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LBJ biographer Robert Caro reflects on fame, power and the presidency

Caro isn't solely interested in telling the stories of famous men. Instead, he says, "I wanted to use their lives to show how political power worked." Originally broadcast in 2013 and 2019.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry's off this week. Robert Caro has made much of his life's work chronicling the career and life of Lyndon Johnson. On this President's Day, we'll listen back to two interviews I've recorded with Caro. He's written four books about Johnson. And for the last several years, he's been working on the fifth and final planned volume of this biography, which will cover the years during the Vietnam War.

In the earlier volumes, Caro gave us some memorable images from Johnson's life - growing up poor in the Texas Hill Country, blackmailing a fellow student to win a college election and as a congressman, humiliating loyal aides for the fun of it, as well as brazenly stealing votes to get into the Senate. Caro also described a Johnson who, as a young man, worked long hours teaching poor Mexican American children in South Texas and who believed passionately in government's obligation to help people.

I first spoke to Robert Caro in 2013 about his fourth volume, "The Passage Of Power," covering the years 1958 to 1964. It included Johnson's vice presidency, his sudden ascension to the White House after the Kennedy assassination and Johnson's remarkable success in the first few months of his administration to get historic civil rights legislation through Congress. John Kennedy, Caro argued, simply wouldn't have been able to do what Johnson did to advance social justice and economic equality in America. Robert Caro is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. "The Passage Of Power" won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.


DAVIES: Robert Caro, welcome to FRESH AIR. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, one of the most powerful men in the country. And in your third volume, you write about how he had mastered the legislative process. He sought his party's presidential nomination in 1960, lost it to John Kennedy. What was his relationship with Jack Kennedy and the Kennedy group, the Kennedy clan, after that campaign?

ROBERT CARO: Well, with Jack Kennedy, there was always this sort of, I would say, wary respect. The crucial thing with Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys was his relation with Robert Kennedy. And there was a real hatred there. You know, as a writer, Dave, you hate to use certain words because they sound too loaded, and one of them is hate. But hate isn't too strong a word to describe the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. So when Johnson is Jack Kennedy's vice president, which is a powerless position, Robert Kennedy makes sure that he doesn't have any power and that, in fact, he systematically sets out to humiliate Johnson and does during the three years of his vice presidency.

DAVIES: Yeah. In the book, you - there are some great descriptions of some of his early encounters with Robert Kennedy, when Kennedy was a Senate staffer. And, yeah, this relationship was poisoned from the beginning. You know, Lyndon Johnson, you know, thought seriously about whether he should accept the vice presidential nomination back then. The vice presidency, I think, lacked some of the visibility it does today. It was considered a dead end.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: He took it and had ambitions of making it something because he was a guy who knew - understood power and thought he could do more with it. What was he able to do? What was his status? How was he treated by the Kennedy crew as vice president?

CARO: Well, you know, at the very beginning, he tries a typical Lyndon Johnson maneuver to get more power than any vice president has had before. He drafts and gives to Jack Kennedy to sign, perhaps thinking he wasn't - Kennedy wasn't going to read it thoroughly enough, an executive order which would have, in effect, given Johnson power over a number of government agencies. But Kennedy, of course, handles it - just sort of ignores it in a very graceful way. And Johnson realizes - he says, you know, that young man is a lot smarter than I thought he was and a lot tougher, too. Then Johnson tries another maneuver. He tries to keep control of the Senate Democrats, although he's now vice president - he's no longer majority leader. They won't have that.

And all of a sudden, he has no power. This man, the mighty majority leader, the most powerful Democrat in the country for the last six years, has no power at all. And the Kennedys don't give him any. And he's really reduced for three years to being a powerless figure, a ridiculed figure. You know, they used to call him - the Kennedys mocked him. They called him Rufus Cornpone or Uncle Cornpone. They even had a nickname for him and Ladybird. They said Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop. That's the way Johnson was regarded by them.

DAVIES: They didn't say these things to his face.

CARO: Well, those particular words I don't think were ever used to his face, but he knew they were using it because it was in the Washington gossip columns and reporters were reporting that. And, you know, the big headline in 1963, before the assassination - and a lot of newspapers were doing analytical articles about Lyndon Johnson. And you know what the headline was on all of them? Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson? He has become a figure of ridicule.

DAVIES: In a town that he would just - held so much sway at over just a few years earlier.

CARO: Exactly.

DAVIES: And then that day in November, in Dallas - November 22, 1963, in Dallas, changes everything.

CARO: Yes. And the crack of - yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Now, Johnson was in the presidential motorcade in Dallas, not in the car that carried the president and Texas Governor John Connally and their wives. He was some cars back. What did he see and experience?

CARO: There are three - the first - in the first car, Jack Kennedy is riding with Jackie, and the governor of Texas, John Connally, a very handsome man with a leonine head of white hair, is riding with his wife, Nellie Connally, a beautiful woman, once the sweetheart of the University of Texas. In the car behind them is a Secret Service car. It's so heavily armored, it's called the Queen Mary. And there are four agents on the running board. And inside there are more agents with their automatic rifles concealed on the floor.

Then there's a 75-foot gap. The Secret Service insisted on that. And then there's Lyndon Johnson's car. He is in the back seat. On the right hand side in the center is Ladybird. On the left is the Texas senator, Ralph Yarborough. And in the front next to the driver is a Secret Service agent named Rufus Youngblood.

When the first shot rings out, people think it's a motorcycle backfiring, or they think someone burst a balloon. It's interesting. John Connally told me, but I was a hunter. I knew the moment I heard that shot, it was from a hunting rifle. As the shot sounds, Youngblood looks - the Secret Service agent looks forward and sees Kennedy sort of falling to the left. He whirls around and in an instant he grabs Johnson's right shoulder and just pushes him down on the back floor of the back seat of the car, jumps over the back of the front seat and lays on top of Lyndon Johnson.

And Johnson can hear over Youngblood's radio that connected him to the other Secret Service agents words like, he's hit. He's hit. Let's get out of here - hospital. And the three cars - Kennedy's, the Secret Service agents' and Johnson's - roar up a ramp to an expressway, roar down the expressway, and then off and into the emergency bay of Parkland Hospital.

Youngblood says to Johnson, when we get to that hospital, don't look around, don't stop. We're going to get you to a secure place. Don't look around and stop. Johnson is yanked out of the car by four Secret Service men and run in that hospital down one corridor, to the left of the corridor, to the right, looking for a secure place until they find one.

DAVIES: And then he soon learns that Kennedy is dead and that he is at that moment president. And, you know, one of the fascinating parts of the story is that at that moment when he goes to Texas to accompany the president on this visit to his home state - almost at the instant of the assassination, you tell us - there were events taking place in Washington, in - and New York which threatened Lyndon Johnson's very career. Let's just focus on those for a second.

CARO: It's almost unbelievably dramatic in terms of the time sequence. There was a scandal in Washington. Lyndon Johnson's aide for years had been a man named Bobby Baker. The Bobby Baker scandal, which involved kickbacks and payoffs and that sort of thing, had put Baker on the front cover of Life, of Time, of Newsweek, really every magazine in the country. The magazines would refer to him as Lyndon's boy. He was known as Little Lyndon in Washington. But nobody had connected Lyndon Johnson to the Bobby Baker scandal.

At the very moment that morning back in Washington, in a closed little room in the Senate office building, the man who was going to connect Johnson to that scandal, a man named Don Reynolds, was testifying before Senate investigators, and he was pushing across the table to them the checks and the invoices that would prove that Lyndon Johnson was involved in the Bobby Baker scandal, which was the huge scandal of that time. At - he was doing this at approximately the time that the motorcade was going through Dallas and the shots rang out.

And another thing was happening at that same moment. Life Magazine had for the first time - no one had ever looked into Lyndon Johnson's fortune. You know, he had come to Washington as a very poor boy, very poor young congressman, and he had become very rich. Life Magazine was planning to run a story on that fortune - they were going to call it something like "Lyndon's Money" - that very next week. And the editors and reporters involved were at the moment of the assassination meeting to discuss that article. So Johnson's career was hanging by as tenuous a thread as it ever hung at the moment of the motorcade in Dallas.

DAVIES: All right. So going back to Dallas.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: He's at Parkland Hospital.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: He learns that the president is dead and...

CARO: Well, he doesn't learn for about 45 minutes, Dave. The Secret Service agents finally find a secure room. It's in the - what they call the Parkland Hospital minor medicine section. They put the - it's a room divided into three cubicles by hanging white sheets - like you see in hospital - muslin curtains. They put Johnson in the back room against a wall, and they draw the blinds over the windows. Right in front of Johnson is Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent. In the middle room - middle cubicle - there are two Secret Service agents. And at the door, Youngblood stations another one with the instructions, don't let any human being past you unless you personally know his face.

Johnson stands there. They bring in a chair for Lady Bird, and Ladybird sits down next to Lyndon against that wall. They bring in a chair for Johnson, but he does not sit down. He stands there, and it's really - we don't know, really, at the time - 40 or 45 minutes. He keeps asking, you know, about Kennedy, has Youngblood send someone out to ask how Kennedy is. The only word that comes back, Dave, is that the doctors are still working on the president. Then after about 40 minutes - as I say, it's hard to get an exact time - Kenny O'Donnell - who was one of Kennedy's aides, who had been campaigning with him all his life - walks into the room. And Lady Bird Johnson was to say, seeing the stricken face of Kenny O'Donnell, who loved him, we knew. And a moment later, another Kennedy aide runs into the room, runs over to Johnson and addresses him as Mr. President. That's the first time anyone's called him that or that he really knows that he's president.

DAVIES: Robert Caro, recorded in 2013, talking about the fourth volume of his biography of President Lyndon Johnson titled "The Passage Of Power." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to my 2013 interview with journalist and biographer Robert Caro following the publication of the fourth volume of his biography of President Lyndon Johnson titled "The Passage Of Power."

So in Dallas in 1963, Johnson is suddenly the president, and there are many decisions that have to quickly be made, logistical decisions about, does he go back with Jackie on Air Force One? Where and under what circumstances is the swearing in? - a whole lot of things. But as you walk us through these events, you say that many, many people notice that it seems to be a different Lyndon Johnson. How?

CARO: Yes. I'm glad you picked out that point. You know, Johnson, during the vice presidency, had been so humiliated that he had a hangdog look. His shoulders slumped. He had lost a lot of weight. He was downcast. Do you know, people always said about Lyndon Johnson, he was always - if he had a cold, you would think he had pneumonia. He always complained about every little thing. But they said - and Lady Bird said it - if there's a tough time, Lyndon is a good man to have on your side. And as he's standing there in this little cubicle for about 40 minutes, wondering what fate has in store for him, they see a transformation in Johnson back to the old Lyndon Johnson, who ran the Senate as no one has ever run it before.

Lady Bird said his face turned into a graven bronze image, and the Secret Service men come running in after he's told that Kennedy's dead. And they say to him, we have to get you back to Washington. The White House is where we can keep you secure. Remember, Dave; no one knows if it's a conspiracy or not. Not only the president was shot, but the governor of Texas was shot. And we're only 13 months away from the Cuban missile crisis where we almost had a nuclear - were on the verge of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. No one knows if it's a conspiracy after Johnson. So they say, we got to get you back to the plane and the plane has to take off immediately for Washington.

Johnson immediately is decisive. No, he says, I'm not leaving this hospital without Mrs. Kennedy. They say, well, she won't leave without her husband's body. Johnson says, then we'll go to Air Force One, but we'll wait there for her to arrive with the body. And that's what happens. And on the plane, he has to - you know, it's very interesting. They say today that 11 weeks, the time between Election Day and the inauguration, is too short a time for a president to get ready to assume the many responsibilities and duties of the office.

Lyndon Johnson's transition period was two hours and six minutes. He takes the oath of office on Air Force One. And two hours and six minutes later, the length of the flight, he has to get off and be president of the United States. And you see him on the plane taking charge of the country, doing the steps that are necessary to keep it calm and assure it that although the president has been murdered, government is under control.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, there are so many decisions of logistics. There are decisions of substance and decisions of symbolism. And it was clear one thing that he needed to do was to associate himself with the fallen president. He wanted Jackie in that photo...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Where he's taking the oath.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: He returns to office. And it was unthinkable, I suppose, to move into the White House and the Oval Office at that moment, which was full of President Kennedy's personal effects. He goes to the Executive Office Building, where he had long worked.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: But he gets very busy. And it's fascinating even in those few days over which the funeral occurs and the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, you know, by Jack Ruby occurs. Johnson is busy. Now, when does he begin thinking about his legislative agenda?

CARO: Well, you know, Kennedy had two vitally important bills which were in Congress at the time of his death. One was the civil rights bill. The civil rights movement was raging through the streets of the South. It was desperately necessary to get a civil rights bill through Congress. But the Southern Democrats controlled Congress, and they had stopped that bill cold. It wasn't going anywhere. He had also - his other great piece of - major piece of legislation was a tax cut bill needed to get the economy going because the unemployment rate, Dave, was rising toward a totally unacceptable 5%. And people couldn't stand that.

But Congress had stopped both these bills. Johnson has to give his first speech to Congress on the Wednesday after the assassination to the joint session of Congress. The night before the speech, he's still - he's not in the White House yet. He's still in his home in Spring Valley. And four or five of his advisers are gathered around the kitchen table working on that speech. And they all say to Johnson - Johnson walks in, and they all say, you can't fight for - you can't make civil rights a priority. You can't fight for that in this speech. It'll - it's a noble cause, but it's a lost cause. You can't win. You can't waste your time on a lost cause.

You know what Lyndon Johnson says to them? He says, well, what the hell's the presidency for then? And in the speech, he says, our first priority is civil rights. We've talked about civil rights for a hundred years. We've talked about it too long. Now it's time to write it into the books of law. And he immediately takes kind of these two bills and gets them started to passage.

DAVIES: Right. And there are a lot of fascinating meetings and phone calls that you describe that he makes to congressional leaders. He meets with a bunch of governors who happen to be in Washington.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: And, you know, they're an important part of getting pressure to their congressional delegations. There was the other issue of, could Johnson give a speech? I mean, he was an incredibly powerful man, one to one. I mean, I love your descriptions of him grabbing a congressman by the lapel and pointing the finger in his chest. But he wasn't - he kind of missed as a public speaker. How did he prepare for this? This was a big, big moment for him and the country.

CARO: And he knows he can't speak well in public. I mean, he's known this all his life. So he knows. One of the things that he does daily is he rushes through the speech, you know, like you do when you're nervous and insecure. I saw the very - his very reading copy of the speech. You know what he does? He writes the speeches in, like, one or two sentence paragraphs. Between each paragraph, he writes in handwriting - you can see it on the speech - pause. When he's got an important point, he writes after it, pause, pause. And he gives this speech, and it is a great speech. You know, we remember it as the speech in which he says about Kennedy's program, let us continue. Kennedy said, let us begin. I say let us continue. So for this one speech, at least, he is a magnificent speaker.

DAVIES: Robert Caro, recorded in 2013 when the fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson was published. We'll hear more from Caro after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry is off this week. It's President's Day. And we're listening to parts of two interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro, who spent much of his career chronicling the life of Lyndon Johnson. I spoke to Caro in 2013 about the fourth volume of his biography of Johnson titled "The Passage Of Power." The book describes the disrespect and humiliation Johnson felt as vice president, the hatred between Johnson and JFK's brother, Bobby, Johnson's experience in Dallas when JFK was assassinated and his ascension to the presidency, where, Caro writes, he summoned all of his political savvy and experience to pursue an aggressive legislative agenda.

In some respects, the heart of the story here is Johnson's remarkable achievements in Congress during the first, I guess, five or six months of his presidency. Getting the Kennedy tax cut, which was going nowhere, and the civil rights bill, which had been locked up for decades by...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...You know, by Democratic leaders in the Senate, particularly from the South - well, and Congress, too. First of all, what did Lyndon Johnson have that Kennedy lacked when it came to dealing with Congress in a general way?

CARO: You know, I use the phrase in my book that he was a great reader of men. He used to have rules for reading men when a new aide - when a young aide came. And he'd tell them how to talk to somebody. He'd say, watch their eyes. Watch their hands. What they're telling you with their eyes or their hands is more important than what they're telling you with their mouth. He used to say, never let a conversation end because there's always something that the man doesn't want to tell you. And the longer the conversation goes on, the easier it is for you to figure out what it is he doesn't want to tell you. He had a unique ability to know what a man really wanted, what a man really was afraid of and of playing on those fears and those desires.

I'll give you an example. You say, how did he get Kennedy's civil rights bill started? The Republicans were keeping it bottled up in the House Rules Committee, which was chaired by a Southern racist named Howard W. Smith of Virginia - Old Judge Smith, they called him. And they couldn't get it out of the Rules Committee because there weren't enough votes there to let the Rules Committee release it to the floor of the House.

Johnson calls in the Republican leader of the House, Charles Halleck of Indiana. He realizes, listening to Halleck, that what Halleck really wants is - the largest employer in his district is Purdue University. And Purdue has built new space laboratories. And it's not getting as many contracts from NASA, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as it wants. Johnson calls the administrator of NASA, a man named James Webb, and tells him this and says he wants Halleck to meet with him - Webb - and to be satisfied by what NASA does. Webb says something like, well, I hope when he leaves my office, he'll be happy.

Lyndon Johnson, you have to hear his voice. Lyndon Johnson says, no, you don't understand me. I don't want you to think he's happy. If he's not happy when he leaves your office, you'll be hearing again from me. Halleck gets what he wants. And the Republicans on the Rules Committee vote to let the bill out. Johnson had a genius with dealing with individuals. He would threaten them or cajole them or charm them, whatever he had to do to get votes.

DAVIES: And I guess we have to note for people that haven't read the rest of the story that when Johnson was, you know, a very, very powerful leader in the United States Senate, he cooperated with Southerners in delaying and defeating a number of civil rights bills. But when he had the presidency, he moved on it.

CARO: What I didn't say was people didn't believe it, because for 20 years before he became president, he - when he was in Congress and in the South, he not only voted against every civil rights bill, he was not just a vote against civil rights, he was one of the key Southern strategists who devised the strategy to defeat these civil rights bills for 20 years.

DAVIES: Right. And so when, as a new president, he starts moving on civil rights, I'm curious how the civil rights leaders of the day - I mean, Martin Luther King and others - regarded Johnson. Did they work together?

CARO: Oh, those are terrific questions. They come in suspicious. You know, Johnson always wanted to meet with people one-on-one. You know, they said about Johnson, one on - a friend of his said one-on-one, he's the greatest salesman who ever lived.

So a group of civil rights leaders - Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer - want to meet with him. One of his secretaries says, should I schedule them as a group? He says to her, no, one at a time. And each one has the same reaction. I can't remember which. I think it's Roy Wilkins who says this, that he went in there suspicious. And then Johnson pulled up almost knee-to-knee with me and leaned into my face and told me how much he wanted civil rights. And for the first time, I had real hope that this bill was going to pass.

DAVIES: I think you began on the Lyndon Johnson project - what? - 37 years ago, in 1976. Does that sound about right?


DAVIES: This is what I've read.

CARO: Unfortunately, it does. Yeah (laughter).

DAVIES: This is what I've read. And as - you know, as I read this volume, I mean, there are so many cases where you cite interviews with...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...With the players, you know, most of whom I'm sure are no longer with us. And it struck me that you must have, back in the '70s and '80s, conducted, you know, dozens - I guess, hundreds of lengthy interviews in which you talked to people who knew Johnson about the whole story, beginning to end.

CARO: You're right. I mean, I've recently been working with something that involves John Connally. And those interviews, you know, occurred in 1981. Of course, Governor Connally is long dead. But at that time, he had me down to his ranch. He had a great ranch in Floresville, in South Texas.

And he said to me something very - basically, very complimentary about my first book, and said he would answer any question that I asked. And, in fact, he answered every question, except one, that I asked. And I think I was there four days. I mean, we had other interviews. But he talked to me - this man who was, for a long time, closer to Lyndon Johnson than anyone else talked to me with the utmost frankness for just page after page that I still - of interviews that I still go back to.

DAVIES: What's the one question he wouldn't answer?

CARO: What Lyndon Johnson said about Robert Kennedy. You know, Lyndon Johnson hated Robert Kennedy. They hated each other with a passion that's almost unbelievable. You know, the first time that they met was in 1953. Lyndon Johnson was the powerful Democratic leader of the Senate, this great power. Robert Kennedy has just gone to work. He's a young junior staffer on the McCarthy committee. Senator...

DAVIES: Joe McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin. Right, yeah.

CARO: I'm sorry, Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Sen. McCarthy, every morning in the Senate cafeteria, had a big - there was a big, round table right near the cashier's desk, and he took that table with four or five of his staffers every morning. Lyndon Johnson walks in one morning with two of his staffers, George Reedy and Horace Busby. McCarthy jumps up, as all senators did, and his staff jumps up, deferential to Johnson. Great job yesterday, Mr. Leader. Don't know how you did it, Mr. Leader. Just miraculous, Mr. Leader. Anything I can do for you, Mr. Leader? Johnson walks around the table shaking their hands.

One person at that table doesn't stand up. He's this young staffer, Robert Kennedy. Well, Johnson knows what to do about that. There was never a personal encounter that he wasn't going to win. He sort of stands in front of Kennedy with his right hand sort of half-extended so that Kennedy either has to stand up and shake it or really be deliberately, ostentatiously rude. He has to stand up and - I - and take it.

I asked Reedy and Busby, what was the reason there? And they gave a number of reasons. Johnson had once insulted Kennedy's father - had several - excuse me - had several times insulted Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy. But they said it was more than that. And Reedy said to me - that was Johnson's press secretary, George Reedy. He said to me, Bob, did you ever see two strange dogs come into a room, and all of a sudden they growl, and the hair rises on the back of their necks? That's the way Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson was. For their entire lives, they were two men who couldn't stand to look at each other.

DAVIES: You write in this volume that you're really writing not just about Lyndon Johnson, but about, you know, the acquisition and use of power in the middle of the 20th century.

CARO: As you say, these books are not just about Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. They're not. I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of a life of a great man. What I'm interested in is using those lives to show how political power works - not the textbook variety, the textbook things we learn in high school and college, but how power really works, the raw, naked reality of political power. The more that we know about how political power really works, the better, theoretically, at least, our votes should be, and the better our democracy should be.

The one thing I think I've learned is that you don't really know how power is being used until years later when papers and documents are open and people are more willing to talk in interviews. Then, you go back, and you see what was really happening. So I'm really - I follow things in Washington today, but I wonder what I don't know.


CARO: Now, in this last volume, I'm writing about Vietnam. It's going to be much darker than the other volumes. It's - but so much of the thing - now we have the minutes - or not minutes 'cause he wouldn't allow minutes to be taken - but the notes of the meetings on which the Vietnam decisions were made. We can see the cable traffic going back and forth between Washington and Saigon. So many of the things, I wouldn't say they're not true, but it's like they're the - what we read in the newspapers at that time was like the shadow to the substance of what was happening. Now we see the substance. So I always wonder, as I say, what it is I don't know about what's happening today.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Caro, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us. It's been interesting.

CARO: This was great. Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Robert Caro, recorded in 2013 when the fourth volume of his biography of Johnson, titled "The Passage Of Power," was published. I interviewed Caro a second time about his decades of research and writing about Johnson and New York City power broker Robert Moses. We'll hear that interview after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. At age 87, Robert Caro is still working on the fifth and final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam War. While working on the Johnson story, he also managed to write a short memoir on his methods called "Working, Researching, Interviewing, Writing." I spoke to Caro about it in 2019. He described moving to the Texas Hill Country, where Johnson grew up, and living there for three years to get to know friends and associates of Johnson in his early years.


DAVIES: Give me a sense of what you heard that was different by being there long enough to get acclimated and to have people get acclimated to you.

CARO: You know, Lyndon Johnson had been portrayed in the seven previous books as sort of a Horatio Alger hero of the Hill country, this popular, charismatic guy that everybody loved. And he was this popular guy at college. And he became the congressman. I was realizing that they - you know, I'd say - I'd tell these people an anecdotal story, one of these stories. And they'd say, well, something like, well, that's not quite what happened. But they wouldn't - they were so laconic they wouldn't tell me what had happened. And there was a turning point for me. The following thing happened.

I had been interviewing his brother, Sam Houston Johnson. And Sam Houston Johnson - there was a lot of braggadocio and bravado and basically untruthfulness in what - his stories. And I had gotten disgusted with interviewing him, and I decided, I'm not going to use anything he told me, and I'm not going to spend any more time on this. So I'm working with other people. And all of a sudden, I hear he's had this terrible operation for cancer. And he stopped drinking.

And one day, I'm walking around Johnson City, and there's Sam Houston coming towards me. And he's limping. One leg is shorter than the other. He's using a cane now. And I took him for a cup of coffee in the cafe there. And I - the guy sitting next to me all of a sudden was a quiet, introspective guy. I decided to try to interview him again. By this time, I knew the key to Lyndon Johnson's youth was this childhood and his conflict with his father. So I thought of a way to make him remember exactly more accurately what had happened. I got the National Park Service to agree that I could take him in to the Johnson boyhood home after the tourists were gone.

We went in, and I sat him down at the table in the same - at the dining room table. It was a plank table. On one side, Lyndon's - at the top was his father, on the bottom, his mother. His three sisters sat on one side, and Lyndon and Sam Houston Johnson sat on the other. And I said to him, now, Sam - and I remember, Dave, I didn't sit at the table. I didn't want anything in his sight that wouldn't remind him of his boyhood. So I sat behind him. And I said, repeat those - a dinnertime conversation with your father.

He started yelling back and forth, Lyndon, you're a failure. You'll always be a failure. But what are you, Dad? You're a bus inspector. That's what you are. And he was shouting back and forth. And I thought he was now in the - I said, now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful anecdotes, those wonderful stories, that you and everyone else told about your brother for all these years. Only just give me some more details.

And there was a pause. And then, Sam Houston said, I can't. And I said, why not? And he said, because they never happened. And then, he started, without any other prompting, to give a completely different picture of Lyndon Johnson's youth that had ever been - and this time, when I went back to the other people and said - and repeat - they said, that's what happened, and they'd give me more details.

DAVIES: And you learned that he wasn't an admired figure. He was a self-centered guy who a lot of people found a pain. Yeah.

CARO: A lot of people found ruthless and fearsome, actually.

DAVIES: Untrustworthy...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Manipulative, all of that. Right.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: You make the point in this book that truth takes time. If you'd relied on the other books, if you hadn't moved there, you wouldn't have gotten to that layer of depth. You talk about interviewing people again and again...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...And again...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Which I think most reporters don't. You know, you do it once, and then, you move on. Give us an example of how persistence like that made a difference.

CARO: Well, let's say you're trying to - you were never there with Lyndon Johnson. I was never there with Lyndon Johnson. I wanted to give a picture of what he was like in the Oval Office. What did - what was he physically - what was happening? So his chief domestic adviser was a man named Joseph Califano. He's been an immense help to me. He's been so patient and unstinting with his time. But he used to get so angry at me. I had a lot of interviews with him.

I would say, so Joe, if I were standing there in the Oval Office with you, what would I see? And he said, what do you mean - first, you know, he'd say something like, what do you mean, what do I see? I told you he was sitting at the desk. He'd get up and walk around. So I'd say again, well, when he got up and walked around, what would you see, you know? He'd say, I told you that already. He just walked up and around. What do you expect me to say? I kept asking. He would get angry at me.

And then, one - he said, well, you know, he'd go over to the - Lyndon Johnson was so interested in the news that he had three wire service tickers - the Associated Press, United Press and INS - installed in the Oval Office on three tickers there. And he said, well - he was always so - Califano says, well, he was - he'd always go over to those tickers like he couldn't wait to see. On to the - I'd say, no. If I saw him go over to the tickers, Joe, what would I see? Bob, I told you. He went over to the tickers. What do you expect - he read the tickers. I said, Joe, what would I see?

And then, he suddenly said, you know what, Bob? I forgot it. Sometimes he would get so impatient to see what the reporters were writing that he'd bend over the ticker and take the paper in both hands as if he wanted to pull it out faster from the ticker. You know, details like that help you understand the personality of someone.

DAVIES: The intensity of the guy.

CARO: The intensity - the right word - intensity of the guy.

DAVIES: Robert Caro, recorded in 2019, talking about his book "Working, Researching, Interviewing, Writing." We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. On Presidents Day, we're talking with biographer Robert Caro, who's working on the fifth and final volume of his series on the life of President Lyndon Johnson. In 2019, I spoke to Caro about a short memoir. He wrote about his methods. It's called "Working, Researching, Interviewing, Writing."

You also write about interviewing Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...And having to bring up the most delicate subject. I mean, he had extramarital affairs. One of them was meaningful.

CARO: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: Alice Glass.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: You asked her, and - what? - you couldn't bear to look at her.

CARO: Yes. And, you, know, I wasn't going to go into Lyndon Johnson's sexual affairs. He had a lot of affairs, but none of them seemed to have any impact or significance for the way he ran - for his professional life. They didn't seem to mean much to him. But all of a sudden, I discovered there was one affair that he had for a long time, perhaps 25 years. I think the sexual part ended in two or three years. But she was valuable to him 'cause he relied on her political advice, and no one had ever heard of her. Her name was Alice Marsh - Alice Glass and then Alice Marsh.

So I went to the small town that she came from and learned about her. And one day, a mutual friend, a friend who lived in this small town called Marlin, Texas - it's in a little town the middle of nowhere. No one would have gone there unless they wanted to know - learn about Alice Glass. One day, this friend of mine calls up from Marlin and says, Bird - in Texas, everyone calls Lady Bird, Bird. Bird knows you've been to Marlin, Bob, so she knows you know about Alice. So I said, well, I can't do anything about that. So the next interview I had with her - I had been interviewing her in Austin in her office. Her secretary said, she'd like - Mrs. Johnson would like to see you out at the ranch this Saturday. So I went out there...

DAVIES: So she summoned you for this.

CARO: Yes. So she sits at the head of the table, and I'm sitting at her right hand. My stenographer's notebook, where I take notes, is to my right hand. So I'm looking down at the stenographer's notebook, which is - picture me as I'm looking away from her. And without a word of preamble, she starts telling me about Alice Glass and how important her influence was in Lyndon's life. She talks about how beautiful and elegant she was. She says something like, it's - quote's in the book. I remember her in a succession of lovely dresses and me in less lovely. She says, you know, everything Alice told him - she meets him when he's a new congressman, and his arms are very long and ungainly. She says, make an advantage of that by wearing all these French cuffs with beautiful cufflinks. And he did that for the rest of his life. There are times in his life where she saved his political career, one in particular.

DAVIES: Alice Marsh did.

CARO: Alice Marsh did. But she's talking about this, Lady Bird, and during the whole time she's talking to me, I can't bear to look up at her. I just sit there writing notes.

DAVIES: So she speaks admiringly of this...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Woman who probably had an affair with her husband. You know, and it's interesting because you spent so much time talking to Lyndon Johnson's little brother, Sam Houston Johnson, and wanting to get the real story from him. Were you prepared to just leave it there with Lady Bird - I mean, not ask about the pain it might have caused?

CARO: Let's say I didn't ask any questions of that interview. It's the only interview that I can remember where I didn't ask any questions. And in fact, I couldn't bear to look up at the person I was interviewing.

DAVIES: And so you didn't feel like that was something you just needed to get to the bottom of?

CARO: Well, from my point of view, I had gotten to the bottom of it because I had seen - I could document a number of times in which he saved his political career. You know, he relied on her. During the war, he's in Australia. It's 1942. One of the Texas senators has died. He has to decide whether to run for another term in the House of Representatives or to run for the Senate.

He's allowed one telephone call. He doesn't call the White House. Franklin Roosevelt has told him, you could always call me. He calls. I didn't know this. I came across this telegram in the files where - it's signed Alice. I had no idea who Alice was. The telegram says Lyndon. Everyone else - which means the White House, I found out. Everyone else thinks you should run for the Senate. I think you should run for the House again. He runs for the House again. At a number of points, turning points in his career, it's her advice that he relies on. I didn't really want to go into what you asked me about. I wasn't going to ask Lady Bird about the pain it caused.

DAVIES: Did she appreciate the biographies that you wrote in the end? Or...

CARO: I understand she hated them. But I also - I'm not sure her eyesight was too good. Maybe - I'm not sure. From various things she said, I was never quite sure that she actually wasn't relying on what staff people told her about them.

DAVIES: You're working on the last piece of the Lyndon Johnson series. It's about the Vietnam War years.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: I won't ask you how far into it you are. It's going to take as long as it's going to take. You're 83. I know you get asked this a lot. Are you worried about finishing it?

CARO: Well, I don't think about not finishing. You might hear the clock ticking, but you can't let that rush. I'm trying not to rush this book. I'm trying to do it the same way I did the other books because what would be the point if I did it a different way?

DAVIES: Robert Caro, it's been fun. Thanks so much. Good luck. We'll look forward to the last volume.

CARO: Thanks for a great interview, great questions. Thanks.

DAVIES: Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro, recorded in 2019, talking about his book, "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing." Caro is currently working on the fifth and final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam War.

On tomorrow's show, stories of life, death, healing and frustration in hospital emergency rooms. Dr. Farzon Nahvi describes being on the front lines in the pandemic and improvising treatment and protection protocols and, in pre-COVID times, trying to help patients in a health care system that too often lets them down. His new book is "Code Gray." I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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