BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Dallek, author of "Lone Star Rising", when did you first get interested in Lyndon Johnson?
ROBERT DALLEK: Gosh. I decided to write this book back in 1980 and I didn't get to work on it until 1983 because I was doing some other writing. But it's taken me about seven-and-a-half years to produce this first volume, and I suspect it's going to be about another six years before I get the second one done because there's such a mass of material to deal with. I say to friends, "I feel as if I've climbed Mt. McKinley and now I have to climb Mt. Everest."
LAMB: What was it about this man that got you interested?
DALLEK: A number of things. Johnson, I feel, in some ways has been an unloved orphan, a kind of neglected presidential figure. There's such a vast body of literature on Truman, on Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon. Far more has been done on Richard Nixon than Lyndon Johnson. I puzzled over this. Why haven't historians been thinking of writing more about Johnson? There are a lot of reasons, I think, for that. But what caught my attention was the fact that no scholar was doing a major historical research study of the man's life. T. Harry Williams, the famous biographer of Huey Long, set out to do a big biography, and Williams passed away, I think, in the summer of 1980. I decided that I would jump in and be the professional historian and try to do a big in-depth research study. As it turns out, I'm the only one in the field. I don't mean I'm the only biographer, but I mean I'm the only scholar, the only historian who has really done a big in-depth research account.
LAMB: What quick words would you use to define Lyndon Johnson?
DALLEK: He was a magnificent scoundrel, a self-serving altruist, a man of high ideals and no principles, a chameleon on plaid. He was a man of many contradictions, a man with vision who's self-serving.
LAMB: When you see this picture of FDR and Lyndon Johnson back years ago, what comes to mind?
DALLEK: That picture was done in 1937 after Johnson had won his first congressional race. What comes to mind is the two great titans of politics of the 20th century in American history, Johnson the young man. There's a wonderful story actually about that. Roosevelt met Johnson in Texas in May of '37. He goes back to Washington and talks to Tommy Corcoran, one of his principal aides, and he tells Corcoran about this young new congressman he's met. He says he really enjoyed meeting him. "If he hadn't gone to Harvard," Roosevelt said, "that's the kind of young politician I would have been." He predicted that this was the kind of man who was going to become president of the United States in future generations -- someone from the south or the west. You see Roosevelt anticipating the rise of the Sunbelt, the rise of the Southwest to power in American history and Johnson as a representative figure from that region who could hold power.
LAMB: This is another picture that you have in the book and Corcoran is right there. We hear his name so often in American politics. Who was he?
DALLEK: Well, Tommy Corcoran was a brilliant attorney who became sort of a White House fixer for Franklin Roosevelt, worked on major legislation in the Congress and all sorts of contacts he worked on for Roosevelt in the Congress and outside the Congress. Johnson got close to him because in part he knew that Corcoran was at the center of power. Johnson cultivated him. He cultivated people at the White House when he became a congressman, and Corcoran was important. Their careers run together through the 1930s and '40s and '50s. Corcoran was there when Johnson has that stolen election in1948 -- arguments and disputes about it. Corcoran, I think, behind the scenes lobbies Associate Justice Hugo Black to assure that Johnson doesn't get bounced off the ballot in Texas. Corcoran is there in 1946 stealing records from the War Department to get something on Johnson's 1946 opponent. He's counseling Johnson about the vice presidency in 1960 at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. He runs through Johnson's career as one of those behind-the-scenes fixers, and Johnson was part of this whole kind of politics that operated so powerfully in Texas and in Washington during the '30s and '40s and 50s.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
DALLEK: I grew up in New York in Brooklyn. Actually went to college at the University of Illinois, and then I did my graduate studies at Columbia and stayed at Columbia for a few years before I went off to California. Now I've been teaching at UCLA for 25 years.
LAMB: What was your basic major?
DALLEK: I was always so keenly interested in history and politics, and I majored in history as an undergraduate. I did my master's and Ph.D. -- actually my master's in European history and German history and then moved on to American history. My mentor was a man named Richard Hofstadter, who, of course, was, I think, one of this century's great historians. I've done a lot of work on politics and foreign policy and written a number of books. Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan has been the subject of a book I did. I've been keenly interested in presidents. Johnson, in a sense, pulls together a number of interests that I had in foreign affairs and politics and the South and the transformation of American life in the 20th century.
LAMB: Do you consider yourself to be political?
DALLEK: Yes, I'm political. But I try in some respects -- or most respects, I should say -- to keep that as separate from this sort of work as possible. What I pride myself on is the idea that I took on this subject and Johnson is such a controversial figure and there's so much animus, which I think still exists toward him. Not to sidetrack from your question, but I think it's well to remark that in November 1988, Lou Harris did a poll and asked a cross-section of Americans to evaluate the last nine presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan in 11 different categories. Who was the greatest in foreign affairs, in domestic affairs, who will go down as the best of these presidents in history, who was the greatest moral leader? Johnson came in last, tied for last or near the bottom in every single category. When they asked who was the greatest moral leader, John Kennedy came in first. Johnson came in dead last with 1 percent of the vote. Even Nixon beat him out, getting 2 percent. So Johnson's reputation has been so, so poor, and there's been such a kind of animus toward him.
I think it has a lot to do with the memories of Vietnam, the anger over the defeat in that war, Johnson's manipulation of the Congress, of the public, a kind of stealth that people feel he practiced. But it also has to do with the fact that currently big government is in bad odor. Ronald Reagan told us in the '80s that government is not the solution; government is the problem. People identified Lyndon Johnson with big government. They also see him as the consummate politician, which he was. Politicians and politics today are in bad odor. What I found so striking was the George Bush went to Ann Arbor in May of 1991 and gives the commencement address, and he attacks Lyndon Johnson on the Great Society. This is the only Democrat left for the Republicans to attack, so it seems. So Johnson still looms large in our minds. I think he's now maybe back in focus again because people -- at least old-fashioned Democrats -- are drawn perhaps to his agenda, to the kind of liberal programs that he was so powerfully committed to. Johnson is the last great Democratic leader to have made great advances on these liberal social justice programs.
LAMB: Did you vote for him? If he were here today, could you vote for him again?
DALLEK: Yes, I certainly did vote for him in 1964 against Barry Goldwater. Would I vote for him again? Well, you know, that's hard to say. Knowing everything I know about him now, I'm not sure I'd be so comfortable doing that. Of course, in '64 that was pre-Vietnam and before a lot of the criticism of him existed. See, that's what I mean about how you try and take things in their historical context and try to detach yourself from your current political views. I took this man, the subject, looked at Johnson, did research in massive numbers of manuscript collections, 350 oral histories, numerous interviews, and I tried to recreate his life as accurately as I could, not pulling punches. I love to quote that German phrase, "Geshichte wie es eigen nicht gewehsen," history as it actually happened. Of course, history is always reductionist, and you never fully recreate it. But I've tried to strike a balance and tell the story in as honest a way as I could.
LAMB: Talk about oral histories. When you go to your notes in the book, you find a lot of oral histories -- as where you got the material. Did you listen to all 350 of those?
DALLEK: The great bulk of them are transcribed, and that's the work of the Senate Historical Office, of the Lyndon Johnson Library of North Texas State University. Wherever these oral histories are lodged, for the most part they transcribe them. But there were some oral histories down in Johnson City, where Johnson grew up as a boy, that the National Park Service had made some. Those weren't transcribed, and so I just copied them onto tape and then listened to them in my study at home and found what material I wanted to use from them. It's a daunting task to transcribe those massive numbers of oral histories. I couldn't have done it.
LAMB: What do you do when you hear somebody say something in an oral history that is their opinion? How do you deal with that as a scholar?
DALLEK: Well, what you have to do -- your point is very well taken -- you have to separate that out from what they remember as fact. But even what they tell you as fact, you have to think very carefully about that. After all, people are giving you memories from 30, 40, 50 years ago. How accurate can this be? See, that's why my conviction is that the historian's objective is to go to the archives, go to the manuscripts first and foremost. Now, it's not perfect. There are gaps in the record, there are things that are sometimes conscientiously kept out, there are materials that are lost. But the starting point for the research historian, I feel, is the manuscript record, the archival record. You get that contemporary record, you read it, you try and piece it together as carefully as you can. You read contemporary diaries. There are mistakes, errors, some unreliable material in them. But then you go to the oral histories and you compare the oral histories, the memories of people, to the actual contemporary record as closely as you can get to it. Then you make your judgments as to what in fact happened.
What's interesting about this kind of work, I find, is that however big a book I've produced, however many books other historians and biographers produce in the next whatever number of years, 30 or 40 or 50 years from now, somebody else may be sitting in this studio talking to some other host about a new biography of Lyndon Johnson they've just done and what they've uncovered. The record is so vast, the documents are so abundant that down the road, 50 or 100 years from now, people are going to be finding new things. They'll see Johnson in a different light. They'll see him in a somewhat different way than we now see him. I like to think that, well, maybe this will be a definitive two-volume life of Johnson for this generation, but 30, 40 years from now, other people -- and justifiably so -- will need to work on Johnson. He's an important figure. He made a difference.
LAMB: What oral history or histories surprised you the most as you went through the 350?
DALLEK: Surprised me the most? Let's say the ones that I found richest were George Reedy, for example. Very, very informative. Very rich. Massive. Harry McPherson, one of Johnson's principal White House aides. Very interesting and thoughtful oral histories. There were many smaller ones, briefer ones, that I found useful, too. Hubert Humphrey, interesting oral history. What's also strongly in my memory is an interview I did with Clark Clifford, a couple of interviews I did with Gov. John Connally. I found those rich. You know, the anecdotes that people tell you, the characterization of the man which they provide is quite interesting.
LAMB: If I remember right, you interviewed John Connally in 1988 in a hotel room in Los Angeles?
DALLEK: No. I interviewed Connally first off in Houston, Texas, and then I did a second interview with him in Bakersfield, California, of all places.
LAMB: I had the right state where you live now. First of all, how long did he give you in each case?
DALLEK: A couple of hours in each case.
LAMB: Do you go in with a list of questions and you try to keep it to a minimum?
DALLEK: I go in with topics that I want to cover. Not so much questions because if you get too rigid about the questions, then I think it loses the spontaneity, and you want to have as much spontaneity as possible. So I had a list of topics I wanted to talk to him about -- the 1941 election, the 1948 election about the controversy over the Supreme Court's decision by Justice Hugo Black, about the 1960 presidential campaign, Johnson as Senate majority leader. You don't have to prod people like John Connally to talk. He's quite a good talker and gives you a rich and interesting view of Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: I've got a Newsweek issue here from July 22, and it's written by Malcolm Jones Jr. I just want to ask you about one line in here. This a two-page spread you got.
DALLEK: Yes. Very nice.
LAMB: "Learning to Like Lyndon." "But if Johnson's reputation is to be truly rehabilitated, Dallek will deserve most of the credit." What did you think of that line?
DALLEK: I think what it speaks to is the fact that I was talking about before, that Johnson's reputation has been so low since he left the presidency, since he left the White House, his reputation has gone into a kind of free fall. Here I've produced people who are almost consistently saying -- not everyone, but almost all the reviewers are saying -- that I've produced a balanced, even-handed, level-headed account of this man. So, in a sense it's bound to push his reputation upward or improve the image of him. I think that's what he means, since my work is more of a balance. Seeing both the good and the bad, it's going to put him in a better light than he's been seen in the past.
LAMB: While we're at it, let me ask you about this photograph. This is from Newsweek. I know this wasn't in your book. Do you have any idea what that is?
DALLEK: I think it was sometime during the 1960 campaign, but I'm really not sure myself.
LAMB: I know your book ends in 1960, but what was the relationship between those two men?
DALLEK: Initially, of course, Johnson viewed Kennedy as a pretty lightweight senator, and he was startled that Kennedy was going to be the nominee in 1960. He kept saying, "How could they give him the nomination? He needs some gray in his hair. He's just a kid." They used to refer to him as the "boy." He would go around complaining, "Jack Kennedy was out there kissing babies while I was getting the laws passed." So he was always frustrated by the fact that Kennedy got the nomination, and he was relegated to second place on the ticket. Of course, the relationship changed once Kennedy became the nominee and Johnson became his running mate. But Jack Kennedy, I think, was sensitive to Lyndon Johnson's situation. He knew it was a very difficult transition for Johnson to make because he knew that Johnson was such a powerful, dominating, overbearing character.
A wonderful anecdote about the election of 1960. The evening of the election, Johnson called up Kennedy and he said, "Jack, I see that I'm winning Texas, you're losing Ohio, and we're doing all right together in Pennsylvania." It was the residual anger and feeling that he had that, "Gosh, I deserved to be the nominee at the front of the ticket and Jack Kennedy should have been playing second fiddle." Kennedy, though, was sensitive to him, I think, during the vice presidency. Not true of Bobby Kennedy because he and Lyndon had quite a fierce struggle going, I think, back to at least 1955, '56. The origins of that Bobby-Lyndon animus, I think, relates to the fact that in the fall of '55 -- and here comes that man Corcoran again -- Joe Kennedy sent Corcoran to Texas to ask Johnson if he would consider running for president and if he would take Jack as his running mate. If he would, Joe Kennedy promised to put up the $10 million to $12 million or get the $10 million to $12 million that it would take to run a presidential campaign. Well, what the Kennedy's were after was, of course, to get Jack on the ticket as a prelude to running in 1960. The reason they want Johnson to run is because they know that Stevenson, if he gets the nomination again, will be really beaten very badly by Eisenhower. They anticipate that Johnson will make a much better run for the presidency than Stevenson would have and this would undercut the charge against Jack Kennedy that his Catholicism undermined the ticket in 1956.
Now, Johnson understands all this and he knows that the Kennedys want to use him as a stalking horse and so he says, no, he's not running for president. He made noises about it at the Democratic convention that year, but he was really looking to 1960 also. Well, when Bobby Kennedy heard that Johnson turned his father's offer down, Corcoran describes in a manuscript memoir how Bobby Kennedy went into a rage. He was infuriated that Johnson should turn down his father's generous offer. That's the beginning of their anger. But then in '59, Bobby Kennedy goes to see Johnson at his ranch and says, "Are you running for president?" Johnson said, "Oh, no," and lied to Bobby because he was running. Johnson insisted they go out deer hunting and Johnson gave him a big shotgun. Bobby Kennedy fired it off and the kickback hit him in the forehead and knocked him to the ground and cut his forehead open, and Johnson reached down with his hand, pulled him up and said, "Son, you've got to learn to handle a gun like a man." So I think there was not very good blood between them from very early on in the '50s and '60s.
LAMB: Your story about Tommy Corcoran something that you found in that manuscript?
DALLEK: Yes. The Corcoran papers are over here in the Library of Congress, and there's a fascinating manuscript memoir. But, again, you can't trust that alone. I found confirming evidence in other places. For example, there's a letter in the Johnson papers from Johnson to Joe Kennedy talking about this 1955 episode. There's a later letter in 1963 from Corcoran to Johnson reminding Johnson of this episode in 1955. Also I asked Arthur Schlesinger about all this and Schlesinger inquired of Steve Smith as to the accuracy of this 1955 episode and Steve Smith confirmed that it happened.
LAMB: What are your favorite revelations in here? What are the things in here, if you had to list three or four, that you found and you are most proud of?
DALLEK: I think, first of all, this story about the irony that the Kennedys were trying to get Johnson to run for president in 1956 with Jack as his running mate, and, of course, in '60 we end up with the exact reverse ticket. The second thing has to do with Johnson's nomination as vice president. Johnson forever after 1960 put out that he didn't want to be vice president. He had to be almost dragged, kicking and screaming, into the nomination. He was very reluctant to take the office. That's not true. What I found is that Johnson was avid to get the vice presidential nomination in 1960. The reason he was so drawn to it is because he knew he was finished as an effective majority leader. A number of liberals had been elected to the Senate in '58, and that made Johnson's life difficult as majority leader. But he also knew that if a Democrat won in 1960, it was going to make it awfully hard for him to be more than an office boy, so to speak, or a messenger boy for the president.
So Johnson decides, once he realizes that he can't get the nomination for president, that he will go for the vice presidency. Sam Rayburn carries the message to Tip O'Neill and O'Neill carries it to Jack Kennedy and Kennedy talks to Rayburn and 'round and 'round it goes and Johnson ends up as the nominee. Johnson's hope was that he could convert the office into something it had never been before. Indeed, this is what's striking about Lyndon Johnson. Every major office he had held in his career, he converted into something it had never been before. He became head of the Texas National Youth Administration in 1935 and very quickly he became the best state director of any of the National Youth Administration in the United States and was recognized as such by the Roosevelt administration. Then he became a congressman, was an extraordinarily effective and successful congressman, became a senator and became the greatest majority leader in the country's history. That office hadn't been a terribly important office before Lyndon Johnson took it over. So he thought he could take the vice presidency and turn it into something that it had never been before. He turned out to be wrong on that count, but it was the first time in his career that he made that error in judgment.
LAMB: Brooklyn to Los Angeles?
LAMB: UCLA. What's UCLA like for you?
DALLEK: It's a big, major state university that's become really a great university. Wonderful facilities, fine students, research opportunities. They support our research. Very sympathetic to having scholars who are doing the kind of work that I'm producing. So I find it a very congenial university atmosphere in that regard.
LAMB: How much teaching have you done in the last seven-and-a-half years?
DALLEK: I do a lot of teaching. I'm sort of a wheel horse in that regard. I like teaching. I enjoy it. It's great fun for me. I teach usually five classes a year -- two big lecture courses and three seminars. I teach graduates and undergraduates. I still teach the survey course in U.S. history. I like to keep my hand in that and get them early on and draw them into the historical profession, if possible, or at least get them interested in history, in thinking about politics and the American past.
LAMB: Is there any way to describe how you went about this project -- organizing it, where you wrote it, what the atmosphere was for you, how you did it all and taught at the same time?
DALLEK: Someone once wrote about why you pick the subject you choose and do you have any identification with the subject. I would say there's some truth to that. Like Lyndon Johnson, I'm something of a workaholic. So I teach and I write and I work generally seven days a week. My strategy for working on this book was to go to Texas, spend a week, two weeks, 10 days, whatever it might be, make Xerox copies of the massive materials that sit in that Johnson Library, take it back to Los Angeles and begin to absorb it and organize it. I can't do all the research and then start writing. What I do is I do the research on a piece of the book and then I sit down and I write and I see what the holes in my research are. Go back, maybe, to those archives, call them up, ask them about additional documents. Also, you can't just do your work in the Johnson Library. You have to use materials in the Roosevelt Library, the Truman Library, the Eisenhower Library. Even the Herbert Hoover Library had materials on Johnson. What's so amazing with this man is how long and rich his career was, and there's hardly a collection of political documents in this country that doesn't have something about Lyndon Johnson in it -- Hubert Humphrey's papers, Richard Russell's, Henry Jackson in the State of Washington, Gale McGee in Wyoming. I mean, just go one to the other and you'll find Lyndon Johnson letters and materials. It's all there.
LAMB: On the outside of this book it says Oxford and on the inside it says $30. Why isn't it $29.95, and who is Oxford?
DALLEK: Well, that, of course, is the Oxford University Press, and why they choose to make the extra nickel beats the hell out of me, but I guess they need the money.
LAMB: Whose idea was this, yours or theirs?
DALLEK: My idea. I've always written books out of my own passion and interest. I have a wonderful editor at the Oxford University Press, a man named Sheldon Meyer, who has been very supportive of me. This is the third book I have written with him. He's a superb editor. They do a wonderful job on a book. They keep it in print and they support it for years to come. So they're just wonderful. They're not simply an academic press, of course. They're a trade publisher. After all, they had this Jim McPherson book a few years back, which was a great best seller. So far, this book is just doing wonderfully well and seems to be selling a good number of copies.
LAMB: You may not have this figure, but is there any way to document how much it cost you outside of your time to do all this work over the seven-and-a-half years -- travel, Xeroxing, research help?
DALLEK: I couldn't estimate. I don't know. Happily I had some help. The academic senate at UCLA is very generous with me. But still, they can't afford to give me all that much, maybe $2,000, $2,200 a year. You burn through an awful lot of money when you go traveling the way I do -- not because I stay in posh hotels and hire limousines to drive me around, but because you make Xerox copies at the presidential libraries. It's 30 cents a page. It was. I think they're reducing it now to 25. But think of it. You make Xerox copies of 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 pages, and you're just using up the money that they provide for you to do research. Then, of course, there's the travel cost. You've got to stay somewhere and eat your meals. The Press did help me by advancing me a certain amount of money. That was very helpful.
LAMB: I've got another review and this is from Book World in the Washington Post by John Judas, who wrote a biography of William Buckley, but is a liberal. At least this is what he says he is. He gets into the difference between you and Robert Caro. He says, "Caro's Johnson is a man whose principles are entirely a function of his ambition. Dallek's Johnson is a New Deal liberal, who in 1936 becomes a station director of the National Youth Administration and then runs for Congress on a Franklin D. and Lyndon B. ticket." So far is he right?
DALLEK: Yes. I think so.
LAMB: "Caro charges that Johnson saw the NYA job merely as a stepping stone. Was his ambition satisfied even for a moment?" Caro asks, while Dallek says of Johnson's decision to leave NYA, "Throughout his life, nothing in politics appealed more to him than marrying his ambition to help for the poor."
DALLEK: Yes. I think that's an accurate representation of what I argue in the book without question.
LAMB: Did the people you talked to that worked for Lyndon Johnson know of you in advance? Did they know that you were -- and this may not be fair -- favorable to this man's work?
DALLEK: What I pride myself on is the fact that I never said to them, "I'm writing a pro-Johnson biography and you should take me in, so to speak, to your confidence because Robert Caro has been critical of Johnson and I'm going to be friendly to Johnson." Never was there any approach of that kind. My approach to them always was, "I'm a scholar, and I'm going to do something that I consider fair. You may not necessarily consider it fair down the road because I'm not going to whitewash the man." And I haven't. Indeed, I would say the most gratifying line in any review that I've seen of the book was in the New York Times review by Nicholas Lemann, in which he said, "Dallek is a seeker after truth." In essence, he's saying I don't pull any punches.
I told a lot of unpleasant things about Johnson in this book, but I also see him as a man of great vision and thoughtfulness about what needed to be done to change the South, to improve the condition of the South, to bring the South into the mainstream of American economic and political life. What Johnson wanted to do from very early on in his career -- see this was the impulse that came out of the New Deal. In 1938 there was a famous report issued by the New Deal saying that the South was the country's number one economic problem and that changes had to be made. Johnson saw this. He jumped onto this report and tried to use it as a springboard to help the South. The objective was to take these New Deal programs, to take the federal government largess -- the CCC and the NYA, the PWA, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority -- and build a new infrastructure in the South, change the condition of the tenant farmers, improve the standard of living of laborers and in that way, help the South's economy and bring it into the mainstream of the country's life.
But there was something else Johnson understood early on, which was that the South couldn't do this fully until it ended racial segregation. He understood that segregation in the South not only segregated the races, but segregated the South from the rest of the nation. So from early in his career, he was thinking about this. Now, this is not to say that Lyndon Johnson got on a soapbox in 1937 or '38 running for Congress and began shouting in Texas, "Well let's have a civil rights bill that will overcome segregation."
He was too much the politician to ever do that. What he does is behind the scenes. For example, when he's head of the National Youth Administration, he would occasionally spend the night at a black college. He wanted to see how the programs were working and how they were helping the young black students. If this were known in this era of strict segregation, it would have been severe injury of his chances for running for a congressional office. But it does it out of a kind of compassion, and he's not doing it because New Dealers are so committed to black rights at this time. They're not. The Roosevelt administration was not making great advances at all on the civil rights front.
So Johnson does it out of a genuine compassion, I think, for the suffering of these people. He gets to Congress. One New Deal farm administrator says, "Johnson began to raise unshirted hell about the fact that black farmers were getting a smaller share of the pie than the white farmers." In '38 there's the first federal housing act passed, and Johnson's one of the three congressmen that takes advantage of this. He gets public housing for Austin, Texas, and he wants to have public housing built not only for poor whites, but for blacks and Hispanics. He tells the city fathers, "This is what you've got to do. Let's go for this, and we'll improve the well-being of the poorest people in our city." So there is a genuine compassion on this man's part. You asked me before about what revelations of the book I'm most proud of.
One of them I didn't mention and I'll mention now is the fact that Johnson was rescuing Jews from the Nazis in 1938, '39. I don't mean hundreds of people or thousands, but dozens. It really was a startling fact for me, too, to find this out. Again, I don't think this was strictly political on his part or tied all that much to his ambition. There were only 400 Jewish constituents in his 10th Congressional District, a district with some 400,000 people. So that sort of amazed me. But there was something in this man that drew him to the suffering of less advantaged people.
I think one aspect of it was the poverty with which he grew up -- the sense that he had been poor and never forgot where he came from and he was going to try to help to take care of the poor folks, disadvantaged people once he became a powerful congressman and senator. But there was another thing, I think, that worked here in Johnson's psychology. He was a man who lived, I think, with a terrible sense of emptiness. There was something deep in his psyche, which made him feel empty or unloved or unwanted, and he had to fill himself up. This was a man who had to fill himself with work, with food, with drink, with talk, with womanizing. He had to be the best. He had to dominate. He had to control. He had to be the most powerful. Well, I think he identified with disadvantaged people -- people who he saw as also lacking things, needing things. He was a very needy man in a way. He needed to have attention. He needed to be the constant center, the focus of everyone's attention.
If you met Lyndon Johnson, you never forgot him. He did some of the most outrageous things. I don't know if I can even relate them here on cable television because he was terribly vulgar and crude. There was partly purpose to this, though. He was implanting himself in your memory. You had to remember Lyndon Johnson. He identifies with disadvantaged people who are needy the way, in a sense, he was needy, and he works very hard throughout his career to serve them. I don't want to paint a picture of a saint. Believe me, this man was intensely ambitious, but it's just the point you quoted: "He loved to marry his ambition to his ideals."
LAMB: Page 5, you go right for the old Robert Caro confrontation. You start out by saying, "The handful of biographies appearing on Johnson since he left the White House has sent his already tarnished reputation into a free fall. I think here of particularly Ronnie Duggers The Politician, 1982; Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, '82 and '90," and then Richard Goodwin. But you go also into Robert Caro's book. I just want to ask you whether that confrontation that the press keeps bringing up between what you say and what he says has been good for people's interest in the subject of Lyndon Johnson.
DALLEK: I think it has. I think it's created a great deal of interest in my book. One man who interviewed me, a journalist for US News and World Report, said, "You know, the press loves two things -- conflict and catastrophe. And your book is conflict -- conflict with Caro and conflict over the historical picture over Lyndon Johnson." So I think it has created interest, and my feeling is that's all to the good because no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom about any historical subject. I would argue vigorously for the interpretation I put forward about Johnson compared to Mr. Caro's interpretation, but the thing I would stress is that I did not write this book against Caro. I didn't take up the subject and say, "Ah, well, here's this prominent journalist writing about Johnson. I'm going to produce a book because I want to compete with him." I was fascinated by Lyndon Johnson, and it turns out that the portrait I paint is vastly different from Mr. Caro's and people have been acknowledging that in the reviews.
LAMB: Have you ever met him?
LAMB: Have you ever confronted him -- confront may be too strong a word -- but ever been on a panel with him and talked about Lyndon Johnson?
DALLEK: No. The one meeting we had in the Johnson Library was quite amiable and genial. I went up to him and introduced myself, and he initially said, "Who are you?" I told him. He knew who I was as was revealed by the fact that he subsequently said that he knew my Roosevelt book and had sat on some prize committee which evaluated it and he thought well of it. Then we spoke for about an hour outside the reading room of the Johnson Library about our mutual interests, our work. We in essence were sizing each other up as to where we were in our projects. That was it. I saw him once again there in the library, and we didn't speak and had no communication. But we've never had a face-to-face confrontation or debate or argument about the nature of our respective works.
LAMB: Let me ask you because this comes up on this program from time to time -- he's a journalist who wrote a book about Lyndon Johnson and you're a professor and a historian who wrote a book. What's the difference in the approach?
DALLEK: I think the most significant difference is that he comes out of a background as an investigative journalist, and his book rests much more on interviews than mine does. Mine rests more on archival manuscript collections. I see, obviously -- belaboring the obvious perhaps -- I see this as a superior method of reconstructing the past. Now, he does get some wonderful material as a consequence of these interviews, so I think there's strengths to both our work. He's a wonderful writer. I really don't think I could match him as a dramatist, although I'm pleased to note that several reviewers have said that this book is going to move you right along and you'll find it quite engaging to read. So I pride myself on being at least a very good writer, but not quite the dramatist he is. So I think he has advantages there as a journalist who has been writing for a mass audience for a long time. But the basic difference, I think, is in the research approach to the material. Now, the fact that we have very different interpretations may speak volumes about differences in our personalities. I don't know. I'm not sure. That's for others to judge and comment on and, of course, there have been a lot of critics of his work and there have been mainly positive reviews about my work. There's been one or two who have taken me to task, but that's to be expected.
LAMB: This might not be a fair question to ask you. I mentioned John Judas earlier and he did this thing in the Washington Post. When the newspaper decides they're going to review a book, do they go out looking for someone to review a book that will reflect what they think or do they go out finding the best reviewer for a book?
DALLEK: Gosh, it's hard for me to know. After all, I'm not part of that process. I've reviewed for the New York Times Book Review. The sense I have is that they try to be scrupulously fair. When the New York Times Book Review calls and asks me to review a book, they in essence want to know is there any conflict of interest, do I know this person, have I any axe to grind for or against them. If I tell them no, they respect my response and ask me to review the book. My encounters with the New York Times Book Review, for example, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review and others I have done for the New Republic, for example, have always seemed to me to be scrupulously fair. But what the inner workings are of these book review editors and whether they're picking and choosing reviewers because they think they can get a favorable or negative review, I don't know. You might know much more about that than I would.
LAMB: What do you think of all of this -- the interviews, the Newsweek full double-page spread, all that kind of stuff. What's it done to you?
DALLEK: Time magazine gave me Page 6 with an extraordinary interview. It made me feel quite elated in the sense that here you are a historian working the way you've been working for years, doing the kind of work that you've done in the past and suddenly there's this firestorm of interest. Of course, it's very gratifying that people should be so interested in your work. It also pleases me that people are paying so much attention now to political biography because there's been a kind of diminution of interest in this. I have a very strong commitment to the idea that political biography is an essential ingredient of the study of American history. We need to think about it and look at it if we're going to understand the democratic political process in this country and sustain that democratic political process. So that side of it pleases me as well. Finally I would say it spurs me forward. Having climbed Mt. McKinley, now I'm ready to climb Mt. Everest, which is volume two of this biography. It gives me the courage and the enthusiasm to go ahead.
LAMB: In the introduction, you tell the Army corpsman story. Would you please repeat that?
DALLEK: Sure. It's a demonstration what an extraordinary operator Lyndon Johnson was. I say my favorite story is about Johnson going to visit Harry Truman in the waning days of Johnson's presidency. He meets with Truman in Independence, Missouri, and says to him, "Harry, you and Bess are living in this old house here in Independence. You're getting on in years. You may become ill. You ought to have an Army medical corpsman living here at the house with you." Truman was supposed to have replied, "Really, Lyndon! Can I have that?" Johnson supposedly said, "Of course, Harry. My God, man, you're an ex-president of the United States. I'll arrange it." About six months after Johnson got out of the White House, a reporter catches up one day with him at the ranch and says, "Mr. President, is it true that you've got an Army medical corpsman living here on the ranch with you?" Johnson said, "Of course it's true. Harry Truman has one." He sure knew how to pull the levers of government and pull the strings as they say.
LAMB: What was his relationship to Richard Nixon?
DALLEK: Well, actually they had a pretty good relationship when they were both in the Senate together. It wasn't helped, of course, by the 1960 election campaign when they went after each other pretty hard. But it ended being a pretty good relationship because when Johnson was leaving the White House and Nixon was becoming president, Johnson was very solicitous of him and Nixon appreciated that. When Nixon became president, he used to send Johnson, as I understand it, their regular briefings, and Johnson was appreciative of the fact that Nixon was so thoughtful about him and willing to attend to him in his post-presidential period. So when McGovern ran in '72, I think part of Johnson's reluctance to be all that supportive of McGovern was not simply philosophical, but was, I think, also the fact that he had a genuine feeling for Richard Nixon.
LAMB: How about this man?
DALLEK: Dwight Eisenhower? Eisenhower and Johnson had their tensions, but I think there was very great respect between the two of them. Johnson admired the fact that Eisenhower was such a popular president, had such a grip on the public's imagination. Eisenhower admired Johnson's powers as a politician. Indeed, there's a wonderful story that in the spring of 1960, when the Democratic nominating process was going on, Eisenhower remarks to some people that the one candidate the Democrats have who would be best as president in securing and thinking about and effectively defending the national security and the national interest was Lyndon Johnson. So he saw Johnson as a very, very competent leader.
LAMB: If you listen to old Johnson hands around, the thing they complain most about from the Robert Caro book, it seems -- and maybe this is just what I've heard -- is the way he treats Coke Stevenson. You spend a lot of time on Coke Stevenson also. Who was he and what's the issue?
DALLEK: Coke Stevenson was the very, very popular statewide figure in Texas, and he had been lieutenant governor and governor of Texas. In 1948, he decides to run for an open Senate seat, and, of course, he becomes Lyndon Johnson's principle opponent in the '48 campaign. Now, the critics of Mr. Caro's latest volume have complained very vigorously that Caro has endowed Coke Stevenson with a kind of sainthood and that what he's done is created a picture of saints and sinners -- Johnson the sinner, Coke Stevenson the saint. I think Mr. Caro's critics are exactly on the mark. This a terribly overdrawn picture of Coke Stevenson. Stevenson was a traditional Democratic Texas politician. Very popular. Very popular, to be sure. But he was a racist. He was a reactionary. He was against all those government programs that Johnson had favored over the years. He was an isolationist. In 1943, for example, when Stevenson was governor, a black man was lynched in Texarkana, Texas.
They asked Stevenson about it, and he said, "Well, you know these Negroes sometimes do those kinds of things that provoke whites to such action." He was also more or less contemptuous of Mexicans. He cut government programs, slashed them one after the other. There was one Texas Democratic liberal by the name of Jay Frank Dobie who said, "Coke Stevenson knows as much about foreign policy as a hog knows about Sunday," making fun of the fact that Stevenson was an isolationist and was critical of the Marshall Plan. In 1948, my argument is that Johnson, it's quite clear, stuffed the ballot box in the closing days of that election in order to get this 87-vote advantage that carried him into the Senate seat.
But Johnson was way behind at the start of the campaign, and he ran a brilliant campaign. First of all, he used the helicopter. This is the famous episode of having a helicopter, which was the first time many people in different parts of rural Texas that ever seen such a "windmill," as they called it, "a damn egg beater." Johnson would fly into these small towns with that helicopter. Johnson said it didn't get him any votes, but it sure got him a lot of attention, so that people were going to listen to him. Johnson ran a very effective campaign. In that campaign, he was a chameleon on plaid. On the one hand, he was talking up conservative notions -- anti-communism, anti-civil rights, in favor of Taft-Hartley, against organized labor. By the same token, Johnson was appealing to the old New Deal liberal instincts in the rural and the urban population in Texas, talking about farm-to-market roads, talking about Social Security, talking about aid to education, talking about the benefits that the New Deal programs had brought to so many Texans.
So Johnson plays both sides of the street, and I've read these memos which come back to campaign headquarters in Austin, in which people watching Johnson there on the hustings, out in the field, are saying, "He's speaking the kind of things that Texans want to hear." As a consequence of his very effective campaign, he closes the gap and he shows people that Stevenson is essential a Dixiecrat, that he's lined up with the anti-New Deal or Fair Deal folks, but that he's also ineffective. He's someone who could not function as well in national politics as Lyndon Johnson would. So Johnson, I think, wins a lot of votes because of the campaign he runs. He wins the votes of veterans who are opposed to Stevenson's isolationism and essential catches up to Stevenson.
Now, we'll never know who actually won that election. There were some million votes cast and the margin of decision was paper thin. Stevenson may have won by a few hundred or a few thousand votes. Johnson may have won by a few hundred votes. We'll never actually know. What we do know is that Johnson at the last minute stuffed the ballot boxes or had them stuffed for him in Alice, Texas, in Duval County, so that he came out 87 votes ahead.
LAMB: From zero worth to $20 million worth on a congressman's salary?
DALLEK: Sure. That's the manipulation of the Federal Communications Commission. Johnson was brilliant, one might say, or incredibly devious in the way he manipulated the FCC. There's just no question about it. I lay out that material in this book. I found some striking evidence of it. For example, Johnson would say that he never went near the FCC because, after all, his family owned radio and TV properties and that would be improper for him to go near the FCC.
Well, in 1945 the Truman administration put wire taps, again, on this man Corcoran, and there were 5,000 pages of wire taps over at the FBI Library. I went and read through those materials looking for Corcoran-LBJ conversations and, sure enough, I found several. The most striking thing in those conversations was their frankness about manipulating commissioners of the FCC and Johnson and Corcoran talking back and forth about radio properties and who you see and who you push.
There's one wonderful story I got from a man named Arthur Stehling, who was an attorney in Fredericksburg, Texas, an old friend of Johnson's. He related that he was trying to get a license for a radio station for about a year-and-a-half or two years. He couldn't get anywhere with the FCC, so he goes up to Washington to see Johnson. He describes how Johnson closed his office door, told his secretary to hold all his calls, and then he sat down and said to him, "Now, Arthur. This is what you do. You go over to the FCC and see Commissioner 'A' and you tell him that he's from Oklahoma; we Texans don't have a representative on the commission and you sure feel that he should represent your interest here. Then go see Commissioner 'B' and talk to him about his goats. He just loves his goats! And when you get done stroking him about his goats, he's going to be in your corner. But don't go anywhere near Commissioner 'C' because he's already against you. He probably knows that you know me."
Anyway, Johnson runs down each of these commissioners and what their interests were and what their concerns were and how Stehling should handle them. Stehling said he went and did exactly what Johnson told him, and about three weeks later he gets his license for his radio station that he had been trying for some two years to get out of the commission. Johnson was a master manipulator at these things. I found, for example, a new commissioner comes on the in early '50s, I guess, from Wisconsin. Instantly Johnson arranges for his teenage children to have swimming privileges over at Bethesda. The commissioner writes him a note and thanks him saying, "It was so courteous and generous of you to arrange this for my children." Well, Johnson was ingratiating himself with this commissioner and opening the door, it seems to me, to future pressure that he could exert in favor of his interests.
LAMB: Did he do anything illegal?
DALLEK: Well, that's a little difficult for me to say. I'm not an attorney. There's just no question in my mind that what he was doing was committing improprieties, and I think that probably he could have been convicted of influence peddling because he did end up with essentially a radio and television monopoly in Austin, Texas. For example, he had KTBC, which was his initial flagship station. The FCC feels compelled to put another station into Austin in 1946 or '47 and it's KVET. It turns out that the people who own KVET are 10 men who are all Johnson's friends, including John Connally.
Now, how did it work out that way? Well, what I found in the Johnson papers is that they were sort of dividing their interests up. KVET would handle sports, would handle certain news issues. The Johnson station would handle other things -- entertainment, certain national programs. They were divvying up the market. So Johnson had friendly competition, you see, rather than cutthroat competition, which would have undermined his station. But I'm convinced that he arranged that license for his friends at the FCC.
LAMB: I'm not sure do the ends justify the means is the question, but you've painted a picture here of someone who did a few things that you suggest are wrong. Does that still put him on a higher plain when it comes to what he was able to accomplish?
DALLEK: That's always the $64 question, I guess, in American politics. There are a number of people, including Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and just about everybody, it seems, who held that high office, who at one time or another does something that we can raise questions about. Is what they do illegal? Are these improprieties? Historians are going to quarrel over this for a long time. Take a Richard Nixon. He breaks the law and eventually he's forced to resign. I suspect that Johnson could have been forced out of office also -- first as a congressman, then as a senator, and finally as president -- if there were full revelation of just how he was manipulating the levers of power. Some of the things that I've already found, for example, about his presidency is that he was trying to use the FBI to get certain journalists and work against Paul Newman, the movie actor, who was advocating Johnson's impeachment in 1967 over Vietnam. Johnson was trying to get the FBI to go after Paul Newman to see what they could find to use against him. He could be ruthless. I suspect that if these things were known at the time, he could have been impeached and driven from office.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. It's called Lone Star Rising. The author is Robert Dallek of UCLA, where he teaches history and other things. It's published by Oxford -- 721 pages. Thank you for joining us.
DALLEK: Thank you for having me. My pleasure.
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