00 / 00

Robert Caro discusses President Lyndon Johnson

BROADCAST: Dec. 9, 1982 | DURATION: 00:55:33

Synopsis

Discussing "The years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol 1: the path to power" with the biographer Robert Caro.

Transcript

Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.

OK

Studs Terkel How do you best figure out our country, the United States of America? There's a theory that the study of one particular person may give you the best idea of America during the past half century, and that person is Lyndon B. Johnson, in his life, in his drive, in his energy, in his shall we say detours from principle, and there were many indeed. Maybe a symbol of that drive to be it, number one, and there have been a number of studies of LBJ, but certainly the most thorough, and one of the most exciting, is that of Robert Caro on his Volume 1. You've heard it's the "Book of the Month Club" choice. Bob Caro you'll recall is the Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award winner for his quite remarkable study of power in Robert Moses, the builder in New York, called "The Power Broker", and again power is the word. And this huge and remarkable biography of Johnson, Volume 1 is called "The Years of Lyndon Johnson", and this particular volume is "The Path to Power". There it is again. Knopf the publishers, and Bob Caro my guest today. In a moment his reflections and the book after this message.

Robert Caro "Two of the men lying on the blanket that day in 1940 were rich. The third was poor, so poor that he had only recently purchased the first suit he had ever owned that fit correctly, and desperately anxious not to be. Thirty-two-year-old congressman Lyndon Johnson had been pleading with one of the other two men, George Brown, to find him a business in which he could make a little money. So when Brown, relaxing in the still warm autumn sun at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in the mountains of West Virginia heard the third man, Charles Marsh, make his offer to Lyndon Johnson, he felt sure he knew what the answer would be."

Studs Terkel And this provocative opening paragraph, the introduction to Caro's book "Path to Power", sets us off. The poor boy, 1940, poor young man.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And two very rich men.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And

Robert Caro Well, what I thought was significant about this was that the offer was for an oil interest worth almost three quarters of a million dollars. But as much as Lyndon Johnson wanted money, and he wanted it desperately, he turned this offer down because he felt that accepting oil money would hurt him politically.

Studs Terkel So there's something else he wanted more than money.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel But we know he was not averse to a buck or two as it comes out in your volumes, this and others, is that power.

Robert Caro Yes. He knew that he needed that first, that was what he wanted most.

Studs Terkel You know the similarity you're here in Chicago and the -- remar-- I read that, and he turned down the dough for that goal, the Grail, power in office. It reminds so much of the late Richard J. Daley, it is astonishing. There too, it wasn't money. He had a colleague named Tom Keane who went to the pokey for malfeasance, mishandling of funds. It was not money [did it?], it was power. And here again, this parallel. So in Johnson you heard the opening, my introduction. That if to know U.S. in the past half century, if there's one person, one president or one person in political life, it's LBJ who gives a picture of a society at a certain moment in history.

Robert Caro I think that's right, because we see him in the land in which he was born, this hill country of Texas. When he was young, it was a country without electricity, without money. We see the New Deal coming in, and helping it we see the Populist Party grew up there. And by the time Lyndon Johnson comes to power, Texas has come to power, with its new oil money and the contractors and also we see, that's why I called the book "The Years of Lyndon Johnson", because you can't understand Johnson without understanding the years in which he lived.

Studs Terkel But throughout there is this protagonist, this figure who has a drive. The key word I suppose, the one word to describe LBJ, the word is energy.

Robert Caro Energy and energy that came from I think desperation and fear. His boyhood was so terrible that he would do anything to get out of it and stay out of the hill country and this brutal physical

Studs Terkel Now you begin. Now the book begins, and it's a saga. It's a saga of a section of the country and of a kind of people, Johnson's people. This hill country of southwest Texas, isn't it?

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And this is -- we're talking of it at a certain time of the '20s and '30s.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And a his-- it has a history of strong populism.

Robert Caro It was that's where populism came from. The People's Party, which is what people refer to, mean when they say the populace, was born just a few miles north of Johnson City where Lyndon Johnson grew up in a place called Lampasas, because the people up there, they were strong and energetic people, but they had come into this land that was too hard to make a living off, and they wanted the government to help them and they felt that it was the duty of government to help them.

Studs Terkel They felt that. And so there is a father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Lyndon's father, who was a man of principle, a populist, but he is not a success. In fact, he's a failure by standards of what failure is today.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And therefore we come to young Lyndon and it's certain he can go one of two ways, can't

Robert Caro Well, he could follow his father, be an idealist. Or he could decide, as he did decide, that he -- I think I have the sentence in the book, "His mother was an idealist, too, believed in principle. And he had seen what principles and ideals got them, and it wasn't going to get him."

Studs Terkel And so it was not his father he followed.

Robert Caro No.

Studs Terkel It was others, and the others this is what he saw. So when his father's legislator was saying, in Austin, Texas, perhaps you should read that. His father was a legislator, and young Lyndon, how old was he then at the time?

Robert Caro Well, he -- when he was leaving for college so he would have been like 18 then. And I talk about how his mother and his father wanted him so much to go to college to learn about beauty and truth. Now finally, he went to college, only when he had no other way out. But he's, I say that he wasn't going to go the way his parents wanted. "In Austin he had seen the legislators who accepted the beefsteak, the bourbon and the blondes from the lobbyists, who lived at the Driskill while his father lived at the boarding house. His father had refused to be like them, and he had seen what happened to his father. His mother had believed that poetry and beauty were the most important things in life, and she had refused to ever stop believing that, and he had seen what happened to his mother. The most striking characteristic of both his parents was that they were idealists who stuck to their ideals. They had been trying ever since he was a little boy to teach him that what mattered was principle and sticking to principle. Lyndon Johnson's college career and his career after college from beginning to end would demonstrate what he thought of their teaching."

Studs Terkel And of course that's the story of Johnson, to some extent the story of America. To make it, to be number one. And so, by the way, we should point out that this, this poverty-stricken area he came from, the Depression came to them long, long before the Crash of '29.

Robert Caro You know, in a way they were never out of the Depression.

Studs Terkel And so he also told later on in years, he was a hit in many Washington circles, the young congressman, telling these tales of the poverty-stricken land.

Robert Caro Yes. He was a great storyteller and he could talk, you know, when he was a young congressman, he could talk at these Washington parties and hold the center of the room no matter who was there, with his stories of Texas.

Studs Terkel He, by the way, he had to be.

Robert Caro He had to be. In fact, Studs, if he was had a dinner party, this was an incredible thing, and someone else started talking and they wouldn't listen to him anymore, he'd fall asleep right at the table. He'd literally put his head down at the table

Studs Terkel He's "Look at me." And so we come to college, San Marcos, the southwest Texas teachers college.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel And now since he in a sense disowned his own father in a certain ideological

Robert Caro -- In

Studs Terkel Psychically, he became a, from now on a professional son to older men. He knew how to use older men who were in power.

Robert Caro Boy, he had a gift for that, and it was like nothing you've ever seen. You know, one of his tricks was he would literally -- you've heard about people sitting at an older man's feet to soak up their wisdom. He would literally sit at their feet. If there was a professor at this college, and later he did it with Sam Rayburn and with Franklin Roosevelt, but he always did it with older men with power. He would sit on the floor. If they were in a chair and talking, he would sit at the floor looking up at them while he listened.

Studs Terkel And so there is the president of the college, Evans.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel And why don't you tell it, how Johnson in a sense took over the college.

Robert Caro Well, he took it over, first he cultivated Evans, until Evans really loved and relied on him. But what he really did was to create a political structure there. You know, this was a little hill country teachers' college. The giving of jobs on this campus caught in a little 25-cent-a-hour campus jobs was desperately important there, because these kids were so poor that their only hope of getting out of the hill country, their only hope was to go to college and get a teacher's certificate. They couldn't go unless they had these jobs. The guy who was in charge of politics at this campus, that student council and all, he had the right to give out these jobs, and normally this was done just as on any other campus. But Johnson created a political structure there, got the power to do this, and once he got the power he wouldn't give the jobs to anyone who didn't support him. He made people, his friends say, they had to ask. They had to come to him and ask, and he came out of this college with this political machine formed, and many of the guys in it were to be the basis of his machine in Texas for the next 35, 40 years.

Studs Terkel This was foreshadowing the Johnson of later, wasn't

Robert Caro It's exactly

Studs Terkel This was -- there -- in your research, and we'll would come to this in a moment, there was a very definite pattern established in the beginning.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel His [gold? goal?], his principle or more instance lack of it.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel But it was established then, in that, on that small college campus.

Robert Caro Yes, we see Lyndon Johnson, the same pattern as you just put it, couldn't, I couldn't put it any better, followed him through his life. He would do the same things in every [setting?].

Studs Terkel So he took ov-- by the way, what did his fellow students think

Robert Caro Well, his fellow students actively disliked him. You know, this is something the previous books on Johnson have portrayed him you might say as a popular, charismatic campus leader like a Frank Merriwell of the hill country, but in fact you look in the yearbook and you say his name was Bull Johnson. You see, he's constantly referred to as Bull Johnson, which meant the same thing then as it means now, and you ask the other kids where did he get this name, and they say, "Because he was the biggest liar on campus," and more significant, Studs, because you know in Viet Nam when Johnson was president, that was the era in which the words 'credibility gap' were coined, and in Viet Nam he was accused of misleading the American people. They felt that he was a man -- so he could not tell the truth.

Studs Terkel So Tonkin Gulf then was a natural aspect of Johnson's life. You know, the lie of Tonkin Gulf.

Robert Caro Yes. Well, his life -- this untruthfulness seems to follow throughout his life. Yes, it seems to be. I mean, I'll never forget, I had been hearing this and hearing this from the kids there, and one said, "You know, the thing that mattered was that it seemed like he couldn't tell the truth. He had to lie about everything, big things and small, and if you caught him in a lie, he didn't care. You'd hear him ten minutes later telling the same lie to somebody else."

Studs Terkel We should point out Bob Caro the biographer, you and so we have to perhaps a di-- not a digression, but how you came to the book and, you came to this project wholly admiring LBJ.

Robert Caro Well, I had an image of LBJ. I thought I was going to love him. I thought, you know, my first book "The Power Broker", I sort of fell in love with Alfred E. Smith, the great governor, who raised Robert Moses to power. And I wrote a lot about Smith, and Smith was very poor. He was Irish American, son of an immigrant. He was uneducated, but more than that, he hated reading. He hated education, he didn't want to read. He was a tough, shrewd, ruthless politician, but the driving thing under Al Smith was that he wanted to help his people, the Irish-Americans. Now, what did I know about Lyndon Johnson? Poor, uneducated, didn't like intellectual pursuits, shrewd, tough, ruthless politician, I had an idea that the dominant thing inside him was to help his people, the farmers [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel And so you [unintelligible] this project began about

Robert Caro Seven

Studs Terkel Seven years ago. Perhaps describe it, where you saw thousands of people, early, those still alive, early friends, later ones, those who peripherally knew him, but you also went to the li-- where was this? In Austin.

Robert Caro Yes, there's

Studs Terkel And what did you find

Robert Caro Well, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library there of course has these millions of documents, some going all the way back to his youth. You can find out almost anything you want to know in that library. I don't think you can spend a lot of time there and not know more about the inner workings of American politics than has ever been known before. You don't have to be good

Studs Terkel -- And so as you were going deeper and deeper into it, and this is Volume One we're talking about that's about 800 pages, and the writing is by the way is incredibly good, and we'll talk about the non-specific Johnson sequences, but speak of the place, the condition of women.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel The housewives' work

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel In Texas that time, and it's a remarkable, you call it sad irons.

Robert Caro Yes, because it was so hard for them to do ironing, because they didn't have electricity and they had to keep heating the irons over a wood fire. They called them the

Studs Terkel And so you have, it's sort of a social history as well, and an economic history as well as a biography of a figure. And so here's, here is LBJ, and now Washington enters. He gets a call. There is a conservative, very wealthy young congressman named Richard Kleberg.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel Is he of the King Ranch?

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel So he's a millionaire.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And anti-New Deal, of course.

Robert Caro Oh, anti-New Deal all the way.

Studs Terkel Why don't you -- Johnson gets a call to be his secretary.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel We're talking what year now?

Robert Caro Nineteen thirty-one.

Studs Terkel Thirty-one, the Depression.

Robert Caro Right. And Johnson goes to Washington as his secretary and immediately starts working at this incredible pace where he's up at five o'clock every morning and he's going to sleep at midnight, and he's working every, day seven days a week to do the best job he can for the district. But before Roosevelt came in, there isn't much he can do for the district, because the federal government wasn't helping the farmers.

Studs Terkel Go ahead. Now he, you spoke of the hours. This is an incredible story here of energy and those who were his subordinates. Now we come into his attitude -- of course, now he sort of took over as a matter of

Robert Caro Yes, well he took over the congressman's office. The congressman wasn't too interested in being a congressman, and Johnson ran the office. Then, when the New Deal came in, we see his genius for government. Now, the fed-- Roosevelt creates the New Deal's Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which was supposed to help farmers, but the farmers of Lyndon Johnson's district were so poor that he really couldn't help them. This act couldn't help them. And on one Tuesday in 1934, 67 of them were going -- 33, rather, Sixty-seven of them were going to lose their farms. The sheriff was going to nail up the foreclosure notice. The act was passed on a Friday. Johnson had over the weekend if he wanted to save these people's farms, he had to really invent a way of applying this new act, the Federal Home Loan Board Act, to these particular farmers. He had to persuade the Federal Home Loan Board to approve it, he had to get the president of the whole thing on the phone, he had to get the Texas appraisers on the phone, the mortgage companies, he did it all between Friday and Monday, and raced down to Corpus Christi and that night, the very day before these 67 farmers were going to lose their homes, he was able to tell them that they were saved.

Studs Terkel So he, this incredible drive and energy.

Robert Caro And genius for government.

Studs Terkel And genius for government because he also knew -- and one of the first things you have here, he start asking, "Who knows who? Who does what? How does it work?" And he in a sense became the congressman.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel But he wanted to know what the secret was to get something done. Now, he had a couple of young subordinates, and this is also a pattern, is it not? His attitude toward them.

Robert Caro Yes. He -- we see this, these were two young men who had been when he was a high school teacher, they had been his debaters. He was the debating coach. He brought them to Washington. They lived in the same room with him. They worked alongside him, and he worked them as unmercifully as you can imagine a human being working another.

Studs Terkel This became his pattern throughout.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel But there's something here, there's another pattern emerges. He pretty much would bully those below him one way or another, you know, with a smile or with a scowl.

Robert Caro He

Studs Terkel He'd bully, but he would toady to those up above.

Robert Caro That unfortunately was his characteristic. He was a boot-licker and a bully at the same time.

Studs Terkel That's interesting. Sort of, someone called him at one moment there "Texas Uriah Heep."

Robert Caro Yes. Well, that's, in some respects that's what he reminded people of, toadying to those above him in the most abject fawning way, but to those underneath him, his staff and all, just treating them like slaves.

Studs Terkel And yet at that -- he himself worked as hard as they did.

Robert Caro Oh yes, right.

Studs Terkel He would never -- he showed a guy a trick, don't undo your a tie, just run -- takes so you save time.

Robert Caro I'd never heard that before, because he didn't want to lose one minute, so he wouldn't untie his night -- tie at night, he'd just loosen it and slip it over his

Studs Terkel And yet, few districts, reading from your book end of this one chapter, few districts fared better under the New Deal's programs than this district with a junior congressman who opposed the New Deal, that's his boss Kleberg, a congressman who seldom visited his office, Kleberg, the district whose only asset on Capitol Hill was a young secretary.

Robert Caro That was

Studs Terkel LBJ worked with a frantic, frenzied almost desperate aggressiveness and energy. Before we continue with Washington, we forgot a certain chapter that is known and surely in other biographies and yours to some extent, as a glowing moment in his life when he taught the little Mexican-American kids

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel Why don't you speak of that?

Robert Caro Well, when he was in college he took off a year to be a teacher, he needed money to continue at college. He went down to Cotula, which was a little Mexican-American town down near the Texas border, and nobody who had -- none of the American teachers, the Anglos who had taught down there, ever cared about teaching the Mexican kids, it was just a job to them. They almost felt the Mexicans didn't deserve to learn, that they were too shiftless and lazy, in their opinion. Johnson taught these kids, one of them said, "As if his life depended on them." He just kept saying to them, "You can have a better life. Just get an education." He worked with them. And the thing that was most amazing to me was, because he had so much energy, if he worked with them early and late, that wasn't enough to use up the energy, so he took this elderly Mexican janitor, almost illiterate, and he bought him a grammar book and taught him English. He would teach him after school sitting on the steps of the little school down there, and the loiterers across the street would be sitting in a vacant lot, they're laughing at him, and this big, tall, gangling college kid with the big ears, you know, would sit there hour after hour teaching the janitor English.

Studs Terkel Yeah. That's a -- and yet here's the strange thing, he displayed scant respect for their own culture. If a kid spoke Spanish, he'd whack him, the rationale being American. But it reminds me, he had contempt for their culture. He wanted them to be like him, and suddenly something leaps. This'll be in Volume 3 of your work, I know, Vietnam. "If the Vietnamese would only be like us, like LBJ and us, we'd be fine. But they wanted to be themselves! So you gotta knock them off!" Is this, does this analogy apply?

Robert Caro It certainly does. You know, he's teaching Mexican kids, right? And he's teaching them Texas history, and he's calling Santa Anna a murderer. Well, of course, Santa Anna

Studs Terkel -- Oh, that's very

Robert Caro Is a hero to them!

Studs Terkel He was [doing?] that, but by God, he's teaching them to be American.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel So we come back, so now we come back to, we come back to Washington. And so he serves his apprenticeship as the secretary, really does the job of Kleberg the con-- who does nothing. And his attitude toward the New Deal had come to something interesting, his worship of FDR, certainly outwardly and now Johnson and the New Deal.

Robert Caro Well, you know Johnson and the New Deal is an example of how his principles would always change regarding -- according to what would help them at the moment. He was elected congressman at the age of 28. His assistant said, "What is our platform?" you know. He said, "Our platform is Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt." I mean, nothing but Roosevelt, 100 percent for Roosevelt. And when he got to Washington he became friendly with Roosevelt, and Roosevelt helped him. Roosevelt did one thing after another for him, and he implemented the New Deal in that district and used its programs magnificently. But the moment he felt that the New Deal and Roosevelt couldn't help him become senator, which is what he wanted to be next, he turned on the New Deal.

Studs Terkel Yeah, that of course is how this particular volume ends.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel The shift we see. But here is his drive to -- whatever will help him and incidentally, help some of his constituents. But he became another kind of chief, didn't he? [In every corner?], the boss of a little cong-- perhaps you describe this. He was not simply a congressman's secretary, he became THE secretary.

Robert Caro Here we see -- he did exactly what he did at college, you know at college he took a social club, the "White Stars", turned it into a political organization, got himself political power from it, and one of the ways he did it was to steal elections in college. They couldn't believe it, I mean no one had cared about the elections, and here Lyndon Johnson was stealing it. On Washington there was this organization of all the Congressional assistants, the little Congress. Nobody cared about that organization. But Johnson saw if he could take it over, he could get power from it. He did, again using stolen elections. He became what was known as the boss of the little Congress, and he became in the world of Capitol Hill when he was only 23 years old quite a notable figure.

Studs Terkel So they knew something other became again -- also if you want to know about something, sort of devious things a little, how to get something done, see this kid.

Robert Caro Yes. That's right. They saw he had a genius for government.

Studs Terkel And when he did he start -- but all the time he's doling out little favors here and there to be remembered later on. I mean, he would call in due bills later on.

Robert Caro Yes. He always did

Studs Terkel This by the way is a remarkable similarity to the late mayor of Chicago, Daley. He would also call in due bills later as he did way back long before he became mayor, and afterwards, so it's the question of how power is achieved, and how one goes about getting it and, Johnson is -- before we take a break, it's also beginnings of his double-dealing come in when he was a New Dealer and people thought he was a liberal, didn't they?

Robert Caro The liberals thought he was a liberal, the conservatives thought he was a conservative.

Studs Terkel But then he started smearing guys, too, 'way back in the early days, when a guy ran against a rather mild liberal, ran against Kleberg.

Robert Caro Right. Right. And he would, you know, his technique was to paint the guy as a communist. Or a radical, you know. They used this slogan, "Your heart is black and your mind is red," you know, which was a like buzz words for "you are a communist," and of course that was very effective in Texas.

Studs Terkel But since he is also looking for power, there are older men who are in it. And so there was the president of the college whom he took over, Roosevelt, whom he handled pretty well for a long time. And then of course there's Sam Rayburn.

Robert Caro Rayburn was the greatest.

Studs Terkel So we come to Rayburn, don't we, of Texas. What -- perhaps this one description of Rayburn at the beginning is a remarkable portrait. Was he -- would you call him a genuine populist?

Robert Caro Rayburn was the true populist, and I try to sum him up, you want me to read this quote? In this way. "Rayburn. Rayburn who hated the railroads, whose freight charges fleeced the farmer, and the banks whose interest charges fleeced the farmer, and the utility companies which refused to extend their power lines into the countryside and thus condemned the farmer to darkness. Rayburn, who hated the railroads and the banks and the Republicans, because he never forgot who he was or where he came from."

Studs Terkel So this was

Robert Caro That was the great man.

Studs Terkel But didn't he change later on, when he said to get along, go along?

Robert Caro Not, not really, Studs. Rayburn would say that, and he had to be quiet for a long time and get along in Congress, but he never abandoned his principles. Rayburn was the true populist, and when he became speaker, he implemented those principles and he helped the rural farmers in America more than any other man.

Studs Terkel Since he was a powerful senior congressman from Texas and soon to be speaker, he was cultivated by this young secretary who became a congressman.

Robert Caro Well, one of the saddest things was in, to find out about was the true story, which had never really been told of Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson. You know Rayburn, was the fiercest of men. His face was like a rock, you know, and a mask, but he was terribly lonely. He had always wanted a family. He had no family, had no children. Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson sort of made themselves, well Lyndon Johnson made himself into Rayburn's family. And every Sunday Rayburn would come to their house and Lady Bird Johnson would cook. She told me she learned to cook Mr. Sam's foods, you know, chili, homemade peach ice cream the way he liked them. And after breakfast, he and Lyndon would sit around reading the Sunday papers, and it was a father-son relationship. And every time that Johnson needed something, Rayburn was there to help them. Once when Johnson was young, he got pneumonia and was very sick in Washington, and Rayburn sat by his bed all night and he was afraid to move because he didn't want to wake Lyndon up. And when Lyndon woke up in the morning, Rayburn's jacket and his vest were covered with cigarette ashes, because he hadn't wanted to get up and brush them away. And the minute Lyndon got up, Rayburn leaned over to him, this fiercest of men, and said, "Now, Lyndon don't worry about anything. Anything you need, just call on me." Now, shortly thereafter Johnson wanted something. He wanted to be the director of the National Youth Administration in Texas. Rayburn was a man who would never ask anyone for a favor. Never. But for Lyndon Johnson, he begged. He went to the office of the old Texas Senator, Tom Connally, who had the patronage over the National Youth Administration, and Connally says, "Rayburn would not leave my office until I promised to give the job to Lyndon Johnson."

Studs Terkel And of course he became the head of the National Youth Administration of Texas, the youngest in the country, and we'll come to this in a moment. And also a big event in his life, meeting money. At the very opening of this program, the opening of your book, you speak of two very wealthy powerful men and the young poor kid, and we'll come to the relationship to oil money, Brown and Root and Alvin Wirtz the lobbyist, and Johnson's role from then on, principal role really. So we come to another aspect in which something new entered politics. Money always did, but not money from a central source.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel Talking to Bob Caro, Robert Caro, Robert A. Caro, Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award winner for his remarkable biography of Robert Moses. The new one, the one we're talking about is "The Path to Power", which is this first volume what a book in itself, the years of Lyndon Johnson. From Johnson's beginnings to losing this first senatorial race, and the change beginning to take place and, Alfred Knopf are the publishers. We'll resume in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] So resuming with Robert Caro and the saga, because it is a saga of Johnson. So as the head of the NYA, the powerful, one of the New Deal agencies to keep youth in school and at work to provide -- Johnson again was dispensing.

Robert Caro Yes,

Studs Terkel Jobs.

Robert Caro You know, what he was showing here was his genius at government. I mean, he was the best director of the National Youth Administration. You know, his aides, the young guys he brought in with him said to me, you know, they would describe how Johnson inspired them. He'd say, "Get them to work. Put them to work. Get them off the streets. Put them to work. Get them out of the box cars," and he would work endlessly. One guy said to me, "You know, when you work for Lyndon Johnson, days made no difference and nights made no difference. Weekdays, weekends made no difference. Every day was the same. All you did was work. And he made us feel that we were part of the most important mission of our time, and he made us do the impossible."

Studs Terkel Now, he was still not yet congressman and was already engineering things for big boys. There was, there was, he met now Brown. Was it Herman Brown.

Robert Caro Well, that was a little later. It was when he was Congress.

Studs Terkel Oh, he's Congress. Well, let's go to Congress. Now he's going to run for Congress.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel And here's something interesting: he knew how to campaign, didn't

Robert Caro He was the greatest campaigner. You know, campaigning in the hill country wasn't like campaigning today, Studs. We can hardly imagine what it was like. If he talked to 20 people that was a big crowd. You'd get up on a wagon bed in one of these little towns in the hill country and talk to 10 or 15 people or less, and you'd walk around down the main street shaking hands, and Johnson, which had this way of shaking hands that peo-- I mean, it was just unbelievable. He'd hold out his hand and he'd say, "I need your helping hand. Will you give it to me?" And he'd kiss, you know he had this hugging and kissing, the pressing the flesh, it was a legend in the hill country to the point where one farmer told me that his wife insisted that they go to this Lyndon Johnson rally hundreds of miles away or 150 miles away, I think it was, and the farmer said, "You just want to go because he'll kiss you." And on that day the wife was sick, so the husband went alone and he came back and he said to his wife, "You know, he kissed me." So he was a great campaigner.

Studs Terkel Now was the energy. He wouldn't miss a bet, whereas his opponents would cover I suppose Dallas or wherever, wherever it was in the district. Austin or it might -- but he would cover the rural. He would cover every

Robert Caro He went where no one went before. he -- this was a vast rural area and the farms were very thinly separated. The population was like really one per square mile averaged out, and he would drive endless miles over a bumpy roads to go to a farm that no one had ever visited, no candidate, and over and over again peoples would say, "You know, that boy Lyndon Johnson was to visit me. He was the first candidate I've ever seen." Now, on Election Day, these farmers, you know, for a poor farmer, his time is the most valuable thing he has, and for him to give up a whole day is quite a sacrifice. On Election Day 1937, thousands of these farmers loaded their families into a car and drove to these polling places to repay Lyndon Johnson by giving him their vote.

Studs Terkel And so he's elected to Congress.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel And now Roosevelt, of course had heard of him his NYA had, and he appointed him, and there's Roosevelt now hearing about this young -- here again now he's winning Roosevelt,

Robert Caro Yes, and Roosevelt you know, he was personally fond of him because Johnson was a professional son to him. But more than that, as one of Roosevelt's aides put it to me, you've gotta understand these were two political geniuses. When Roosevelt talked to Johnson I think he meant Johnson understood what he was talking about, and Roosevelt knew it. You know Roosevelt said to Harold Ickes, "If I hadn't gone to Harvard, this is the kind of uninhibited young politician that I might have been." He said, And in the next couple of generations the balance of power in this country is going to shift to the South and West, and this kid might be the first Southern president."

Studs Terkel You know, this is precisely what I have marked right here at this moment. The very thing you just offered. So he knew that. "I just had a funny call," says someone following this what you just read, from Harry Hopkins, a Roosevelt adviser. "Did you ever hear of some kid in Congress named Lyndon -- [Liddy?] Johnson he called him. "What's he doing?" And Johnson knew then, didn't he, the secret? That the government is not run by one man, seemingly, or by 200 million, but there are about a hundred guys or so, as an echelon, a hierarchy of power here.

Robert Caro And he got to know all of them, and he made friends with

Studs Terkel And so he knew that, and so he had Roosevelt. And now there's a marvelous anecdote here that's almost a metaphor, a photograph of FDR, of a young LBJ, and the governor of Texas, in Allred. And how Johnson was able to manipulate, to elbow Allred out of the picture.

Robert Caro Well you know, you see this in an old newsreel, it's fantastic to see, that Roosevelt is standing there waving, and Allred is waving, and Johnson is on the other side waving, and gradually Allr-- Johnson is moving toward the center and Allred is sort of disappearing from the picture.

Studs Terkel And in subsequent photographs Allred is

Robert Caro Is completely airbrushed out. Right.

Studs Terkel But he [had to?] elbow his way next to power. By the way, that's always -- I said metaphor, too, just a phrase, elbowing his way to power.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel Elbowed his way.

Robert Caro Yeah.

Studs Terkel Or hugged his way.

Robert Caro Hugged his way, elbowed his way.

Studs Terkel And now we can't forget there's power in another way. There's money around Texas, a new kind of money, oil money, and there are some contractors, Brown & Root.

Robert Caro Right. Brown & Root. Johnson got them big federal contracts in Texas. Now 1940 comes along, and Johnson is still a junior congressman and with his fellow congressmen he's very unpopular. They don't much like him, because he's trying to boss them around and they're not going to stand for it. He doesn't have any power of his own, but part of his genius was seeing a way to power that no one else saw, and in this year, in October of 1940 he saw something that no one else saw. The oil people in Texas, the new wildcatters like the old Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson had recently, very recently struck it big in the East Texas pool. Brown & Root had a lot of money because of federal contracts, and Brown & Root wanted more. They needed the federal government. And Lyndon Johnson needed -- and a lot of Democratic congressmen needed money to campaign. And they didn't have it that year, they were very short on funds. Johnson persuaded Brown & Root, Herman Brown the old president, and the wildcatters to give money, but to give only through him. So the congressmen had to come to him and ask for money. Now let's say October 1st, 1940 he's still an unpopular junior congressman. Five weeks later, on Election Day November 4th, he was a man with real power on Capitol Hill because he had financed the campaigns of 78 congressmen, and in part. But in large part. And they knew they were going to have to come back to him for money in two years. And he was a different figure.

Studs Terkel There was a calling in due bills.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel Now, this is interesting. He got the oil money, and they were backing New Deal congressman even though they were violently anti-New Deal, anti-labor.

Robert Caro Right. They were they did this because they needed to keep the oil depletion allowance and other favors, they needed to get contracts, and they didn't really care as long as their selfish interests were preserved. They would give to whomever Lyndon Johnson asked.

Studs Terkel So LBJ then knew all these aspects, so his hands were out in all directions.

Robert Caro Even as a very young man.

Studs Terkel Even in the end when he was almost a marionetteer [sic - marionettist].

Robert Caro Yes. He was -- that's a very good image.

Studs Terkel He was doing that, wasn't

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel He held the strings in his hand, and [these?] young guy, so there power again was the drive. And these guys who hated the New Deal, anti- and -- didn't mind getting the money at the time, you see. That was it. And there's another aspect of Johnson perhaps we can't discuss too much in the book, a chapter on a private life. A woman. Alice Glass, who was quite remarkable.

Robert Caro Yes. She

Studs Terkel And a factor in Johnson's young manhood at that time.

Robert Caro She was quite a factor. And she was a very -- not only was she a very beautiful woman and the owner of this magnificent estate in Virginia that she turned into a salon, but she was also a very astute political adviser to Johnson, and in fact at one stage where his political career was in trouble, she engineered the compromise that saved him.

Studs Terkel But she was very liberal-minded and enlightened by certain standards.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And she was fooled by LBJ.

Robert Caro She

Studs Terkel I mean, they had an affair. She loved him obviously, it appears from your book. But she thought he was an idealist.

Robert Caro Yes, she

Studs Terkel -- [Unintelligible].

Robert Caro She thought he was going to save the world. And he had, you know, this potential for enormous good.

Studs Terkel But toward the end I didn't -- when she's an older woman, the Vietnam War she burned all the letters.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel She would have nothing to do with anybody who played a role in the Vietnam War.

Robert Caro Well, the relationship you know goes through ups and downs, but she really thought that the Vietnamese War was a

Studs Terkel But they were able -- he was able to fool almost anybody in every aspect of life.

Robert Caro He seemed to have this belief that he could fool anyone, and you know something? For a long time he did.

Studs Terkel He did. And so another good aspect, another aspect of Johnson involved in the New Deal was his bringing electricity. We forget that most of America was rural back in those days, and most of rural America had no electricity until the late '30s.

Robert Caro Yes, and his area not only didn't have electricity as late as 1938 and '39 and 1940, but there didn't seem to be any hope that they could get electricity. So when I would go around and talk to these elderly farm women, so many of them were very stooped, almost unnaturally stooped, and they'd said to me, "You know how stooped I am? That's from hauling the water." Because you see, without an electric pump, you have to bring it, it always fell to the wives to bring 'cause the men were out in the fields working, the kids were at school, to haul this water up from these deep hill country wells, and the buckets were so heavy that they'd have to lean on the ropes just to get the buckets up. Then they'd put a yoke around their shoulders and carry two buckets at a time. Now, the Agriculture Department says that the average farm family uses 300 gallons of water a day. That's 73,000 a year, or 3,000 tons of water that a farm wife had to carry most of it herself during the year. She had to do the wash for a big family by herself, and the ironing by herself. And these women were old. When Lyndon Johnson was campaigning for Congress, he would say to them, "If you elect me I'll bring electricity and then you won't look like your mother looked at 40."

Studs Terkel This is a fascinating aspect 'cause you mentioned Clyde Ellis in your book, Congressman [from?] Arkansas speaks of it, and you have a reference to -- they saw electricity, and they thought their house was on fire.

Robert Caro Right. When the lights went on.

Studs Terkel And Ellis is, and Ellis is [commemorate?] his mother turning on the electric light and suddenly there's a little glow, a glimmer, and it lit up! And she starts crying, and the whole town celebrated. And we forget this was in nine-- he's from a 1940.

Robert Caro Yes. It was like he came -- this land he brought him into the 20th century. I mean, the people

Studs Terkel Ellis.

Robert Caro No, well, Lyndon Johnson in the hill country. The people of the hill country said, "Before Lyndon Johnson we were living in the Middle Ages. He brought us into the 20th century."

Studs Terkel And so this is a good aspect of what he did. Now we come to something interesting, because also votes came back to him, which is okay. There were these liberal congressmen, those who would -- involved with legislation. LaGuardia for one. Maury Maverick. By the way, Johnson's relation to Maverick who was, who was a battling liberal back in Texas from San Antonio was interesting. He shifted when Maverick lost, he dropped him like a hot potato.

Robert Caro I was, I'm afraid that was Johnson's character.

Studs Terkel But there was no legislation ever he was responsible, was there?

Robert Caro No, the thing about him was he never want-- for his district, bringing the electricity, etc., getting projects for the district he was great. For national legislation, he wouldn't introduce bills, he wouldn't fight for anyone else's bills, he'd never argue even in the privacy of the cloakrooms. Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was a friend of his and a very keen observer, told me once that she'd see Lyndon Johnson at a party in an evening and all evening he'd be talking. He wouldn't let anyone else talk. He'd talk and talk for hours telling stories. And at the end of the evening, she realized he hadn't said anything. He'd never say one thing that years in the future down the road people could come back and say, "But you said this," because he knew what his ambition was.

Studs Terkel Oh, way in the back of his mind also he knew not to say something specific that might come back to haunt him if the climate of the country changed.

Robert Caro That's what I'm saying, yes.

Studs Terkel So we've, we're still talking about that move upward, always on his mind. And so we come to his other mentor again, Rayburn. Now it's 1940 and there's a big question about Roosevelt running for a third term.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And there is the vice president, Cactus Jack Garner.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel Who is violently anti-New Deal, anti-labor, anti-- he has a pecan farm in which his Mexican laborers work as serfs.

Robert Caro Yes. Well, this was you know this was one of the saddest things, because when I talked that Johnson would do almost anything to get ahead, we see it exemplified in Rayburn, who had helped him so much, and here he has to betray Rayburn. Garner had been Roosevelt's man in Texas. He had the New Deal authority in Texas. Now Garner and Roosevelt were great enemies. And Roosevelt needed a new man in

Studs Terkel Texas. When Garner's going to challenger Roosevelt for the presidency.

Robert Caro He did chall-- right, he did challenge him, and he needed a new man in Texas therefore. And Rayburn, who was the Speak-- the majority leader of the House, soon to be the Speaker of the House, was the logical choice. But Johnson wanted that job, and to get it he's really betrayed Rayburn. Nobody was more loyal to the New Deal than Sam Rayburn. I mean, he was a rock on which a lot of this New Deal legislation was built, and he idolized Roosevelt. You know, on his table back home in Bonham, he had two pictures of Robert E. Lee and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rayburn did. But Johnson persuaded the White House and persuaded Roosevelt that Rayburn was really against Roosevelt, that he was leading a "stop Roosevelt movement."

Studs Terkel Now how, he did this, this is in detail in the book, you describe the tricks he used. So he double-crossed Rayburn.

Robert Caro He betrayed him. Yes. And he got the job that he wanted. At the end of this episode, he is Roosevelt's Man in Texas with the New Deal power and Rayburn really was never to reestablish his relationship with Roosevelt as he wanted

Studs Terkel So, and when there's a compromise find a way to save face for Garner

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel Like a first-ballot vote for Garner by the Texas delegation, but of tremendous support for Roosevelt, the telegram is signed or the --rather signed by two.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel Rayburn, who must be furious to have, and this young congressman.

Robert Caro Lyndon Johnson.

Studs Terkel Equal! They're equal in power now.

Robert Caro Equal. Rayburn was so baffled he couldn't understand what was happening. He was being made to sign a telegram, he the majority leader I think by this time he was Speaker of the House -- no, speaker or majority leader, and Lyndon Johnson was on the same footing as him, and Roosevelt wouldn't let that telegram be sent unless both names were on it equally.

Studs Terkel And so now Johnson has reached a new plateau of power.

Robert Caro Right.

Studs Terkel What was the relationship of Rayburn to Johnson from that moment on?

Robert Caro Well, for a time I never was able to fully determine whether Rayburn knew what Johnson did to him, whether he ever found out. But he had an idea. And for a time the relationship cooled and ended. In 1940, however, later in 1940, as I -- there came the saving of the Democratic congressman with the oil man's money. Now, this saved Rayburn's speakership, and Rayburn was a man who always paid his debts, and he knew he owed Lyndon Johnson a lot for this. The relationship gradually re-established itself. I think a large part of it, which no one has really understood. You know, people keep saying, "How did a guy like Sam Rayburn like a guy like Lyndon Johnson?" I think a large part of the answer had to do with Mrs. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, of whom Rayburn was paternally so fond. You know, she was like a daughter to him. And gradually the relationship re-established itself and Rayburn was to again help Johnson's career.

Studs Terkel 'Cause one of the big, this again a side item, but it's in your book throughout. How could Lady Bird, who was a [woman?] of, scenes of generosity of spirit and openness and honesty

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel How could she stand through the years his double-crossing, infidelities, everything -- not that, but the general different approach to life it would seem.

Robert Caro Well, in this early period, you know that [root?] things change in her personality. You know, we see her in this book as a very shy, diffident young woman. Her transformation into the poised,, gracious, dignified and very intelligent first lady is one of the thrilling things to write about. In this early part, I don't think that she really was familiar with her husband's political maneuverings completely.

Studs Terkel That's come, but we have to come back again now he's representing, that's what he always wanted to represent: oil and money. He's in a sense he's their lobbyist in Congress.

Robert Caro Yeah.

Studs Terkel 'Cause his -- one of his mentors is the great oil lobbyist Wirtz.

Robert Caro Yeah.

Studs Terkel Alvin Wirtz.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel And so now he's New Deal, but not New Deal.

Robert Caro He's both at once. He was, he was whatever suited his purposes at the moment.

Studs Terkel And so we come toward the end of your book and his one defeat, and the change in Johnson now as a seasoned anti-New Deal feeling in the country, he's running for the Senate.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel Okay, now something happens, he's running this, and he seems like he's got it.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel He's against -- he's running against Martin Dies, the [young American?] -- but he never challenges the Dies Committee, did he?

Robert Caro No, no. He -- but he was really running against this fabulous governor of Texas, Lee O'Daniel who was known as "Pass the biscuits, Pappy," okay, right, and O'Daniel beats him in 1941 because, as one of Johnson's aides told me, "He stole more votes than we

Studs Terkel So here is a great irony. It's a comedy. Here is a burlesque [joke?]. We know that Johnson stole elections, whether it be in college or elsewhere, and there's an incident of ballot boxes in an earlier campaign, I think. Now his election is stolen from

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel By Pappy in the rural community, is that it? So we have a comic twist here.

Robert Caro A comic twist. He relaxed, Johnson, he thought he had won. And while he was relaxing, the election was stolen

Studs Terkel And so this is a tremendous blow, oh my God, to his ego, to everything. Losing when he thought he had it sewed up.

Robert Caro Very -- it was actually, you know, you feel for him. I think I wrote a paragraph in there. He had worked so hard all his life, and he had won. He had relaxed for one day, and he lost.

Studs Terkel Oh, that was it! He relaxed, he took a sleeping pill, relaxed, and while he was -- he who never relaxed!

Robert Caro Right. And while he was relaxing, the ballot boxes were stolen.

Studs Terkel And so toward the end of the book, the war now begins, it's Pearl Harbor. And now Johnson is definitely shifty, he's now condemning using the cliches now, "federal bureaucracy," and you know the overstaffed, overstuffed, now he's talking like the other boys.

Robert Caro Yes.

Studs Terkel Because he senses an anti-New Deal spirit in the land. And so how do we end this conversation because of the book, my guest is Robert Caro, who has won a number of awards for his previous book about Robert Moses, "The Power Broker", and this book is about the power man indeed, "The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson", this is until this moment. From his beginnings to his defeat for the Senate and then regrouping his forces. What are we left with now then?

Robert Caro Well, Volume 2 is Lyndon Johnson finally winning his seat in the Senate, be dominating the Senate as no man in history has dominated it as Senate Majority Leader, ruling the Senate, the master of the Senate, then wanting to be president, going for the presidency, being defeated by Kennedy, becoming the vice president. And Volume 2 ends with the assassination. The last scene is him being sworn in on the plane.

Studs Terkel And further Volume 3 no doubt the presidency and the Vietnam War and the resignation.

Robert Caro Yes, the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

Studs Terkel There's one last thing, there are so many things [altered?], we started in the beginning saying to understand America, where we've been the past half century, study LBJ. His use of money in campaigns. He became the guy. He revolution-- today what we see and how dough is used to help candidates, controlled money is used, is really a Johnson invention. An innovation.

Robert Caro In a large sense it is, Studs.

Studs Terkel Robert A. Caro my guest, "The Path to Power". Alfred A. Knopf the publishers, available and powerful indeed. Thank you very much.

Robert Caro Thank you.