’s Feelings About Johnson
The day JFK got the democratic nomination, he called Lyndon Johnson and asked if he could come to see him. When the two men met, JFK offered Johnson the vice presidency. “The rest of that day, Bobby Kennedy makes three trips down there to try to get Johnson to withdraw from the ticket,” Caro said. According to Caro, Bobby Kennedy had a real hatred toward Johnson. “Hatred is not too strong a word to describe the feelings between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy,” he said. From the two men’s very first meeting, Bobby Kennedy took an instant dislike to Johnson in a way that was “just chemical,” Caro said.
The Surprise Of The Vice Presidency
Johnson had been an extremely powerful force in the senate, but as vice president, he was sorely disappointed at the lack of influence the position ended up holding for him. He had told people who had warned him that he would see his power diminish that “power is where power goes,” but that turned out not to be the reality for him. After JFK’s assassination, Johnson proved to be a resolute leader. It was Johnson who wanted Jackie Kennedy next to him as he took the oath of office. “He wanted it probably for a symbolic reason because it was an expression of continuity,” Caro said.
The Warren Commission
One Facebook fan asked Caro if Johnson had been worried that the public might think he had something to do with the assassination. Caro said he was, and that was the reason he appointed The Warren Commission. The Warren Commission was rushed, Caro said, but there is nothing in its findings that gave any single hint that Johnson had anything to do with the assassination.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. On November 22nd, 1963, Lyndon Johnson became the 36th president of the United States after President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Johnson had to reassure a shocked nation and use his political skills to push through Kennedy's stalled agenda.
MS. DIANE REHMMy guest, Robert Caro, details all of this in his fourth book on LBJ. It's titled "The Passage of Power." Pulitzer-prize-winning author Robert Caro joins me in the studio. You are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to see you.
MR. ROBERT CAROGood morning.
REHMIt's so good to have you here again.
CAROWell, I was here ten years ago when I finished my last book.
REHMI know you were. You know, the book's title represents the way the book looks and feels. It is a powerful tome that took you ten years to write. Why your obsession with power?
CAROWell, you know, I originally began to think, you know, in a democracy, we have the power so the more we understand about how political power really works, not what we're taught in high school textbooks or college textbooks, but the raw realities of power, the better our decisions can be and the better, hopefully, our democracy would be. So I picked Lyndon Johnson because he understood power better than any other president in the second half of the 20th century.
REHMYou find him, obviously, a very fascinating creature. The book begins in 1958 and Lyndon Johnson is Senate majority leader at the time. Describe him at that time.
CAROWell, you know, he's called the second most powerful man in Washington after only the president. He runs the Senate as if it's his personal fiefdom. He stands at the -- he's 6'4 and he has very long arms and huge hands and he stands at that front row Senate majority leader's desk waving his arms to direct. He waves his arms and two men run out of the Republican cloakroom, waves another, a Democrat runs out.
CAROHe holds his arm over his head when he wants the roll call to go fast because he's got the votes. If he wants it to go slow, because he's waiting for one of his votes to arrive, he makes a stretching out motion and the clerk reads it slowly. He is power incarnate.
REHMAnd he decides to run for the presidency in 1960, but how does he do it?
CAROWell, you know, for the first time in his life, the thing about Johnson all his life was his decisiveness, his willingness to act. All of a sudden, he's different when he's running for president. And the men who are closest to him say, where is the campaign? Why isn't he on the phone all hours of the day and night giving us orders? What's happened? He's not really running.
CAROWell, his brother said to me, you know, the most important thing for Lyndon all his life was not to be like daddy. What he meant was his father, Lyndon's father Sam Johnson, was a very successful legislator in the Texas House of Representatives, but he failed. He lost the Johnson ranch.
CAROAnd Lyndon Johnson's life from the time he was 13 or 14 when his father failed, was a life where really, there was no money in the house. His father had to become a bus inspector. Every month, they were afraid the bank was going to take the house away from them. There was often no food and neighbors had to bring charity, you know, dinner is a charity. And all the rest of his life, he was afraid to fail and he was afraid, the people closest to him say, that if he ran for president, he might fail on a big stage and he couldn't stand the thought.
CAROSo he dithers around and meanwhile, there's this young senator, Jack Kennedy, who really hasn't done very much in the Senate, but he's racing around the country corralling delegates and votes. Johnson doesn't even realize that the nomination is being taken away from him.
REHMSo he gets into the race very, very late?
CAROVery late. And by the time he does, Kennedy has, you know, made these wonderful public appearances. Even then, he was this great speaker. He won people over, you know. It's a magic to Jack Kennedy. It goes back all the way to when he first entered politics and his brother Robert, who is in many ways, not at all like him. His brother Robert is very tough. So they set about these delegates.
CAROThe delegates said, you know, when Bobby Kennedy, Jack Kennedy came out and charmed us and Bobby put on the halter and bridle and when Bobby put on the halter, no one was going to take it off.
REHMIt's interesting because he truly underestimated Jack Kennedy. He thought of him as a skinny, little guy, even though Jack Kennedy was no shrimp. He just totally underestimated him.
CAROIt's fascinating. Lyndon Johnson was just as you say. Lyndon Johnson, you know, was a great reader of men. And I wrote a line in this book, I said, but this great reader of men, this man who thought he could read any man had read one man wrong and the man was Jack Kennedy because Johnson had this image of him in the Senate.
CARODo you know what Johnson said about Kennedy, his actual words? He said, Jack Kennedy was pathetic as a senator. He didn't even know how to address the Chair and he made fun of the fact that then Kennedy was sick and had these terrible back operations. And he used to say, ever see his ankles? And he'd hold up his fingers in a little circle and he'd say his ankles are no bigger around than this.
REHMWell, so when John F. Kennedy is elected, he, prior to that of course, has approached Lyndon Johnson. I gather it was Bobby who really approached Lyndon Johnson to ask him to run on the ticket with Jack Kennedy.
CAROWell, actually, Jack Kennedy does it himself. The morning after he gets the nomination, at 8 o'clock in the morning, the telephone rings in the Johnson's bedroom. Lady Bird answers it and it's Jack Kennedy asking can he come down to see Lyndon Johnson. He comes down and offers him the vice presidency. The rest of that day, Bobby Kennedy makes three trips down there to try to get Johnson to withdraw from the ticket.
REHMHe did not want him on that ticket with his brother?
CARORobert Kennedy certainly didn't want him on the ticket. You know, there are three -- there was a real hatred. You know, as a historian, Diane, you hate to use words as strong as hatred unless there's reason to back it up, but hatred is not too strong a word to describe the feelings between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy.
REHMWhy was it so deep?
CAROWell, in part, you know, there are other reasons, but in part, sometimes it's just chemical, you know. When Johnson meets Robert Kennedy for the first time, it's a meeting that the people who saw it would never forget. And one of Johnson's staff people who was with him said, you know, he said Johnson was the mighty majority leader, Bobby Kennedy was a 27-year-old new staffer.
CAROBut the chemistry, he said, did you ever see two strange dogs who didn't know each other come into a room and the hair rises on the back of their necks and there's a low growl? That's the way it was between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
REHMWhere was Bobby Kennedy? Where was Lyndon Johnson at that moment?
CAROGlad you asked. Glad you asked that because it's an incredible meeting. Johnson has breakfast every morning in the Senate cafeteria, which was then on the second floor of the Senate office building. Senator Joe McCarthy and his staff have this big round table at which they have breakfast every morning near the cashier's table.
CAROOne morning, they have a new staffer with them, Bobby Kennedy, this 27-year-old, very slight, slender young man. Lyndon Johnson walks in, followed by two of his aides, George Reddy and Horace Busby. And Joe McCarthy jumps up, as all senators did in Lyndon Johnson's presence, to give him deference. Good morning, Mr. Leader, how are you, Mr. Leader? Great job you did yesterday, Mr. Leader. Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Leader?
CAROAnd all his staff stands up and Johnson's, except one person and Johnson is walking around shaking hands and Bobby Kennedy won't get up. Well, Lyndon Johnson knew just what to do in a scene like that. He sort of holds his hands out a little way from his body so it would be really dramatic if Bobby Kennedy didn't stand up and Bobby has to stand up.
CAROAnd at that moment you just saw, Reddy says, it was like two dogs.
REHMJust two dogs. Robert Caro is with me. Of course, he is a Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer. This is the fourth book in his series of biographies on President Lyndon Johnson and this is titled "The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Johnson and Bobby Kennedy never got along from the beginning to the end. Why did Jack Kennedy invite Johnson to be on the ticket with him?
CAROWell, Jack Kennedy could count votes and, you know, we forget this. In 1956, the solid South wasn't solid for the Democrats anymore. Eisenhower had taken five of the 11 Confederate states, including Texas. No Democratic candidate was going to win without getting Texas and that's a big reason, just there, that he put Johnson on.
REHMAnd Jack Kennedy knew it, but Bobby Kennedy couldn't stand Lyndon Johnson. We're going to take a short break here in our conversation with Robert Caro. His new book "The Passage of Power," stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro is here. We're talking about the fourth in his series on Lyndon Baines Johnson. And this one is titled "The Passage of Power." We have a number of images from the book on our website, including the photograph of LBJ taking the oath of office with John F. Kennedy's widow, Jackie Kennedy, by his side. You can see those photographs at drshow.org.
REHMOnce Lyndon Johnson, this powerful leader of the Senate, becomes vice president, you write his entire demeanor changes. What do you mean?
CAROWell, you know, he thought because of his political genius that he could break the mold of vice presidents and get power. Someone tells him, don't trade in the majority leader's power for the vice presidency. You won't have any power. Johnson says to him, power is where power goes. Wherever I go, there will be power. But boy, is he wrong because he makes this maneuver, just as Kennedy is being sworn in, to try to get new powers for the vice presidency.
CAROAnd he even gives Kennedy a draft of an executive order that would've given him supervision over several government departments. Kennedy handles it. At the end of it Johnson says, you know, he's a lot smarter than I thought he was and a lot tougher, too.
REHMThe whole question of research that LBJ does on how many presidents die in office, who did that research for him?
CAROWell, I can't remember which staff member did it. But, you know, he went around, they did the research and when someone would say -- you know, he thought no southerner could win the nomination in his lifetime and he may have been right because at the Democratic Convention, the big northern states had the delegate votes. And they didn't trust a southerner. He thinks the only route is through the vice presidency.
CAROAnd in the course of that, he examines, as Johnson always did everything, and then, you know, he finds that six presidents died in office, six out of 33 at the time. And he goes around -- you know, Clare Boothe Luce asks him once, you know, why did you take it? And he says to her, she records it, she notes it, well, six of them didn't have to get elected, though, and I'm a gambling man.
REHMWow. He is a gambling man. He marries Lady Byrd Johnson wherefrom comes his wealth and possession. Is that correct?
CAROWell, it's part -- yeah, it's certainly correct at the beginning. With her father's money, she buys this struggling radio station in Austin. By 1960, you know, this is an empire. It's a radio and television empire. And the Johnsons are rich. And in fact, that's starting to be a problem for him because at the very moment, you know, that the motorcade in which John F. Kennedy is to be assassinated is going through Dallas, Life Magazine is in the last stages of putting together an investigation of what they call Lyndon Johnson's money.
CAROThey have an article -- they've discovered that although he's been on the government payroll all his life, that's his only job, he has become a millionaire many times over from these television and radio interests. And they are about to run, in the very next issue, the first of a series of articles about him. He's also -- as the motorcade is going through Dallas at that very time, there was what was known in Washington and throughout the country as the Bobby Baker scandal.
CARONow Bobby Baker was known in Washington as Little Lyndon. He was closer to Lyndon than anyone was. He used to try to walk the way he did, model himself on him. Lyndon Johnson -- big Lyndon has never been tied directly to that scandal, which is on the front pages and the covers of every national magazine. But at that very morning, November 22, while the motorcade is going through Dallas, not only is the Life Magazine investigation in its final stages, but a witness is testifying in the old Senate office building before investigators from the Senate Rules Committee.
CAROHe is, for the first time, tying Lyndon Johnson directly to the Bobby Baker scandal and he's actually giving the Senate investigators documents, cancelled checks and invoices. So you might say, at that moment, Johnson isn't sure he's going to be kept on the ticket. These two things are happening in Washington. You might say this is the lowest moment of Lyndon Johnson's entire political career at that motorcade. And then there's the crack of a shot and instantly everything is changed.
REHMWhat happens to the Bobby Baker investigation at that point?
CAROWell, everything sort of -- the Life Magazine investigation stops, you know. Of course, they have no room for the article that was going to run that week. And a couple of days later, the leader of the investigating team, a reporter named William G. Lambert who also won a Pulitzer Prize, goes into the executive editor Ralph Graves and says, you know, he's a new guy. Let's give him a chance. And Graves says, you know, if you hadn't said that, I was going to tell you so.
CAROSo these investigations fade out. They don't fade out for good, but they fade out for some months.
REHMHow soon after the shot is fired does the vice president realize that the president is dead?
CAROWell, that's quite a story. That's a great question you ask because it's an amazing story. You know, there have been hundred of books on the assassination, but no one has ever adequately, in my opinion, described it from Lyndon Johnson's point of view. I mean, no one really knows. Everyone knows what happened to Jack Kennedy. What happened to Lyndon Johnson, the next president of the United States?
CAROHis car is three cars behind Kennedy. Suddenly, there's a shot. Most of the people in the motorcade think it's a backfire from a motorcycle or a firecracker. But the secret service agent who's sitting in the front seat of Johnson's convertible, a man named Rufus Yarborough, realizes in an instant that it’s a hunting rifle. He whirls around, he grabs Lyndon Johnson's right shoulder and throws him down on the floor of the backseat, vaults over the front seat and lies on top of Lyndon Johnson shielding his body with his own. Johnson was to say, I'll never forget his knees in my back and his elbows in my back.
CAROAs the car, the car bearing the dead president, the secret service car behind him and the vice presidential car that Johnson is in speed to Parkland Hospital, you know, the secret service agent is saying to the driver of Johnson's car, close it up. Keep right with the secret servicemen. That's our best chance of protection. He says to Johnson, when we get to the hospital, don't stop for anything. Do not look around. We're going to find you a secure place.
CAROThe car squeals up in front of Parkland, four secret service agents pull Johnson up out of the car and they run him through the corridors of Parkland Hospital. Behind them is another secret service agent holding this assault rifle. They run down corridors looking for a safe room and they find this little cubicle in the back of what's called the Parkland Minor Medicine section. They put Lyndon Johnson against the far wall. Lady Byrd's in a chair next to him. In front of him is Rufus Youngblood (sic) the secret service agent.
CAROIn the room between that cubicle and the corridor are two other secret service agents. And at the door is still another agent with instructions, do not let anyone through this door unless you actually know him yourself. Lyndon Johnson stands there for about, we can't get the exact time, 40 minutes. Nobody is telling him -- you know, a couple of times, he asks how the president is and he sends out one, you know, one of the agents. But the only answer he gets back, Diane, is doctors are working on the president.
CAROBut then after 40 minutes, Kenny O'Donnell, who is very close to Kennedy, walks through the door. And, you know, Lady Byrd writes in her diary, seeing the stricken face of Kenny O'Donnell who loved him, we knew. A moment later, another Kennedy aid walks in, walks up to Johnson and says, Mr. President. It's the first time he's ever been called that.
REHMWhere is Bobby Kennedy at that moment?
CAROAt that moment, he's at his house in Hickory Hill in McLean, Va., the big old rambling house. He's having lunch next to the swimming pool with his wife Ethyl and with Robert Morgenthau, the United States Attorney for the New York District. Suddenly -- things happen suddenly. They see a workman who is painting the house suddenly clap a transistor radio to his ear and start running down the lawn toward them. At that moment, the telephone rings on the far side of the swimming pool. Ethyl goes to pick it up and says, it's J. Edgar Hoover. And Hoover, as the workman -- Hoover is telling Bobby Kennedy, your brother has been shot perhaps fatally.
REHMThe extraordinary scene that follows, Lyndon Johnson's demeanor changes almost instantaneously.
CAROYou know, yeah, you're really taking this just as you -- as it's important to do it. While he was vice -- Johnson lived for power. When he realizes he doesn't have it, he loses so much weight during the vice presidency that his clothes hang off him. He gets new suits and they become too big. He's lost so much weight and he's got such a sad look that reporters talk about hang dog. Well, of course, Washington is a very cruel place to live in if you don't have any power. Everyone mocks him.
CAROYou know what the phrase is? Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson? It's in newspaper headlines. It's on the front pages of magazines. Added to this, the Kennedy people just despise him. They look down on him. They have a nickname for him. They called him Rufus Cornpone or Uncle Rufus. They call him and Lady Byrd Uncle Rufus and his little -- Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop.
CAROSo Johnson -- in the moments that he's standing there, when he realizes he might be president, Lady Byrd said, you see his whole demeanor change. You know, Lyndon was a very good man to have with you in a tough spot. And she says his face turned into -- it was like a face of graven bronze. And the other people in the room described the same thing, how Lyndon Johnson suddenly is a different human being. And when that Kennedy aid says, Mr. President and starts asking him for instructions, he gives those instructions hard and fast like the old Lyndon Johnson.
REHMSo he begins to move everybody by direction to what needs to be done next. And those passages in the book are just incredible. Robert Caro is with me. We're talking about the fourth in his series on Lyndon Baines Johnson. This called "The Passage of Power," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." He absolutely wanted to make sure that his swearing in took place in Dallas before they left the ground, before they flew back to Washington. Why was that so important?
CAROWell, it was important to Johnson -- you know, he was under the Constitution.
CAROYes, but he felt, you know, there's a phrase I have -- I'm not sure I remember it, that he wrote in his memoirs. He says, I took the oath, I became president. To him, the taking of the oath was an important symbolic thing.
CAROAnd he wanted it done in Dallas -- actually, there were governmental reasons. I mean, you really say, you know, we forget. But we didn't know it was a lone gunman then. What were the headlines that day? You know, suspect arrested. Suspect charged in the assassination. Suspect visited Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. Soviet member of Castro group. So there's a chance of an international conspiracy. There can't be any doubt as to who's in charge. He wants to take the oath down there immediately.
REHMAnd there are other members of the Kennedy cabinet who are currently in the air heading elsewhere.
CAROUnbelievable. You really picked the right things out of this book. The motorcade that Kennedy and Johnson were in, it's one of the few times that the president and vice president are in the same motorcade. It wasn't just Kennedy who was shot. John Connelly the governor is shot. Who knows then if that secret service agent hadn't shielded Johnson's body with his own whether someone wouldn't have tried to assassinate the vice-president?
CAROAnd at that particular moment, which is what you're talking about, six members of the cabinet are somewhere west of Hawaii over the Pacific flying to an international economic conference in Japan, including the Secretary of State, the Treasury Secretary, key members of -- it's a moment where you can say it's a moment when the United States government is really vulnerable.
CAROYou know, as Johnson's plane -- no one knows what's happening -- as Johnson's plane is -- Air Force One takes off from Andrews and it's dramatic. The pilot lifts -- you know, Johnson takes the oath. His hand comes down. He says, now let's get airborne. The pilot takes Air Force One off in a climb so steep that a reporter says it was almost vertical.
CAROAnd he goes up to 29,000 feet. And as he's -- the weather center says there are tornadoes ahead over Arkansas. He puts the plane up to 41,000 feet to get over them. And as that plane is flying across the United States and everybody is learning about the assassination, at every air force base, there are United States fighter pilots are in their planes, their engines running on the runways and over -- in case, there's some threat to the plane. People don't remember the extent of the crisis when people have no idea what had happened except the president was shot.
REHMIt was fascinating to me that, despite her grieving, despite the blood, despite her absolute utter desolation, Lyndon Johnson wanted Jackie Kennedy standing next to him as he took the oath of office.
CAROYes. You know, he wanted it probably for a symbolic reason because it was an expression of continuity. You know, the dead president's widow is there with him. You know, Lady Byrd said about her demeanor, you know, she said, would Lady -- you know, everybody remembers something vividly. She remembered that Jackie Kennedy's immaculate white gloves were stained with blood and her shirt and a skirt.
REHMRobert Caro. The book is titled "The Passage of Power." We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. And those of you who have been listening know that Robert Caro is here in the studio with me talking about the fourth in his series on Lyndon Baines Johnson. And this latest is titled "The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power". And of course talks a great deal about that moment in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and what happened thereafter.
REHMAngela writes a posting on Facebook, "Was LBJ concerned that the American people might have thought he had something to do with Kennedy's assassination?"
CAROYes. And it's part of the reason that he appoints the Warren Commission. I mean he says not only was the president murdered, but he was murdered in my state. So he wants a commission to investigate it and bring out all the facts.
REHMDid you feel comfortable with the Warren Commission's decision?
CAROWell, no. I mean, do I feel there was anything wrong with the decision? No. I have never found, you know, in all my years of going through every Johnson documents and telephone tapes and interviewing everyone, I have never found a single hint of any kind that he was implicated in it. So I think the Warren Commission's findings may or may not be true in general, but they're true in regard to Lyndon Johnson.
CAROThe Warren Commission investigation was rushed. And the 1975 House Committee investigation -- by that time, you know, you can't really -- it's too long. You know, you say is there some other truth? I have no idea, you know, really, but you feel that certainly there's nothing to link Lyndon Johnson to it.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones now to Kalamazoo, Mich. To Jean. Good morning, you're on the air.
JEANGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
JEANI've always believed that if John Kennedy had lived and had not been killed that the civil rights law would never have gotten through.
JEANIf it had it would have been just chopped to pieces. And I think that Lyndon Johnson is the true hero here.
CAROWell, you know, Lyndon Johnson was a legislative genius. When he's in the Senate he passes the first civil rights bill since reconstruction back in 1957. Seemed a miracle to get it through then. It was a weak bill. Now, President Kennedy has introduced the Civil Rights Bill in June of 1963. It's November 1963 and that bill is completely bottled up in the House of Representatives, hasn't even gotten over to the Senate yet.
CAROJohnson is a legislative genius. He calls a number of Senators who he trusted and who could count votes, you know, right after Kennedy's assassination. One he calls that very night, a couple more the next day, Saturday. They all say forget about the Civil Rights Bill. There's no hope of getting that bill through. Very interesting scene happened. They're drafting his first speech which he's gonna give on the Wednesday following. And his advisors to a joint session of Congress then his advisors are all saying don't waste your political capital on civil rights. You'll never get it through. It's a lost cause. It's a noble cause, but it's a lost cause.
CARODon't fight for it. You know what Johnson says to them? Well, what the hell is the presidency for then? And he puts in his speech the most fitting memorial we can have for Kennedy is to pass that bill and he gets it passed.
REHMTo Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Eddy. You're on the air.
EDDYThank you so much. Mr. Caro, I...
EDDY...I happen to be a former staffer for Jake Pickle, who as you know was one of President Johnson's top lieutenants and held the seat he used to hold in Congress for 31 years. A lot of the Johnson family and political family folks in central Texas, particularly after "Pass (sic) the Power" felt like you had a pretty deep personal animus against the president. I think a lot of them in fact refused to talk to you in subsequent books.
EDDYIt's also ironic, I happen to serve now on the board of the Parkland Hospital, but I would like to get your reaction to how they felt about whether you had a deep personal animus against President Johnson and whether that's been reflected in your works. And I will take the answer off the air. Thank you.
REHMThanks for calling.
CAROWell, to correct one thing you said, all the Johnson people, with one or two exceptions, and really just one or two, scores and scores of them have devoted many hours of their time to trying to help me get these books right. I think I've interviewed men like George Reedy and Horace Busby over 20 times, maybe 30 times.
REHMAnd what about Lady Bird?
CAROLady Bird I had seven long interviews with her. Long before anything was published she stopped talking to me. I never knew why. You know the daughters, I understand, don't like the books. I feel, you know, families are always devoted, you know. Actually there's something that I sort of liken about, you know, I don't think I have any animus toward Lyndon Johnson. And I...
REHMHow would you characterize your own feeling toward him?
CAROWell, people generally ask me if I like or dislike him. And I tell them the following thing, Diane, I don't even think in those terms. My feeling toward Lyndon Johnson is awe because, you know, as you pointed out, these books are really supposed to be studies of political power. If you are interested in political power you just sit there in awe of what Lyndon Johnson can do, how he gets things through. You know he writes of the Civil Rights Bill, it's time to write it in the books of law. He knows his job is to get laws passed. And he is just great at it.
REHMTo Potomac, Md. Good morning, Drew, you're on the air.
DREWYes, good morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking the call.
DREWMr. Caro, I've...
DREW...thought about some recent interviews that you've had in terms of like suggestions for President Obama that Lyndon Johnson might have. And I just wondered if you could elaborate a bit. Do you think that Johnson's tactics could work in today's hyper-partisan atmosphere?
CAROWell, I don't know that Johnson would be using the same tactics. Johnson, you know, was great at finding -- they said he was the greatest salesman one-on-one who ever lived. You listened to him talk in telephone calls and you really say, boy, he's waiting. He doesn't say very much until he hears what he wants, how he can work on this guy. He's a master at doing that. I think Lyndon Johnson would find the way in any circumstance.
REHMHere's an email from A.J. who says, "You discussed the relationship with Bobby and Jack, but what about the real power broker, the patriarch of the family, Joe Kennedy?”
CAROWell, Joe Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had, you know, they didn't have that much interaction. They had some. Johnson sort of admires Joe Kennedy. These are two of the toughest men who ever lived. And I think they recognized that in each other, but there wasn't really a lot of negotiations between them.
REHMAnd another email, "When LBJ became president he seemed to me to change from a devious schemer to a kind of idealist. Can you talk about that?"
CAROYes. And I think there's a great truth in that. You know, in the first books we see Johnson as a man who didn't have power, who's desperate to get it and was quite ruthless in acquiring it. In the last two books, "Master of the Senate" and "The Passage of Power" you see Johnson has power. I believe that power reveals. When you get enough power to do what you wanna do then you see what the man wanted to do all along. And what does Johnson wanna do?
CAROHe wants to pass the Civil Rights Bill and create a war on poverty to end poverty in America.
REHMThere is something else huge that occurs before JFK's assassination and that's the Cuban Missile Crisis. What is Johnson's role during that period?
CAROWell, that's the other side, you know, we've been talking about the domestic side. He's very hawkish during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He's so hawkish that the Kennedy brothers who were doing, I must say, it's sort of heroic. One of the reasons that I devote so much time to the Cuban Missile Crisis in this book is the contrast between the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson. You really say that Jack and Bobby Kennedy were doing everything they could to avoid war. I mean they establish a quarantine. A Russian ship breaks it. Jack Kennedy says, can't we wait one more day, you know.
CAROThey can wait one more day. And I wrote, so peace had another day. Johnson is the opposite of that, so much so that in this book you'll see that Jackie writes to Ted Sorenson, who's very close to Kennedy, after her husband died, you must have known how frightened Jack was after the Cuban Missile Crisis that Lyndon Johnson would become president one day.
REHMSo she feared that side of him.
CAROAfter the Cuban Missile Crisis, as I write in "The Passage of Power", after the Cuban Missile Crisis he has less and less time alone with the president. He's cut out even more. And you know, when the full arrangement is made and it's wonderful, with the Kennedy's, you know, defuse the crisis with this great tactic, Khrushchev has written this angry letter demanding this and that. That they can't agree to. And they say, let's ignore that letter and go back and answer his previous letter where he's more agreeable. And that really works. And it's quite brilliant. I forget the other half of the question.
REHMI remember the very day of that Cuban Missile Crisis.
REHMIt was a frightening day for us all.
CAROWe came very close, you know. And subsequently we learned that they had, you know, actual nuclear warheads there. You know you listen on the tapes. I describe in this book, they would get CIA briefings, Diane. And they'd say, you know, it looks like this missile is ready to be launched. Here's the electronic circuit. It's in there, you know. To have the restraint to keep trying, as Jack and Robert Kennedy, to keep trying for peace and winning, you know and having peace is one of the great achievements of the 20th century for America.
REHMRobert Caro. He is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer of Lyndon Bain Johnson. His latest book is titled, "The Passage of Power." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Pensacola, Fla. Good morning, Mark. You're on the air.
MARKGood morning. I just wonder, since Johnson was such a great judge of character how come he misjudged Ho Chi Minh, General (word?) and General Westmoreland's character?
CAROIt's a good question, but Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, you'll have to wait for the next book to come out.
REHMUm-hum. I had that feeling.
CAROFor me to answer that.
REHMI want to take you back to the day of the assassination because what Lyndon Johnson orchestrated on that day to find the judge he wanted to swear him in and to get precisely the people he wanted there at that moment was in itself brilliant.
CAROWell, you know he calls. And there are scenes that are very poignant and terrible. Like, who does he call to find out whether he can be sworn in in Dallas and the wording of the oath. He calls Bobby Kennedy. You really say, what was behind that call? Lyndon Johnson could have called any one of a 100 officials. Kennedy's deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach, says, why didn't he call me? I was in my office. Anyone could have given him the oath.
CAROAnyone could have told him he could be sworn in.
REHMInstead he calls Bobby at home.
CAROCalls Bobby Kennedy. He calls Bobby at home. Remember, Bobby hates him. And all of a sudden, Robert Kennedy gets a call saying, basically, your brother is dead. The brother that he loved so much. A half hour or however many minutes I say in the book, late the phone rings. And it's the man he hated asking him for the formalities of how he takes over his brother's position.
CAROYou say what was behind the call? You know I talked to the secretary, Lyndon Johnson's secretary, a woman named Marie Famer who took the dictation of the oath from Katzenbach. And she says, Bobby Kennedy started to give the oath, he shouldn't have done that. His voice, she says, Katzenbach came on. His voice was like steel. She said it was hard. When he finished I read it back to him. It was a hard thing to do, seemed cruel, but I had to get it right. Lyndon Johnson always taught us if there was a job to do you had to do it.
CAROBut that was the end of her quote. But I say that's a telephone call that you really say, in terms of human nature, that goes to the heart of a lot of things.
REHMWhat does it represent to you?
REHMWell, you can say, um, you can only speculate on why Lyndon Johnson called Robert Kennedy. You can speculate, you know, Johnson felt that Robert Kennedy had humiliated him at the Democratic National Convention, had come down three times to his room to try to get him to withdraw from his brother's ticket. All during the vice-presidency, you know, Bobby says at the convention to Bobby Baker, one of Johnson's aides, you'll get yours when the time comes. He seems to feel that the time has come when he's the number two man in the administration in terms of power.
CAROHe humiliates Johnson at every opportunity. Johnson can't even take a plane to an appearance somewhere without it being signed off on by, basically at the end, Robert Kennedy. He has to have every word of every speech approved by Robert Kennedy and other humiliations. All of a sudden with a crack of a gunshot the positions are reversed. And as we're gonna see, Johnson, the rest of the time, did the same to Robert Kennedy.
REHMRobert Caro. And his latest book about the years of Lyndon Johnson is titled, "The Passage of Power". Absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much.
CAROThank you, Diane.
REHMGood to see you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
For months it looked like Russia was waging – and winning -- a battle of attrition. But last week Ukrainian forces made dramatic gains on the battlefield, retaking vast areas…
From McCarthyism to January Sixth, best-selling author David Corn says the G.O.P has a long history of using paranoia, grievance, and tribalism for political gain. His new book is "American Psychosis."
Anthropologist Anita Hannig discusses her new book, "The Day I Die," an intimate investigation of assisted death in America.