This interview was originally broadcast on May 13, 2013.
For the past 37 years, Robert Caro has devoted his life to writing the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson. So far, The Years of Lyndon Johnson has four acclaimed volumes and has shown readers just how complex the 36th president was, as both a politician and a man.
There was the Johnson who grew up poor in the Texas hill country; the Johnson who blackmailed a fellow student to win a college election; and the Johnson who, as a congressman, humiliated loyal aides for fun and brazenly stole votes to get into the Senate. And yet there was the Johnson who worked long hours teaching poor Mexican-American children in South Texas, and who believed passionately in government's obligation to help people.
The fourth — and latest — volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson is The Passage of Power, winner of the 2012 National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards. Now out in paperback, it covers the years 1958-1964. During this time, Johnson goes from powerful Senate majority leader to powerless vice president mocked by the Kennedy brothers, to again being handed the reins of power when he assumes the presidency following John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Caro says that from the moment in that Dallas hospital when Johnson was first told that JFK was dead and he was now president, the change in his demeanor was visible and immediate.
"Johnson during the vice presidency had been so humiliated that he had a hangdog look," Caro tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "His shoulders slumped. He lost a lot of weight. He was downcast. ... As he's standing there in this little cubicle [in the hospital] for about 40 minutes, wondering what fate has in store for him, [those around him] see a transformation in Johnson back to the old Lyndon Johnson who ran the Senate as no one has ever run it before. Lady Bird says his face turned into a ... bronze image."
The change was not just physical. Johnson returned to leadership full throttle. The first few months of his administration saw historic civil rights legislation that had stalled under Kennedy passed through Congress. Caro, who also wrote The Power Broker, the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses, argues that Kennedy simply wouldn't have been able to do what Johnson did to advance social justice and economic equality in America.
But it's not the mere facts that compose the lives of influential men that attract Caro to biography.
"These books are not just about Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson," he says. "They're not. I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of the life of a great man. What I'm interested in is using those lives to show how political power works. Not the textbook variety — the textbook things we learn in high school and college — but how power really works, the raw, naked reality of political power. ... We live in a democracy, so basically power at the end comes from us, from the votes that we cast at the ballot box. So the more that we know about how political power really works the better — theoretically, at least — our votes should be and the better our democracy should be."
On the relationship between Johnson and the Kennedys
"The crucial thing with Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys was his relationship with Robert Kennedy. There was a real hatred there. You know, as a writer you hate certain words because they sound too loaded, and one of them is 'hate.' But hate isn't too strong of a word to describe the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. So, when Johnson is Jack Kennedy's vice president — which is a powerless position — Robert Kennedy makes sure that he doesn't have any power and, in fact, he systematically sets out to humiliate Johnson and does during the three years of his vice presidency. ... And [Johnson's] really reduced for three years to being a powerless figure, a ridiculed figure. You know, they used to call him — the Kennedys mocked him — they called him 'Rufus Corn Pone' or 'Uncle Corn Pone.' They even had a nickname for him and Lady Bird. They said, 'Uncle Corn Pone and his little pork chop.' "
On Johnson's experience of JFK's assassination
"There've been — whatever — a hundred, a thousand books on the assassination and they all tell the story of the assassination from Jack Kennedy's point of view, but in that motorcade, that assassination made Lyndon Johnson president, so he's a crucial figure in it. ... In the front [of Johnson's car], next to the driver, is a Secret Service agent named Rufus Youngblood. When the first shot rings out, people think it's a motorcycle backfiring or they think someone burst a balloon. ...
"As the shot sounds, Youngblood ... looks forward and sees Kennedy sort of falling to the left. He whirls around, and in an instant, he grabs Johnson's right shoulder and just pushes him down on the back floor of the back seat of the car, jumps over the back of the front seat and lays on top of Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson can hear over Youngblood's radio that [was] connected to the other Secret Service agents words like, 'He's hit! He's hit!' 'Let's get out of here!' 'Hospital!' and the three cars — Kennedy's, the Secret Service agents' and Johnson's — roar up a ramp to an expressway, roar down the expressway and then off and into the emergency bay of Parkland Hospital. Youngblood says to Johnson, 'When we get to that hospital, don't look around, don't stop. We're going to get you to a secure place.' "
On Johnson's speech to the joint session of Congress the Wednesday after the assassination
"The night before the speech ... he's still in his home in Spring Valley and four or five of his advisers are gathered around the kitchen table working on that speech and they all say to Johnson ... 'You can't make civil rights a priority. You can't fight for that in this speech. It's a noble cause but it's a lost cause. You can't win. You can't waste your time on a lost cause.' You know what Lyndon Johnson says to them? 'Well, what the hell's a presidency for then?' And in this speech his says, 'Our first priority is civil rights. We've talked about civil rights for 100 years. We've talked about it too long. Now it's time to write it into the books of law,' and he immediately takes Kennedy's two bills and gets them started to passage."
On Johnson as a "great reader of men"
"When a new aide, a young aide [arrived] ... he'd tell them how to talk to someone. He'd say, 'Watch their eyes. Watch their hands. What they're telling you with their eyes or their hands is more important than what they're telling you with their mouth.' He used to say, 'Never let a conversation end because there's always something that the man doesn't want to tell you and the longer a conversation goes on, the easier it is for you to figure out what it is he doesn't want to tell you.' He had a unique ability to know what a man really wanted, what a man really was afraid of and of playing on those fears and those desires."
On how civil rights leaders regarded Johnson
"They come in suspicious, you know. Johnson always wanted to meet with people one-on-one. ... A friend of his said, 'One-on-one he's the greatest salesman who ever lived.' So a group of civil rights leaders — Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer — want to meet with him. One of his secretaries says, 'Should I schedule them as a group?' And he says to her, 'No, one at a time,' and each one has the same reaction. ... I think it's Roy Wilkins who says this: that [he] 'went in there suspicious and then Johnson pulled up almost knee-to-knee [to] me and leaned into my face and told me how much he wanted civil rights and for the first time I had real hope that this bill was going to pass.' "