2:37am

Mon April 30, 2012
Author Interviews

Caro's 'Passage of Power': LBJ's Political Genius

Originally published on Mon April 30, 2012 9:26 am

Robert Caro writes obsessively about power. Fittingly, it's Lyndon Johnson — catapulted suddenly into the presidency "in the crack of a gunshot" — who consumes him.

The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Caro's massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, is released this week. Caro has dedicated decades to meticulously researching Johnson's life, and the previous books in the series have been almost universally hailed as a significant achievement in American letters.

Those books told the story of Johnson's rise to national prominence. In The Passage of Power, Caro takes up Johnson's dismal years as vice president and his sudden presidency, which he used to shepherd the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress.

Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep talks to Caro about the book and his portrayal of the brilliant, sometimes ruthless president.


Interview Highlights

On Johnson under the Kennedy administration

"His situation when he was vice president was terrible. Because here is this guy who lives for power. He has the will to decide, the will to act. All his life, he's been in charge. Suddenly, he's not only not in charge, but he's held in absolute contempt by the Kennedy people. And in this book, you know, you see him just before Dallas, he's telling staff members who want to have a career, 'Go. I'm finished.' ... Kennedy didn't want Lyndon Johnson to have any power."

On Johnson's swift change of fate

"In the crack of a gunshot, it is reversed — he has all the power. And you see it on the very plane ride — you know, in the Johnson library, there's a notepad that says 'Aboard Air Force One.' He starts writing a list of the things that he has to do right away. Behind the writing of this list is not only a lifetime's experience in government, but the genius to know what he wants to do with government. And to see him pick up, as you do in this book, the reins of presidential power, to get bills moving that had been completely stalled, you say, 'This is political genius in action.' "

On how Johnson beat the Civil Rights Act filibuster

"He's looking at this like a great general, and he sees what the Southern strategy is: As long as a civil rights bill is on the floor and they're filibustering it, nothing else can be brought up. No one's going to get anything. So liberal senators may say, 'We're going to keep this bill on the floor until hell freezes over,' but when they realize that all these other bills aren't going to pass, the only way to get the Senate moving again is to either withdraw the civil rights bill and admit defeat, suddenly it will be put off to the next Congress, where it will have to start all over again. ... 'Hostage' is the word that Johnson used. He says, 'I'm not giving them any hostages.' He says, 'I'm not putting any other bills on the floor until Civil Rights is passed.' He says to the Southerners , 'You can filibuster all year. This is the only thing the Senate is taking up.' And that right there, it takes all these weapons out of the Southern hand. I mean, it's just heroic. This is the summer of Birmingham. This is the police dogs and the fire hoses. People are fighting on the streets, and they're creating this mood in America to pass a civil rights bill with their heroism on the street. But the fact is, this happened before, and the Southerners have always defeated it."

On listening to Johnson's private phone calls

"Everyone says that Johnson talks all the time. But when he wants to, he's listening. I'm thinking of one call — I think it's the night after the assassination. He calls George Smathers, who's a very pragmatic senator, and Johnson has always used him to find out what's really going on. ... Smathers is talking, and every few minutes Johnson says 'Uh huh,' you know, just to keep him talking, until he gets from Smathers the information that he wants. And time and again, you hear him listening for the words — what does this guy really want? I mean, it's almost palpable. You can hear what he's doing. And, of course, when Johnson finds out what a guy really wants, he will work to give it to him. Or he can be very, very tough."

On Johnson's likability

"In my earlier books, you see a man looking for power and utterly ruthless in his attempts to get it. In the last two books, you see what he does when he gets power, and it's sort of wonderful. So, it's not a like or a dislike — you're in awe. If you're interested in political power, which is what I am interested in, you are in awe of him. What you get from listening, you know, you say, 'Oh, my God, that's what he's doing.' "

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Robert Caro is one of the best known biographers of our time, but when you talk with him, he suggests he's not really a biographer. Caro says he writes about the way that leaders use power.

ROBERT CARO: The cliche is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's not always true. Power reveals. When you get power, you can show what you wanted it for.

INSKEEP: And Caro's long-running biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson is now showing what he did with power when he became president. Caro has been researching and writing about Johnson for three and a half decades, since the '70s, tracing Johnson's long and ruthless climb toward the White House.

Now, in "The Passage of Power," the fourth book in this series, Johnson arrives in the Oval Office. After John F. Kennedy's assassination, the task of passing Kennedy's agenda, including what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, fell to a man who had been a powerless vice president.

CARO: His situation when he was vice president was terrible. Because here is this guy who lives for power. He has the will to decide, the will to act. All his life, he's been in charge.

Suddenly he's not only not in charge, but he's held in absolute contempt by the Kennedy people. And in this book, you know, you see him just before Dallas, he's telling staff members who want to have a career, go, I'm finished.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people that in this era when there have been vice presidents who are quite powerful or perceived as being quite powerful, that when it gets down to it, the vice president has exactly as much power as the president wants him to have, and most had had none.

CARO: That's - thank you for putting that in. Kennedy didn't want Lyndon Johnson to have any power, and he didn't have any power.

INSKEEP: So how swiftly did everything change in the moments and hours after the assassination?

CARO: In the crack of a gunshot. In the crack of a gunshot. One moment he has no power. In the crack of a gunshot, it is reversed. He has all the power. And you see it on the very plane ride - you know, there's - in the Johnson Library there's a notepad that says aboard Air Force One. He writes down - starts writing a list of the things that he has to do right away.

Behind the writing of this list is not only a lifetime's experience in government but the genius to know what he wants to do with government. And yet(ph) to see him pick up, as you do in this book, the reins of presidential power, to get bills moving that had been completely stalled, you say this is political genius in action.

INSKEEP: He wanted to get the civil rights bill through the Senate. Southerners were easily in position to block it forever, and he arranged for bills to be considered in a different order. Why did that matter?

CARO: He's looking at this like a great general, and he sees what the Southern strategy is. As long as a civil rights bill is on the floor and they're filibustering it, nothing else can be brought up. No one's going to get any bill. So liberal senators may say we're going to keep this bill on the floor till hell freezes over, when they realize that all these other bills aren't going to pass, when they realize the only way to get the Senate moving again is to either withdraw the civil rights bill and admit defeat, suddenly it's put off till the next Congress, where it will have to start all over again.

INSKEEP: Their own priorities get held hostage by civil rights.

CARO: Yes. Hostage is the word that Johnson used. He says I'm not giving them any hostages. He says I'm not putting any other bills on the floor until civil rights is passed. You can - he says to the Southerners, you can filibuster all year. This is the only thing the Senate is taking up.

And that right there, it takes all these weapons out of the Southern hand. I mean, it's just heroic. This is the summer of Birmingham. This is the police dogs and the fire hoses. And people are fighting on the streets, and they're creating this mood in America to pass a civil rights bill with their heroism on the street. But the fact is, this has happened before, and at the end the Southerners always defeated it.

INSKEEP: You have alluded a couple of times to hearing tapes of Lyndon Johnson.

CARO: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, Mr. President.

JOHNSON: Hello, my sweetheart, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, I'm fine, are you?

JOHNSON: You know, the only one thing I dislike about this job is that I'm married and I can't ever get to see you. I just hear that sweet voice and it's always on telephone, and I'd like to break out of here...

INSKEEP: What has your ability to listen to the president's voice in those private phone calls done to your research? How has it affected your research?

CARO: Oh, a lot. I mean it would affect yours too. You know, everyone says that Johnson talks all the time (unintelligible). But when he wants to, he's listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

DAVE MCDONALD: Now, we still haven't contacted North and South Carolina, Georgia, or Tennessee delegations, but that will done today and tomorrow morning.

JOHNSON: Well, you won't get many there, but...

MCDONALD: No, but we can put the muscle(ph) on them.

JOHNSON: Here's Dr. King that's talking to me about it right now. It's Dave McDonald...

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Hello, my friend, Mr. McDonald.

MCDONALD: Dr. King, how are you?

JR.: Oh, I'm doing...

CARO: I'm thinking of one call - I think it's the night after the assassination. He calls George Smathers, who's a very pragmatic senator, and Johnson has always used him to find out what's really going on. And Johnson asks him some question. Smathers is talking, and every few minutes Johnson says uh-huh, you know, just to keep him talking, hmm, you know, that's - until he hears - gets from Smathers the information that he wants.

And time and again you hear him listening for the words - what does this guy really want? I mean, it's almost palpable, Steve, you know? You can hear what he's doing. And, of course, when Johnson finds out what a guy really wants, he will work to give it to him. Or he can be very, very tough.

INSKEEP: Do you end up liking him more after listening to him?

The expression on your face is priceless, I should mention. You've got a smile on your face as you're thinking here. Go ahead, go ahead.

CARO: Well - well, what I'm thinking is: Like isn't really a word. He's the same guy. I mean, in my earlier books you see a man looking for power and utterly ruthless in his attempts to get it.

The last two books, you see what he does when he gets power, and it's sort of wonderful. So it's not a like or a dislike. You're in awe. If you're interested in political power, which is what I - you are in awe of him. What you get from listening, you know, you say, oh my God, that's what he's doing. Do you know?

I mean, it's really - you can follow the mind, probably the greatest genius in legislative politics that America has ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Robert Caro's latest book on President Lyndon Johnson is "The Passage of Power." Tomorrow we'll hear how Caro has spent more than three decades writing books on Johnson, in longhand.

CARO: And I know everybody's switching to a computer, and I am sort of laughed at. You know, everyone says you could do it faster. I'm not sure that in my case that faster is better.

INSKEEP: That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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