JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another of our conversations with the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prizes in the arts, and to Ray Suarez.
RAY SUAREZ: This year's Pulitzer Prize for biography went to Robert Caro for his book "Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson." It examines Johnson's 12 years in the United States Senate, and is the third volume Caro has written about Johnson. This is the second Pulitzer Prize for Robert Caro. He won for his biography of Robert Moses called, "The Power Broker," in 1975.
So, congratulations all over again. It must be a thrill.
ROBERT CARO: It is a thrill.
RAY SUAREZ: The company of two time winners is a small and pretty flattering company to be with.
ROBERT CARO: It's great, yeah.
RAY SUAREZ: You are now in effect spending your adult life with Lyndon Johnson.
ROBERT CARO: A lot of years of it, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: How did you come upon this, and how did you know that this was going to become a life's work?
ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, I was always interested when I started with Robert Moses. I never wanted to do biography just to tell the life of a famous man. I never had any interest in doing that. I always wanted to use the life of a man to examine political power, because in a democracy that shapes all our lives. Now, with Moses I picked him because he did something no one else ever did. He wasn't elected to anything. You know, we're taught that in a democracy power comes from being elected. He was never elected to anything. He had more power than anyone who did, more than any mayor or governor. And he held it for 48 years, almost half a century. So I said if I could find out how he did that, I'd be showing something new about urban power. I picked Lyndon Johnson because I wanted to do the same thing with national power. The thing that first drew me to him was what-- I didn't know it would take three books to get up here-- was his years as majority leader of the United States Senate. Because, like... he did something no one else did. He made the Senate work. So I felt if I could find out how he did that I'd be showing something about legislative power.
RAY SUAREZ: And in a tumultuous time in American history. You also, in effect, write a biography of mid century America.
ROBERT CARO: Well, that's what I'm trying to do, yes. And, of course, Johnson inserted himself. You know, he injected the Senate into it. And when he was the majority leader, the Senate was the center of governmental energy and creativity and ingenuity. He was basically writing his own legislation. They take... the civil rights bill of 1957, Eisenhower would send the bill over, but Johnson would rewrite it and ram it through the Senate, and it was basically his bill.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, now you are in the... still in the middle of this great journey. I mean, we end with the campaigns that lead him to national office. Are you still in love with the topic the way you were at the very beginning?
ROBERT CARO: Yeah, because you know, each book it's not about... like, for each book you have to learn another world. Like my first volume, "The Path to Power," I was trying to learn about Lyndon Johnson when he was young and creating his first political machine in the Texas hill country. I'm from New York as you are. And I said... we'd be going through the papers in the Johnson Library, and every afternoon I'd drive out to interview some old person and they all said something that I came to realize was true. "You're a city boy, you don't understand what life is out here. So you don't understand Lyndon Johnson." So, I actually moved down there for three years. And then you... had to learn that world. Now, for this book I had to learn the world of the Senate, which is really for all that's written about the Senate, an unknowing world and its mores, and the way things work with subcommittees and all. I loved learning about that. And for this next book, of course, we have Lyndon Johnson transforming America both with the civil rights and the great society you could say for the better, and, of course, there's Vietnam. I don't know quite how I'm going to handle that yet, but I'm really just thrilled to be starting out with it... ( laughs ) ...if you want to know the truth.
RAY SUAREZ: But, now you're getting into years where you were already an adult, and you were already a working journalist.
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: You bring with that certain baggage, don't you? Do you have relearn some of your history?
ROBERT CARO: Absolutely. Just this last month I was down in the Lyndon Johnson Library, and I'm going through the internal memos of the campaign when he's running against John F. Kennedy for the nomination and then when he's vice presidency. And it's like, with each fold I'm saying, "oh, that's not true, oh, that's not true" -- ( Laughs ) you know?
RAY SUAREZ: But it must be interesting to have to relive and relearn a time where you were a young man and already full of ideas and opinions about the world.
ROBERT CARO: It's just great. I mean, you're a journalist. You know, these folders that I'm opening now, they literally were opened just about a week or so before I started going through them. You say God, you're looking at stuff that no one has seen since Lyndon Johnson left the White House. And you're learning about the intricacies. I mean, if you think you know politics, you know... you don't understand anything about this at all. It's one thing after another.
RAY SUAREZ: At the end... you're in the middle of the volume... researching the volume on the presidency. Is he a greater man than you had realized? A lesser man than you realized, more flawed?
ROBERT CARO: Well, he... I'm awed by him. You know, in this book, when you see him as... I mean, when he gets to be majority leader, no... the Senate, it was a cliché. Alvin Bachner, I thinks, said, "no one can lead the Senate. I have nothing to promise them. I have nothing to threaten them with." Everyone believed the Senate could not really be led. It used to take so long to rise up through seniority. In two years Lyndon Johnson is assistant leader of his party. In four years he is the leader of his party. He's only 44 years old -- much younger than any other leader in history. And the minute he takes that leadership, he starts to do things. Everyone said, "the seniority system will never be changed." He changes it in two weeks to... watch him doing things in the Senate with this mixture of ruthlessness, I mean, absolute ruthlessness and charm and brilliance. You say, when he sets out to pass that first civil rights bill in 1957, you really say no one even though you know he passed, you said no one can get this passed. The 14 great standing committees of the Senate, southerners are chairmen of nine. They basically have all the power in the Senate. And they stopped every civil rights bill since reconstruction. Johnson sets out to pass this bill, and to watch him almost do it vote by vote is to see I said legislative power a minute ago, it's really legislative genius.
RAY SUAREZ: And over a topic that had proven since the end of Second World War in civil rights to be one of thorniest that the Senate had to deal with, no?
ROBERT CARO: Oh, yes. And, you know, they're strokes of genius. You know, all the liberals are saying, "we have to pass this bill...ensure no segregation in housing and education." The southerners are never going to let that through. Johnson says no, just limit it to voting. And the liberals... who don't understand Johnson's genius say, "no, no, all of these things are unjust. We have to correct all these unjustices." Johnson says, "just give..." well, he would use... "just give them the vote, and every politician in America will be kissing their ass." And he says, "they will have the power. If we give them the vote, they will have the power. They can do things for themselves. All the other things will come. Well, that's an oversimplification. But that's the only way he got that first bill through. And he's always saying to them, "Just pass the first bill. We can go back and make it better," which of course he does when he's president. No one had thought of that before. You know, in this book you say, "God, he advances the bill this way." How did he even do that? Then he advances it this way. He's going around the cloak room, you know, he's telling the southerners he's on their side. He's telling the liberals he's on their side. And both of them believe it because that's his... that's his ability.
RAY SUAREZ: Target year for the final volume in the series?
ROBERT CARO: ( Laughs ) I hope in four or five years. I hope -- but my predictions are notably inaccurate, Ray. ( Laughs )
RAY SUAREZ: Robert Caro, great to see you.
ROBERT CARO: Nice to see you.