Robert Caro
Robert Caro
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Means of Ascent
ISBN: 0394528352
Means of Ascent
Mr. Caro discussed his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, published by Knopf. He described his research into the life of Lyndon Johnson and noted that he examined approximately 629,000 pages of documents from the Johnson Presidential Library. He spoke about his work, discussing his experience as a newspaper reporter as well as his early interest in writing biography. He talked about Lyndon Johnson's early life in Texas, his complicated relationship with Texas Congressman Sam Rayburn, Lady Bird Johnson's evolution as a public persona, and the attitudes of former Johnson intimates about the book.
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TRANSCRIPT
Means of Ascent
Program Air Date: April 29, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Caro, author of "The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent". In the back of your book, you admit that you looked at 629,000 pages of documents, or at least they were put in front of you. How in the world did you read all that?
ROBERT CARO, AUTHOR, "MEANS OF ASCENT: THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON": Well, I spent a lot of years on this. And a lot of those years, a lot of months in those years, I spent in the Lyndon Johnson Library. You call up these boxes. It's actually an estimated number, cause they have the exact number of boxes and I called for, whatever is in there, 787 or something.
LAMB: That's right.
CARO: And they said that in a full box, you have 800 pages, so you just sit there. You know, when I was a newspaper reporter, just starting out, I was 20, and I had this editor who told me, "Turn every page, never assume anything." And, with his early life at least, it was physically possible to look at every piece of paper.
LAMB: How much new information is it? I know it's a tough question to answer, but is there a lot of new information in these books? This is your second book?
CARO: Well, I think it's pretty largely new information because Lyndon Johnson, you know, when I started this, there were already 17 biographies of Lyndon Johnson, and I felt that his youth and his early years, I would hardly have to do any work on, because I thought they had been covered over and over again, but when I went to Texas, I started finding out that most of the stories that we knew about him, the anecdotes that we knew about him, were really a legend that he had, in effect, created about his life and it wasn't really the truth, so I to start all over.
LAMB: Can you remember the moment, the first moment that you said, "I want to do Lyndon Johnson?"
CARO: Well, I was a reporter on Newsday, and what I realized was not that I wanted to do biographies, Brian. I never conceived of writing books just as the lives of famous men. I really had no interest in that at all. What I wanted to do was explain how political power worked, because I was a reporter and I was covering politics, and I felt that I wasn't really explaining what I had gone into the newspaper business to explain, which was how political power worked, and a lot of it led back to this man, Robert Moses, a lot of what I didn't understand. Now, here was a guy who was never elected to anything, and I was coming to realize that he had more power than anyone who was governor or mayor.
LAMB: Who was he, by the way?
CARO: Well, Robert Moses was this Park Commissioner of New York and the Chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. He built every bridge that has been built in New York since 1930. The Verazano, Throgsneck, Bronx, Whitestone, Henry Hudson. He built every mile of expressway and parkway that's been built in New York since the 1920s. All the parks he either built or rebuilt. He created so much of the landscape of New York. The book is called, "The Power Broker" and I really picked that title because he wasn't elected to anything, he got power from extra democratic means, such as the public authority.

He created public authorities in their present form, but I would be reporter, and no one knew this, including me, and I would be sitting there, and you typed City Park Commissioner, Robert Moses, and I'd wonder what did that have to do with the fact that he built the Long Island Expressway. Or you typed Triborough Bridge Authority, Robert Moses, and you'd say, well what exactly is an "authority", you know. We thought it was just something that built one bridge, collected tolls and went out of business. So I really wanted to examine how urban political power worked. I thought I could do it through the means of the life of Robert Moses, and all the time I was doing it, see I never thought I'd get to do another book, because we were just broke, the whole, I had a tiny advance. No one thought anyone would be interested in the book on Robert Moses. All I was trying to do was finish it.
LAMB: What year was this?
CARO: Well, it took me seven years. It was published in '74, so I guess I began in '67. I was just trying to get done so I could back to work, you know, as a reporter, but I knew if I ever somehow could, I'd like to do the same thing for national power, as I had done in "The Power Broker" with urban power. And I knew I wanted to do it with Lyndon Johnson, because I felt he understood national power better than any other President in our time.
LAMB: What year was that?
CARO: Well, "The Power Broker" was published in '74, and I shortly thereafter started on the Lyndon Johnson biography.
LAMB: What was it though, about Lyndon Johnson, that got your attention? CARO; Well, what got my attention was when he was in the Senate. You see with Moses, everyone said, "No one ever did this before." He was never elected to anything, but he had more power. Now with Johnson, they said the same thing, "No one ever dominated the Senate of the United States like Lyndon Johnson." He controlled it as Senate Majority Leader, so I said, Well, if no one else did it, if I can find out how he did it and show how he used power, how he obtained this power, used it -- that was what first got me interested.
LAMB: And, what did you do first?
CARO: First I went to Texas. You walked into the Lyndon Johnson Library -- the first two floors are a museum, then there's this huge staircase and on top of it are four floors. There's a glass wall with four floors of the papers of Lyndon Johnson. It all, whatever there are, there are 34,000,000 documents down there. They're all in these boxes, red buckram boxes stamped with the presidential seal in gold, and they tower up four stories, so that was the moment I thought of quitting, actually. And then, of course, for the next few years, we spent a lot of time -- my wife Ina, and myself -- in Texas.
LAMB: I want to ask you a personal question. I'm not sure you want to answer it, but I'll ask it anyway. How do you afford to do this kind of thing? You spent seven years on Robert Moses, and you spent 14 years on Lyndon Johnson. Who pays the bills during these periods?
CARO: Well, it's very different. You know, for the first book, I did it for a tiny advance. I think it was a $2,500 advance. Nobody was really interested in the book, and really we were just broke, pretty much, for seven years. I got a grant for one year, but I thought the book was only gonna take one year, you know, so at the end of the year, I was just a reporter and we had no savings, we had a house on Long Island, so we sold that, but that was before the real estate boom, so that gave us enough money, after the mortgage, for only 15 more months. We moved into an apartment in Riverdale in New York, and from time to time, Ina, my wife, would go to work. But I also needed her to help me with the research on this, and that was a continual struggle, I mean to do "The Power Brokers".

I look back on it -- well, for the first five years or so, then things changed. But for the first five years or so, it was just a struggle from month to month to keep going. Then, that was not a bestseller at first, but it almost immediately began to be used by really hundreds of colleges, you know, in different courses. And I won the Pulitizer prize and other prizes, and I was able to get a much better contract for Lyndon Johnson. Then the first volume of Johnson, of course, was a major bestseller, or whatever, and all the money problems have ceased, and it's not even a consideration anymore.
LAMB: Is it true that they printed 500,000 of the first Lyndon Johnson book?
CARO: Well, there are 500,000 in print ... more than 500,000.
LAMB: All hardback?
CARO: It's in all ... well, we've never had mass market paperback. I'm not sure if that figure includes the trade paperback or the various hardback editions. That figure that you gave me is what Knopf says, and they said it to me, and I didn't really ask what the different editions were.
LAMB: The first book about Lyndon Johnson was on what subject, what part of his life?
CARO: Well, it starts really before his life, because I wanted to show what life in rural Texas was like, and his ancestors, which I thought was such an important part of his life. And it takes him up to the age of 32, when he gets his first national power. And, at the end of that book, he tries for the Senate, that's the last scene, in 1941, and loses to this Texas campaigner, Pass the Biscuits, Pappy O'Daniel, with his hillbilly band. That's the end of the first volume. He has national power, but he can't move up to the Senate.

And, now the second book focuses on only seven years of his life. It's after that defeat, where he's stuck in the House of Representatives, which he really dislikes, and he cannot find a way to advance himself politically, and his whole life, these are his seven years in the wilderness. It's his seven years, he turns to making money with a radio station, and he is sort of consumed with his need to try to move up to the Senate, on what he always envisioned as his road to the Presidency, and of course, the centerpiece, or whatever you want to call it, of this volume, is his last chance. In 1948, he decides to take one last chance and run for the Senate, and he says if he loses, he will leave politics forever.
LAMB: How many books about Lyndon Johnson are you going to write?
CARO: Four.
LAMB: What are the next two gonna be about?
CARO: Well, the next one takes him from being sworn in to the Senate through his rise to power in the Senate, his majority leadership, running for President against Jack Kennedy, losing and being the vice-president. It ends with the assassination, with him being sworn in on the plane in Dallas. And then the last volume will be the presidency. I'm determined to try to do the presidency in one book, because it's one story really.
LAMB: I read somewhere where you got a distillation of all this at the end. Are you going to write a fifth book?
CARO: Well, I want to do -- when I'm done, yes. I want to distill it down into a one volume.
LAMB: Have you written the third volume already?
CARO: Well, I'm writing it now.
LAMB: Right now?
CARO: Yeah. This book we're talking about, the one that was just published, is to me, almost -- it's behind me. That's the funny feeling. My mind is in the third volume. Johnson is in the Senate.
LAMB: When did you finish writing this book?
CARO: Oh, I don't know, nine months ago, ten months ago, something like that. I don't really remember.
LAMB: And, do you think Lyndon Johnson all the time?
CARO: No.
LAMB: Is it hard to get him out of your mind?
CARO: Well, no, actually, because you see, because, you know, large parts of the book don't deal with Lyndon Johnson. Like in the first volume, I wanted to talk about him bringing electricity to the hill country. No one had done that story, and I thought it was important. So, I just went off to research electricity, and rural electricification, and he's not even in it, you know. Now, in the third volume, the great thing that he does is pass this first civil rights legislation, in a Senate that's dominated by the south. so I'm going back and doing civil rights history, you know, so Lyndon Johnson is sort of out of it for awhile. That's what keeps it interesting. You know, you keep doing, going off and doing other things that are related to this book. That's why I call it the years of Lyndon Johnson. I wanted to show American history during the years of his life, and not just his life.
LAMB: In your acknowledgement, you thank a lot of people from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: How many years did you spend in the library?
CARO: Well, I can't answer that., I've been working on the book for 14 years, ah, and in each year there are months that I spend in the library ... some less than others. I've never counted that up. We've also spent, you know, a lot of time living up on the edge of the hill country in Texas, so that I could interview the people in the Perdenales Valley, where Johnson grew up -- people who grew up with him, the people who went to college with him, the people who were his first political machine, and I wanted to learn that whole culture of the hill country, so I could understand him better.
LAMB: You were born where?
CARO: I was born in New York City on Central Park West, where I now live.
LAMB: What's the first thing you noticed that was different about Texas, than where you grew up?
CARO: Texas was so different. You know, I had no idea ... and the first ... there was one dramatic moment; actually, it was dramatic to me, I don't know if it's dramatic to anyone else. But I'd never seen Johnson City. I had no idea of the loneliness and the emptiness of the hill country. So the first day I was there, I rented a car and I drove out of Austin and towards Johnson City, and about 42 or 43 miles, you come to the top of what they call Round Mountain. It's just really a high hill, but from it you can see this really vast basin or valley in front of you, miles long and miles wide, maybe 30 miles long and maybe 15 or 20 miles across, and in this whole area, you couldn't see one sign of human habitation.

And then the sun came out from behind the cloud. I had stopped the car at the top of this thing. I was standing there looking down into it, and the sun came out, and suddenly you saw the sun glinting off the roofs of this little huddle of houses in the middle of this emptiness, and that was Johnson City, and I think I knew in that moment, I was getting into something that I had not really understood. And then after that, it was just a constant -- you know, you have to learn about the loneliness there and the poverty there.

I remember Sam Houston Johnson, Lyndon's brother, telling me how he and Lyndon used to sit, one part of the Johnson ranch abutted a road, one corner of it, and they'd sit on the fence there at that corner all day, hoping for one person to drive by so they'd have somebody new to talk to. And the deeper I got into it, the more I realized, gee ... I just don't understand this land, this culture. You know, there was an old postmistress in Johnson City named Stella Glidden, and she said to me once, "You know, you're a city boy, you don't understand the land, and unless you understand the land, you're never gonna understand Lyndon Johnson." And I remember, I thought, "Oh, baloney, this sounds like a grade B western or something." But I came to realize that she was really telling me something, that it was the struggle to survive in a land where survival was so hard, that did shape a lot of Johnson's characteristics. So we moved down there, and for large parts of three years, I don't know how many, seven, eight months a year, we lived in houses on the edge of the hill country, so that I could really sort of immerse myself in that land.
LAMB: I want to read an Associated Press story, a quote, because I don't want to put words in peoples' mouths, because I want to go back to the Lyndon Johnson Library and ask you some questions about it. "Former Johnson aide, Jack Valenti accused Caro of being passionately bent on destroying the late President's reputation. Bob Hardesty, a Johnson speech writer, who helped him write his memoirs, called Caro's biography dishonest. 'I don't think it pretends to be fair, I think it is the work of a man with a burning unnatural hatred for his subject', Hardesty said." I'm going to let you answer those charges, and then I want to go back to the library.
CARO: Well, I don't think there's any truth in them at all. I think I let the facts speak for themselves. I'm taking people through Lyndon Johnson's life as he lived it, chronologically. Nobody disputes that these are the things that he did. Nobody has challenged really, anything that I know of. I don't know of anybody successfully challenging anything. As for disliking him, that's not really true. The Johnson loyalists really dislike, as you can tell, even hate my books. That, however, does not mean that I disliked Lyndon Johnson. I think that the story of his life, to me, is a very sad and poignant story; it's not a question of liking and disliking. I'm trying to understand and make people understand.

More than that, I'm trying to make people understand, I'm trying to learn how the political power worked, as he used it, and I'm trying to portray that. Now, that's very unpleasant, in some of this volume. It's a very unpleasant story, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. That doesn't mean that my portraying it means I dislike Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: Back to the library. Did you notice a change in the way people treated you at the library, as they gathered you were going to be critical, and the first volume was not uncritical?
CARO: No.
LAMB: Right.
CARO: But there were more bright sides to see in the period of time covered by the first volume. He is doing things that we see, things that are going to emerge in his presidency, for example. We see his compassion for the Mexican-American kids when he was a school teacher. He taught Mexican-American children down in Catulla, and I think I say in that book that no teacher had ever cared if they learned or not. This teacher cared. You know, he worked with them ceaselessly beyond anything that was expected of him. Of course, we're going to see that in the civil rights legislation, when he is majority leader and President. And we see in him helping his constituents, such as with rural electrification, this great gift that Lyndon Johnson had for mobilizing the powers of government, to help the dispossessed, but in this, I forget what you were asking.
LAMB: I wanted to know if the people at the library started treating you differently ...
CARO: Well, the library, you know, reminds me very much of the situation of reporters during the Vietnam war. The people that I work with at the library are the archivists, they're historians, professional historians, who I think chose mostly to go into archival work instead of teaching at universities, and they're very anxious, I think, to see the truth come out. They're very helpful. However, the hierarchy of the library, Liz Carpenter, Walt Rostow, people you remember from the Johnson years, of course, dislike my books just as much as the quotes that you read.
LAMB: Do you see them doing anything to prevent you from getting the information?
CARO: No.
LAMB: Who owns the library?
CARO: Well, the library is part of the National Archives. All presidential libraries are part of the National Archives.
LAMB: And so you have a right to anything you want in the course of your research?
CARO: Well, no, it's more complicated than that because Johnson's papers were given to the federal government under a deed of gift, which was later incorporated in a will, and that deed of gift gives the library broad discretion as to what they can close. You know, anything that would harass or embarrass someone, then they remove the document and replace it with a pink slip. And quite often, as you are going through these papers, as you're going toward a, you know, you're turning every page, going through the letters or the memos, as you're heading towards the crucial moment, you see a little line of pink slip sticking out and it's often a crucial document, so what you really just try to do is keep going and looking in other boxes, trying to find out as much as you can.
LAMB: Did you have the experience as you were going though the files of, when you found something you knew was really special, did you feel any sensation at all?
CARO: Yeah. With Lyndon Johnson, the sensation is quite often one of real depression, because an example of that which was very striking to me, was learning how he betrayed Sam Rayburn. You know, in the first volume, we really see how Rayburn loved Lyndon Johnson. We can call it a father-son relationship, as a cliche, but Rayburn was his great patron. Johnson came to Washington, he was the assistant, age 23, 24, he's an assistant to another congressman, and Rayburn is then the mighty majority leader -- grim, fierce visage man that everyone was afraid to approach, with immense power.

He was a very lonely man and he was lonely because he had no family, no wife, no children. He once wrote to his sister, "God, what I would give for a towheaded boy to take fishing." But, he didn't have one. When Lyndon and Lady Bird came to Washington, Lyndon's father had known Sam Rayburn, and Mr. Sam, as they called him, used to come and spend Sundays, you know have Sunday breakfast and then stay around the Johnsons' little apartment, and he was very fond of both Lyndon and Lady Bird. Once, when Johnson was still a young assistant, he got pneumonia, which of course was very serious back in those days. Mrs. Johnson was back in Texas on a vacation, and Rayburn sat next to Johnson's bed all night in the hospital, in a straight backed wooden chair. He was so afraid, he was a chain smoker, he smoked all night, but he was so afraid of making a movement and disturbing Lyndon, that he didn't brush, want to get up and brush the ashes away. So when Lyndon Johnson woke up in the morning, Sam Rayburn was sitting there with his lapels covered with this cigarette ash. As soon as he saw that Lyndon Johnson was awake, Johnson recalled, Rayburn leaned over him and said, "Lyndon, don't worry about anything, if you need anything, call on me."

And shortly Johnson did call on Rayburn. Rayburn got his career started. And, now it's 1939. John Nance Garner and Roosevelt have split. Garner was always Roosevelt's man in Texas. Someone is going to be Roosevelt's man in Texas, the dispenser of the New Deal power and patronage in Texas. Rayburn, who is the majority leader still, unless he's become Speaker, I can't remember the date, is the logical choice, but Johnson wants that job. And to get it, he persuades Roosevelt that, falsely, that Rayburn is his enemy. And I couldn't understand what happened here. I'm going through these boxes in the Johnson library, and I've interviewed some people who were involved, and I'm trying to piece together from the interviews and the papers, what's happening. And there's never one piece of paper, there's never one document, at least I never seem to find one. It's always a series of telegrams and memos, and you can see the picture building up, and the picture was so depressing to me.

I remember, to be honest with you, that my thought was, God, I hope this doesn't mean what I think it does. And I got up, I remember, and actually left the library and walked around outside. I didn't want to go through the rest of this stack of papers, but of course I did, and when you went through it, the evidence was incontrovertible, you could see just what Lyndon Johnson did. So quite often with Johnson, the reaction is depressing.

Now, the other side of the reaction is thrilling. You see, with Johnson there's always two sides -- the bright side and the dark side, because in that library are the letters from these farm women whose lives he transformed by bringing them electricity. I mean, they were living without electricity on a farm, where you have to haul up every bucket of water, you know, yourself, from a well, which in the hill country was about 75 feet deep. It really made slaves out of women. And they didn't have electric washing machines or anything. His fight to bring electricity there -- which seemed impossible, because there was no source of hydroelectric power for miles, hundreds of miles in some places -- was really a noble example of the use of the powers of government, to help people, to do something they couldn't do themselves. No matter how ingenious or determined they were, they were never going to get electricity. So Johnson did this and you can see these letters, "Thank you for bringing the lights," that's a phrase that was used. So, sitting in that library is a very emotional experience sometimes. Of course, it's also weeks and weeks of utter boredom, you know, where you keep going through boxes and there's really nothing that you're telling.
LAMB: How many hours a day would you work in the library?
CARO: Well, I always worked, it's only open 9:00 to 5:00. I'm never tired at 5 o'clock, so I'm always working up to the last, you know, minute that they allow me to work.
LAMB: Now, are you going to go back after this volume and continue to do work in the library?
CARO: Sure.
LAMB: Have you been back since people have read this book?
CARO: Well no, it just came out last week.
LAMB: And you haven't been down there since then?
CARO: No.
LAMB: Will you talk about ... you have a chapter in this book devoted to his wife, and someone who is still alive, Lady Bird Johnson, and here is a photograph. Do you happen to remember what year this photo was taken?
CARO: 1948.
LAMB: And what was he doing in this year?
CARO: He was running for the Senate against the man on the other side of the page, the man with the pipe, Coke Stevenson.
LAMB: Who at that time was ...?
CARO: Well, he was the former governor of Texas. He was running against Johnson for the Senate.
LAMB: And the outcome of this election?
CARO: Johnson won by 87 votes out of about a million votes that were cast.
LAMB: And one of the points that you make in this book is that he stole the election.
CARO: The election was stolen, yeah.
LAMB: And how do you prove that?
CARO: Well, I prove it. It's not actually that hard to prove -- just that nobody apparently did it. There are more than a thousand pages of court transcripts. See, hearings were held on this at the time, and more than a thousand pages of testimony were taken, in which all the witnesses are testifying the same way, except for one. That man was, that one is a man named Louie Salas, who was the election judge in the crucial precinct, box 13 in Jim Wells County. Now, he testified to the opposite of all the other people. I found Mr. Salas in Houston in 1986. He was then quite old but clear of mind, and I asked him about the discrepancy between his testimony and everybody else's, and he said, "Well that's simple, Robert, I lied under oath." And he then told me and took me in great detail through the story of what happened in box 13. And this time his story simply corroborated what everybody else had said.
LAMB: In this photograph, Bob Caro, Louis Salas is over here on the, I don't whether you can see him yet, over here on the?
CARO: No, down ...
LAMB: The far, as you're looking at the screen, the far right?
CARO: No, the man to the bottom is Louie Salas.
LAMB: Oh, OK, right there.
CARO: As you can see, Louie Salas there is this huge, gun toting, burly enforcer for George Parr, the duke of Duval. When I went to see him, I guess I had this mental image that that's what he looked like, but of course he was 84 years old and the man who opened the door for me was a stooped, gentle, rather frail, old man in gold-rimmed glasses.
LAMB: I want to get back to Mrs. Johnson, but I want to ask you a quick question. Have you ever met Lyndon Johnson?
CARO: I don't think ... I once covered, I was just starting out as a reporter in 1964. I was a substitute for the reporters covering the Johnson, Goldwater campaign. People keep asking me that. I had a couple of days, maybe four or five days, covering Johnson, but I was never close to him, I was never a pool reporter or on the plane. I saw him as a reporter.
LAMB: When did he die?
CARO: In 1973.
LAMB: Of a ...
CARO: A heart attack.
LAMB: ... heart attack?
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: Mrs. Johnson. You have a chapter -- let me just ask you, first, why did you devote a chapter called Lady Bird?
CARO: Well, I think that the story of Lady Bird Johnson's transformation, which in this book, "Means of Ascent, is what the Lady Bird chapter is about, is one of the most wonderful stories that I ever heard. You know, she was so shy as a girl, she had this really painful public shyness, where she couldn't bear to speak in public. When she was in high school, she told me, she prayed that if she finished first or second in the class and would have to give a speech as valedictorian or salutatorian at her graduation, she prayed that she would get smallpox, and I wrote, "She would rather risk the scars than speak in public."

Now, she marries Lyndon Johnson. She, of course, cannot campaign for him, make speeches for him. More than that, she doesn't participate in the political part of his life at all, and I asked her why not and she said, "Well, I didn't want to be part of absolutely everything." Now, suddenly, in "Means of Ascent", he goes off to Navy service on the west coast, and in one instant, it seems like, he has to say to her, "Now, you have to run the office for me."

And she has to go in, having done nothing like this, and be, in effect, the Congressman for the 10th district of Texas, and she told me about this, and I talked to the secretaries who worked in the office with her, and to me, I mean, her story of finding the courage to make herself do things that she could never bear to do, I mean, one of her secretaries told me how Mrs. Johnson would sit in her husband's big chair, behind his big desk, and her hand would be reached out for the telephone, but she couldn't bear to make the call. She'd have to call a cabinet official or some high government official, and she couldn't bear to make it, but I wrote, "But she always made the call." I mean, she told me about the day that, "I had to call that formidable Mr. Ickes," who was course was Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, the old curmudgeon. She not only had to call him, she had to go to see him and persuade him to revoke an order that adversely affected the 10th district. And she did, and he revoked it. And her story of how she became, turned herself, into the Lady Bird Johnson that we know today -- with her poise and graciousness and dignity -- was to me, really I just said, "I'm going to tell this story in full."
LAMB: You did 10 interviews with her?
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: Where?
CARO: Well, they would either be in the library, or once or twice they were out at her ranch. She has an office in the library.
LAMB: And when you interview someone -- and, by the way, how many interviews did you do for this book ?
CARO: Well, I never counted. It's obviously many hundreds.
LAMB: Did you tape record them?
CARO: No, I don't tape record anything.
LAMB: Longhand or shorthand?
CARO: I have my own shorthand. If it's necessary to get a paragraph or two, every word, I can do that.
LAMB: How come no tape recorder?
CARO: I feel that it intimidates people. Intimidates may be the wrong word, but I feel that I'm trying to get the truth, you know, to find out what really happened, and I think that I'm dealing with some very smart and wary men, the smartest and wariest. I don't think men like that forget for an instant that there's a tape recorder running, and whether or not that they do, I don't want any barrier between their recollections and the facts, and I feel that there is one.
LAMB: I read somewhere where you wrote a million words for this book before the editor got to it?
CARO: That was for the first book, "The Power Brokers". Yes, the original manuscript. Not a rough draft, the polished manuscript was 1,000,050 words, but we couldn't fit it all in one book, so we had to cut it down to 700,000 words.
LAMB: And how many words are in this book?
CARO: I never counted this.
LAMB: Never counted?
CARO: It's about 500 pages. I guess it's about 250,000 words, I never count them.
LAMB: Let me read just a little bit. This is almost the last thing you say in this entire book, on page 425. "Although from the first, I made it clear to Mrs. Johnson that I would conduct my own independent research in to anything I was told by anyone, for some time she very helpfully advised of the semi-official Johnson circle in Texas, that she would have no objection if they talked with me." The last sentence of your book. "At a certain point, however, some time after the interviews with Mrs. Johnson had been completed, that cooperation abruptly and totally ceased." Why?
CARO: I don't know.
LAMB: You have no idea?
CARO: Well, I could speculate, but it wouldn't be based on any knowledge.
LAMB: What year was this?
CARO: Oh, it was before anything was published ... many years ago. I mean before the first volume was published, or any excerpts were published.
LAMB: And the inner circle would not talk to you from that day forward?
CARO: Well, no it's not true that no members of the inner circle wouldn't talk to me. Most of them have talked to me. I don't know what you're really asking.
LAMB: Well, my point is that undoubtedly you put this in here for a reason, and...
CARO: No, I put it in, it's actually not part of the book. It's a part of the note on sources, in which I try to explain where I got, you know, the various pieces of information. And I thought people would want to know where, because there are a lot of quotes from Mrs. Johnson in the book -- because a lot of it came from Mrs. Johnson, particularly, you know. So, I thought people would like to know how those interviews went. That's why I explain that.
LAMB: Well, on the other side of this is that John Connelly supposedly wouldn't talk to you for a long time -- read the first volume and then, what did he do?
CARO: Then he called me. Well, he called me and said very flattering things about the first volume, and said that he therefore didn't want me to do the second volume without him and would I come down and see him, and I said yes. And he said the only place we can get away from everybody else is at my ranch, so I went down to his ranch and spent whatever, three or four days there. Now, however, for whatever reason, I won't speculate, Mr. Connelly says very different things. So ...
LAMB: You mean about ...
CARO: About my work.
LAMB: About your work.
CARO: Right. Of course in this book, he is a source. You know, particularly in this '48 campaign, he was one of Johnson's bright young men. Really the leader of the bright young men in this '48 campaign. And, he talked to me quite frankly about it. He would not agree at all with my conclusions, but I'm sure that he wouldn't disagree with any, would say that I misquoted him or anything like that.
LAMB: Do you think because -- did Mrs. Johnson put out the word to all these people and they wouldn't talk to you anymore? And if you don't want to speculate, the fact that they wouldn't talk to you anymore, did that hurt your book?
CARO: Well, no, because what I referred to there, it's not that they wouldn't talk for this book. The people who were closest in this period -- just to stay on this because it gets too confusing otherwise -- who were closest to Lyndon Johnson, were John Connelly, Walter Jenkins, Horace Busby, Warren Woodward, George Brown of Brown and Ruth, Edward A. Clark, perhaps 20 of them, I named them, without exception, 100 percent, all talked to me and talked to me as much as I wanted at, so that's not really accurate. There are members of the Johnson circle who wouldn't, well actually just a couple who wouldn't talk to me, and I'm sure I'll find more, but the fact is that each time one of these excerpts in the New Yorker, I couldn't keep up with the people telephoning or sending me letters or contacting me through an intermediary, to really say, "Why haven't you talked to me?" Usually it was because I'm not up to them yet.
LAMB: One other thing, on the source thing, "The greatest single loss to my research, in my opinion, came with the death of Abe Fortas." Why?
CARO: Well, Abe Fortas in the first place was very close to Lyndon Johnson at crucial moments in his life. Now, this volume would be much poorer. Johnson saved the Senate election because of a legal maneuver by Abe Fortas. Fortas explained it to me and I think the book is much richer for that. I think he died right between two interviews. I had had an interview and I asked him a question, and he said, "Oh, that's an important question, we'll talk about it whenever, in a week or whatever," and we made a date. And then I picked up the New York Times one morning, and Abe Fortas had died, very young, of a heart attack. I can't ever ... I mean, that will hurt my work, in my opinion, all the way through.
LAMB: Is there a difference between your work as a journalist and professorial academician, historian type? I mean, do you approach these volumes differently? I know there's always an argument about what is history.
CARO: Well, I think that there are a number of things that are important to me. One is the level of the writing. The thing that always mattered to me was that my books endure, and I have a theory about history, you see. I don't regard my books as biographies so much as I do as history. That's why I call them "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" and I feel that in order to endure, a work of history has to be written, the prose, has to be at the same level as a novel that will endure, and I don't think there's enough emphasis in the writing of a lot of history, on the fact that this is a book. If the history is thrilling, if the events are thrilling, you're not being true to history if you make it boring, if you concentrate just on the facts and don't give a sense of place, a sense of the people involved. I think narrative is important and empathy is important.
LAMB: You went to school at Princeton?
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: You worked for how many years at Newsday on Long Island?
CARO: I think six years.
LAMB: You've done a total of three books now, or?
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: And you've got two volumes of this to go?
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: One of the things in the back that also got my attention, was the two pages that you wrote about your wife. You called her your "quiet idealist".
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: Explain why you called her your quiet idealist, but how important was she to this whole process?
CARO: Oh, she's an integral part of the process. She is the whole staff. You know, most major biographies, presidential biographies, if you look in the acknowledgements in back, there's a whole list of researchers and archivists. I could never trust other people to look at papers but Ina knows. Ina is a great historian in her own right. She is a medieval historian. In fact, she's writing a book of her own now. When I was writing "The Power Broker", there was a time I was hurt. I couldn't get out of bed for a long time, and I had to teach Ina, I had to yank her away from the middle ages. She was doing her Ph.D thesis on education and on Charlamagne and I had to yank her away from that and send her out to really do investigative reporting work for me, and ever since then, we have worked together. And she's a wonderful historian, and I guess I call her my beloved idealist because she is beloved to me and she is an idealist.
LAMB: I said quiet idealist, but beloved idealist ... You did say, "Ina Caro is quiet and calm and wise." But the last line -- "I don't what I'm going to do without her help" ...
CARO: Yes. Well, now she's writing her own book.
LAMB: What's that on?
CARO: It's a guide, a travel history of France through the eyes of a historian, so each time you go to a castle or a chateau, you're not just looking at a building, you know all the things that happened there in history. Wonderful story.
LAMB: You write about her, let's see if I can find it, in pursuing, "she crisscrossed the United States, spending weeks, for example, going through papers of former Senator Richard Russell"?
CARO: Yeah.
LAMB: In a library in Athens, Georgia, those of Willis Robertson, who is the father of Pat Robertson, in a library in Williamsburg, Virginia, and those of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman in Hyde Park and Independence, Missouri. Why all those libraries, and what did you find there that you hadn't already?
CARO: Oh, well you can never do just a work of history, just from the one source. Now, she was in the Richard Russell Library because I'm going in great detail into Johnson as Majority Leader. Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia was the great southern patriarch and leader, you know, of the southerners in the Senate, and I wanted to know all about his relations with Lyndon Johnson. So Ina went down to the Russell Library and the Truman Library, same thing. You know, we've gone through the papers of many Senators of that period. Earl Clements' papers, for example, are in Lexington, Kentucky. Tom Clark's papers are out in the Truman Library, Roosevelt Library. We've spent, between the two of us, really endless months in different libraries. It's not just the Johnson Library, that you do the work.
LAMB: Do you think that Lyndon Johnson would be as anxious as he was to have a library if he knew that a lot of the material that is in that library would end up in a book like this? What do you think he would react, what would be is reaction to this book?
CARO: Lyndon Johnson, as we saw as President, did not take kindly to criticism. However, when he reads all four books -- I think that when he sees the life as a whole, he is likely to feel that I gave him -- both in the bright sense as well as the dark sense -- his place in history. I wrote in the introduction to this book that it was Abraham Lincoln who struck the chains from black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who took them by the hand, led them into the voting booth, drew democracy's curtain behind them and made them once and for all and forever a part of American political life. That's coming, it's not in this volume, but it's coming.
LAMB: By the way, do you, after going through all this, do you think the ends justify the means?
CARO: I can't answer that question like that, it's too complicated. What I will say is that this volume, "Means of Ascent" raises the great question of the connection between means and ends, because many of the ends of Lyndon Johnson's life were noble. Heroic advances. I mean, we wouldn't have a lot of the civil rights legislation we have today if Lyndon Johnson hadn't pushed it through. But he wouldn't have been in position to. However, that's not to say his Presidency was a triumphant presidency, because it divided the country, it caused the credibility gap. It had a lot of dark sides. But, whatever the ends are, good and bad, they wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for the means by which he got to a position to have those ends, which are in this volume.
LAMB: "A bottomless capacity for deceit, deception."
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: Was he a dishonest man, knowingly?
CARO: Well, I don't know what knowingly means.
LAMB: I mean, do you think he did these things and he knew that he was doing?
CARO: I think he was a man who had to win. I see in this, I think we all see, in this volume, in this election, a man who had to win. He had kidney stones during this campaign. It was his last chance. Kidney stones are a particularly agonizing pain, and this was a terrible attack, and his fever was 105 degrees, and the doctors told him, you know, "You must get to a hospital, you're risking the loss of the kidney function." In fact, it goes on, "You're risking the loss of your life." He wouldn't stop campaigning. He was laying, he was driving back and forth across Texas, lying in the back of the car between stops, gagging and retching, perspiration pouring off him, but every time they pulled into a town, he'd get on a clean shirt, big smile, and he'd bound out. He'd shake every hand and give the speech. When you use the word knowingly or unknowingly, I almost think it's deeper than that with Lyndon Johnson. He simply had to win.
LAMB: Before you leave the kidney stone story, tell the little bit on the train.
CARO: Well the little bit on the train was told to me by Warren Woodward, who was a young aide of Lyndon Johnson. He's coming back from this trip to the panhandle. He has to come back to Dallas because Secretary of the Air Force Stewart Symmington is flying to Dallas to let Johnson announce with him, appear at the press conference, and announce with him that the Air Force base is going to stay open.

On the train coming back, you see, with kidney stones and 105 degree fever, you have alternately terrible chills and terrible fever, so Johnson was in a pullman berth, Woodward was across the aisle. Johnson would really scream, "Woody, Woody, I'm burning up, I'm burning up, get open the window." So Woodward would lean across and with the porter they tugged the ends of the window, get the window open. Five minutes later Johnson would say, "I'm freezing, I'm freezing" and Woodward and the porter would get all the blankets and pile them on him. Then he would be freezing, heat again, they raised the window, and finally Johnson was so cold he said, "Woody, get into bed with me, hold me," you know, for body warmth. And Woodward did and Johnson was just shaking. He was so racked with fever and chills.

The fantastic thing about this was that the next day, now Woodward is a young man, he doesn't know what to do, Symmington is coming up to Johnson's hotel room. Woodward just can't get Johnson to stop. He feels Johnson may die, so Johnson's in the bedroom resting, when Woodward knocks at the door, when Symmington knocks at the door, Woodward goes and whispers to him how sick Johnson is. Symmington would never have known if Woodward hadn't told him. The door to the bedroom opens, there's Lyndon Johnson, a big smile, ready to talk about the Air Force base, because he didn't want anything to interfere with the campaign. I call that chapter, "Will". I think it's a triumph of the will -- knowingly and unknowingly, I don't think even goes deep enough with Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: In the Lady Bird chapter, you talk about his mistress.
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: Did she know about his mistress?
CARO: I don't know.
LAMB: Did you ask her about his mistress?
CARO: No, I didn't.
LAMB: Why not?
CARO: I couldn't bear to.
LAMB: Why?
CARO: Well, I think I just ... as a matter of fact ...
LAMB: Was that the only question you couldn't ask her?
CARO: Yes.
LAMB: How did you find out and how did you verify the fact that he did have a mistress?
CARO: Oh, well, actually her sister and her best friend approached me, and said, "We've read "The Power Broker", you seem to find out everything about your subjects and we know you're gonna find out about Alice, and we don't want Alice portrayed as some bimbo, she was a quite unusual woman and she was very important in Lyndon Johnson's life." And she was. And I learned about her from the sister, from the best friend, and from, I think, four or five other sources who are named in the book, and of course, in the second volume, we even quote a letter.

During the war when he was out on the coast, she visits him, and later, you know, writes jokingly to a friend who gave me the letter, years later when he's President, says jokingly, "Let's collaborate on a biography on Lyndon, I can write the chapter on his war service in Hollywood, where the Hollywood photographers were trying to teach him which is the best side of his face." So, there's no lack of -- every, I mean, it was, it was not a short affair. It was very important in his life. I felt you had to write about it for two reasons. Number one, she was very important in his life. When he came to Washington, he was a young, awkward, gawky Congressman. He didn't know how to dress. Here he had long arms, the wrists stuck out of his shirt, and she taught him how to dress. She had a very elegant salon. She had a wonderful estate in the Virginia hunt country, and she also was very astute politically. And there was a time in Johnson's early career where he had a problem with his chief financial backer, Herman Brown, of Brown and Ruth and they, Brown was a man nobody crossed, and Johnson and him were on a collision course, and it was Alice Glass who devised the compromise. Give Herman the dam and let Lyndon have the land, which really saved his career in that sense.
LAMB: Did you write, I can't remember the details, that Lady Bird Johnson and former President Johnson would spend time at his mistress' home?
CARO: Yes, they went down to, well it was a great estate in Virginia, and they would both go down there, and on other occasions he would go down and leave Lady Bird at home.
LAMB: So you don't know whether or not she knew or not?
CARO: No, I do not.
LAMB: This is really off the subject, but Warren G. Harding, FDR, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, I must be leaving some, General Eisenhower, all rumored, in some there was evidence, had mistresses -- what is it about Presidents and mistresses?
CARO: Or men. I don't know. But in Johnson's life, Alice Glass played a role, you see. His entire character emerged in some ways, in his dealings with Alice Glass, and when he goes to the Pacific, he can't decide whether to file for the Senate or to file for Congress -- and it's her opinion he wants.
LAMB: For years, I have heard a rumor around this town, and I don't think it's in the book here, but I want to ask you about it -- whether or not you ever found it. In communication circles, they always used to say that there was one television station in Austin, Texas for a long time, KTBC -- I know you write about the radio station --that Lyndon Johnson used to call FCC commissioners and say, "If you keep that one station there and not allow any others in, I'll put you back on the commission." Did you ever find any evidence that he used the commission and the appointment process, when he was President, to keep control and the value in his television station?
CARO: Well, I'm not up to that yet, and, so I can't answer it.
LAMB: When you say you're not up to that, would that be something that you'll write in another volume?
CARO: Yes. I'm happy to talk about anything I've written, but not about stuff that I haven't written.
LAMB: When ...
CARO: And I haven't finished my research on the Presidency.
LAMB: When is your next volume due out?
CARO: I'm writing it now. I've finished a lot of the research on it, and I hope that this won't take so long. I'm really hoping that it will be out in two or three years.
LAMB: Does this get any harder for you, the more you do this, or is, is it easier?
CARO: Well, it's sort of fascinating, to be honest with you, because now the focus shifts from Texas. I loved learning about Texas, I miss Texas, I miss it already, but Washington is fascinating too. During this last, well before I finished the last stage of writing, I used to sit in the Senate gallery all day or walk around the cloakrooms and the hideaways, just trying to get a sense of the Senate, you know. And I felt like they're staging this show -- the Senate is a show that they're staging for me. I love it, to be honest.
LAMB: Have you noticed people treating you differently, the more they read you books, the more visible you become?
CARO: Well, yes. And, you're asking, do people recognize you on the street -- yes. It doesn't happen to be something that I'm really in love with.
LAMB: Do you find people who don't agree with you becoming, I really don't know how to put this question, do you find yourself being confronted from time to time by people who don't like what you're writing?
CARO: Well, you know, that goes through stages. When the first volume came out and when "The Power Broker" came out, there's this wave of controversy, at the beginning, but with my first two books, I learned that after a very short time, it all fades away and blurs in you mind. You can't remember the reviews, bad or good. You can't remember whether your publisher took enough ads or not, you know. The only thing that's left is the book, and it seemed to me that in both cases, my first two books, once people settled down to read what I really wrote, that faded away and they just become accepted. So right now we're in the first week after publication or whatever, we're a month after publication, and I hope this will be accepted in the spirit that I wrote it.
LAMB: And in this next volume, you're not going to have the help of your wife? Is that going to change that nature? Are you going have the same editor?
CARO: Yes, I hope to always have the same editor, but..
LAMB: Robert Gotlieb?
CARO: Robert Gotlieb, who is the editor, he went from Knopf to the New Yorker, but he edited this book just like he did the others, and I hope to have the same publishing house. And I hope that if Ina finishes her book, that she will find time to help me on the next one too, because, as I wrote in the end of this book, I don't know what I'll do without her.
LAMB: The name of the book is "The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent", written by Robert A. Caro, our guest for the last hour. Thank you for joining us.
CARO: Thank you.
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