Robert Caro on Writing About Political Power and Its Impact on the Powerless

Robert Caro is always working. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner published his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 45 years ago and has spent the decades since meticulously chronicling the life and times of Lyndon B. Johnson. The result is four sweeping volumes that total more than 3,000 pages and offer an unprecedented window into the inner world of one of the country’s most influential presidents. And he’s not done yet — Caro is currently writing the fifth and final installment of the collection. Robert Caro has been described as “the greatest political biographer of our times,” but to reduce his work as simply biographies of great men misses the point. Caro uses both Moses and Johnson to show how political power works. Robert Caro has just released a new book — by far the smallest volume in his collection — titled Working. It offers an inside look into the author’s meticulous research and writing process. We speak with Robert Caro in our New York studio.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to one of the nation’s most celebrated writers, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro. He’s out with a new book titled Working, that gives an inside look at his remarkable research and writing process. And it does appear that Robert Caro is always working.

Forty-five years ago, he published his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Over a seven-year-period, he conducted over 500 interviews for what turned out to be a 1,200-page book looking at how Robert Moses reshaped the nation’s largest city, New York. The Modern Library would later name The Power Broker as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century, along with such works as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

And Caro hasn’t stopped working since. For the past 45 years, Robert Caro, with much help from his wife Ina, has been researching the life and times of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, from his childhood in Hill Country, Texas, to his time in the White House. Four volumes have been published so far: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power. They total more than 3,000 pages. Robert Caro is now writing the fifth volume, looking at Vietnam, the Great Society and President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.

Robert Caro has been described as “the greatest political biographer of our times” and “America’s biographer-in-chief.” But to reduce Caro’s work as simply biographies of great men misses the point. Caro uses both Moses and Johnson to show how political power works. Caro writes that by focusing on Robert Moses, he was able to explore, quote, “the realities of urban political power, power in cities, [power] not just in New York but in all the cities of America in the middle of the twentieth century.” With LBJ, Caro helped expose how national power works in the Senate and the presidency. Robert Caro once told Kurt Vonnegut, quote, “What I’m trying to do, is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about,” he says.

Well, with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, who today is joining us from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we’re spending the hour with Robert Caro.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Robert.

ROBERT CARO: Great to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 55 years ago. In fact, it would be 55 years ago in July that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And go back a few months before that, when Lyndon Baines Johnson, standing next to a blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy, would be sworn in as president. He could have taken on any issue at that point, becoming president. Warned by many in his inner circle, “Don’t do the Civil Rights Act. Don’t lose the South,” he moved forward. Describe for us — set the stage and the place. Talk about LBJ’s decision to go this route.

ROBERT CARO: Four days after the assassination, he has to give an address to the joint session of Congress. He’s not even in the Oval Office yet. He’s still working out of his private home in Washington. Three or four of his speechwriters are sitting around the kitchen table trying to draft a speech. And at some point Johnson comes down wearing a bathrobe and asks them how they’re doing. They say, “Well, the only thing we’re all sure of is don’t make civil rights a priority. If you anger the Southerners who control Congress, they’re going to stop your whole legislative program, like they did Kennedy. It’s a noble cause, but it’s a lost cause. Don’t fight for it.” And Lyndon Johnson says to them, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for then?” And, of course, in his speech, he says, with all the Southern senators sitting in a row in front of him, “Our first priority has to be the passage of the civil rights bill.”

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the battle that ensued? You particularly focus on Richard Russell, and you pit these two — well, they pitted themselves against each other.

ROBERT CARO: Well, Russell — you know, Johnson convinced the Southern senators — for 20 years before 1964, every vote that he made was on the side of the South. He not only supported every Southern bill and opposed every civil rights bill, but he was a Southern strategist. And Russell took him under his wing. Richard Russell was the most powerful figure in the Senate. He was the head of the mighty Southern Caucus. You have to understand, Amy, in that year — I forget the — I may have the numbers wrong here, but approximately right — of the 16 great standing committees in the Senate, 11 were chaired by Southerners or their allies. They had all the power in the Senate. And Russell raised Lyndon Johnson up to the position of majority leader. It was him who really put Johnson in.

So, I would speak to some of the Southern senators. And I asked one of them — I remember Herman Talmadge, who was actually dying when I finally got to talk to him. He was the senator from Georgia. Finally talked to me, and I’m asking him about this, and I said, “Well, what did Lyndon Johnson convince you should be the relationship between white men and black men? What did he believe?” Talmage said, “Master and servant.” And I said, “So how did he make you believe that?” And Talmadge, who was a sharp man and proud of his sharpness, said, “He talked to me all the time. I thought we were friends. I thought I knew what he really believed.” So I said, “Well, how did you feel when Johnson gave the speech saying our first priority must be the civil rights bill? How did you feel sitting there as he stands there saying this?” Talmadge said — there was this long pause — finally, he says to me, “Sick. I felt sick.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robert Caro, what then changed Johnson and made him such a proponent of the civil rights movement?

ROBERT CARO: Well, I’m not sure that anything changed Johnson. You see, it may be that he believed the same thing all along, but he concealed it for 20 years. You know, why do I think Lyndon Johnson truly believed in civil rights, that it wasn’t a political thing? Because when he was 20 and 21 years old, he went to college; it was a college he called the poor boys’ school. He didn’t have enough money to continue. He had to drop out between his sophomore and junior year and teach school. And he taught in a school in a little town down near the Mexican border in Texas, in what they called “the Mexican school.” I wrote about that. No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared. He was so insistent that they learn English — he thought that was the crucial thing — if, at recess, he heard boys shouting in excitement on the baseball diamond in Spanish, he’d run out and spank them on the spot. Girls, he gave a tongue lashing to.

Now, all this time later, he has concealed this. Now he becomes president. He has the power. You know, we all learn Lord Acton’s axiom, “All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m not sure that, as a result of my work, I believe that. What I really believe, I believe that power does not always corrupt. Sometimes power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal. When you get enough power so you can do what you want, then people see what you wanted to do all along.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you know, I was interested in your new book, Working, and obviously some of the stuff that you have in here is a distillation not only of what you learned in the bigger books that you wrote but also the process by which you learned them. You talk about the rise of power of Lyndon Johnson, and you center on this moment in October of 1940, when it appeared to be that Johnson really, as a young member of Congress, begins to gain much more influence and power. And you were fascinated to try to understand what had happened in October of 1940 to suddenly catapult Johnson into a key figure. And you end up discovering this whole connection that he developed to the oil barons of Texas and the funding of the Democratic Party. I’m wondering if you could talk about that?

ROBERT CARO: Yes, it was quite — you see, he’s been in Congress only three years. He’s 32 years old. He has no power. And then, all of a sudden, after the month of October 1940, just before the election, he’s the guy, you see in the files, senior congressmen asking for five minutes of his time. So I said, “What happened during that five months?” At that time I was talking to a notable Washington fixer, a very ebullient wheeler-dealer in Washington for decades, named Tommy the Cork. He used to call me “kid.” So, I said, “What happened in October 1940?” I remember Corcoran said to me, “Money, kid. Money. But you’re never going to be able to write about that, kid.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because Lyndon Johnson never put anything in writing.”

Well, Corcoran was only partly right: Johnson hardly ever put anything in writing. But as I’m going through the papers in the Johnson Library, there are two amazing documents. One is a telegram from Brown & Root, the huge Texas oil contracting and dam building firm for whom Johnson is getting a federal contract, saying to Lyndon Johnson at the beginning of October 1940, “Lyndon, the checks are on the way.” And the money that is being sent to him — unprecedented amounts of money — is for him to distribute to congressmen, because Lyndon Johnson is a genius. He doesn’t have any power, but he realizes there is one thing he has that no other congressman has. He knows two groups of people. He knows the Texas oilmen and contractors who need favors from the federal government, and he needs — and are willing to pay to get it, to give campaign contributions, and he knows the Northeastern, Northern liberal congressmen who need money for their campaigns. He arranges that all this money be given through him, and that creates power.

And there is a list that I found in the Johnson Library that was just remarkable. You know, we wonder: How do you prove that economic power has such an effect on political power, that economic power creates political power sometimes? You see it all in this list. The list is typed by one of Johnson’s secretaries. There are two typed columns. In the left column is the name of the congressman who’s asking for money. In the center column is how much money he’s asking for — small amounts, tiny amounts by our standards: “Lyndon, need $450 for poll watchers,” “Lyndon, $700 will give me a round of last-minute advertising.” But in the left-hand column — left-hand margin, next to the congressman’s name, there is, by each name, something in Johnson’s handwriting. Sometimes he writes — if he’s giving the congressman all the money the guy has asked for, he writes, “OK.” Sometimes, if he’s giving him part of it, he writes, “OK,” and the amount: “OK, 300,” “OK, 500.” But sometimes he writes, “None.” He’s not giving him anything. And sometimes he writes, “None, out.” And I asked his longtime assistant John Connally, “What did it mean when Lyndon Johnson wrote, ‘None, out’?” And Connally said to me — I’ll never forget his tone — he said, “That guy was never going to get money from Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson never forgave, and he never forgot.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of two books, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and The Years of Lyndon Johnson. His most recent best-selling book is titled Working. We’re speaking with Robert Caro for the hour. Stay with us.