JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the unfolding drama of a political figure at a key turning point in American history.
Gwen Ifill has our conversation.
GWEN IFILL: Historian Robert Caro has spent nearly four decades telling the story of a single man, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The fourth hefty volume in his series of biographies is “The Passage of Power.” It covers the pivotal four years between 1960 and 1964, as Johnson rose from senator to vice president then, through the stunning tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, to president.
And there is yet a fifth volume to come.
Robert Caro joins me now.
ROBERT CARO, author: Nice to be here.
GWEN IFILL: It seems like this is a book about transformation.
ROBERT CARO: Yes, the transformation of Lyndon Johnson at the beginning of it is the mighty Senate majority leader, the most powerful majority leader in history.
He descends to the pit of the vice presidency and three years of humiliation. And then, in a single crack of a gunshot, it’s all reversed, and he’s president of the United States.
GWEN IFILL: You use that term crack of a gunshot throughout the book. It seems like that that is the running theme.
ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, and the people who are in — when you ask John Connally, for example, he says: Everyone else thought it was a motorcycle backfire or a firecracker. But I was a hunter all my life. I knew it was the crack of a hunting rifle.
So does the Secret Service agent in Johnson’s car. At the moment the gunshot fire — sounds, he sees President Kennedy two cars above start to fall to the left. He whirls around, he grabs Lyndon Johnson’s shoulder, throws him down to the floor of the car, leaps over the backseat, and lays on top of him — Johnson was later to say, “I will never forget his knees in my back and his elbows in my back” — and shields Johnson’s body with his own as they’re racing to Parkland Hospital.
GWEN IFILL: This moment, this transformative moment in our history, happened just at a time when Lyndon Johnson was his most miserable in his entire public career as vice president.
ROBERT CARO: He was telling his aides to find other jobs. He said, I’m finished. Go with somebody else.
GWEN IFILL: And it’s possible that Kennedy thought he was finished, too.
ROBERT CARO: Well, it certainly was starting to look like that might be more of a possibility.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit about his relationship with the Kennedys.
Garry Wills wrote one of the reviews of this book. And he described the book as a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred.
ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, there are three strong personalities, Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.
Lyndon Johnson despises Jack Kennedy. When he’s the Senate majority leader, Kennedy is a young senator. Johnson said of him, he’s pathetic. He was pathetic as a senator. He didn’t even know how to address the chair. He used to mock him. He used to literally call him not a man’s man. He said — he used to say to people, you know how skinny his ankles are? And he’d hold up his fingers like this.
He doesn’t realize. He thinks he’s going to have the Democratic nomination in 1960. He doesn’t realize that this young senator for whom he has no respect really is a great politician and is racing around the country corralling delegates, impressing people, and taking the nomination away from him. By the time Johnson wakes up, it’s really too late.
GWEN IFILL: And that his little brother, who eventually was considered really — the real number two when President Kennedy was president, even though he was attorney general, that he would be undercutting him at every turn. At least, that’s the way Johnson saw it.
ROBERT CARO: Bobby Kennedy, you know, you hate to use words as a historian like hatred, but hatred isn’t too strong a word to describe the relationship between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They hated each other.
Robert Kennedy said of Lyndon Johnson after his brother was killed, he said — he never would call Johnson president. So when he uses the word president, it’s his brother. He said, my president was a gentleman and a human being. This man is not. He’s mean, bitter, vicious, an animal in many ways.
GWEN IFILL: An animal.
There were two episodes right around the assassination between them, one in — when — actually when Lyndon Johnson call Robert Kennedy to ask if it was okay to get sworn in, in Dallas, and the other when Bobby Kennedy arrived at Air Force One when the plane landed in Washington.
ROBERT CARO: That telephone call, you know, is one of the things that when you learn about it, you’re really sad. I mean it’s a moment you can hardly understand.
Robert Kennedy is sitting by the swimming pool at Hickory Hill, his place in Virginia. Suddenly, he sees a workman painting the house clap a transistor radio to his ear and come running down toward the pool. At the same moment, the telephone rings on the table by him. And Ethel, his wife, picks it up. And it’s J. Edgar Hoover to tell Robert Kennedy that his brother has been shot.
Less than an hour later, the man that Robert Kennedy hated is on the phone to him asking the formalities of how he assumes his brother’s power. The secretary who took down the oath, Johnson asked Robert Kennedy for the wording of the oath.
You know Kennedy — he could have asked any one of a hundred people for that. And the secretary — Kennedy has Nicholas Katzenbach, his deputy, give him the oath. I asked the secretary, a woman name Marie Fehmer, who still lives in Washington, you know what it was like. And she says, Katzenbach’s voice was like steel. Bobby wasn’t. He had started. I thought, you shouldn’t be doing this.
GWEN IFILL: Jackie Kennedy was also — we see her in that photograph. And she gave great legitimacy to the passing of power by standing next to Lyndon Johnson when he took that oath. But she had mixed feelings as well about Johnson.
ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, she once wrote to Ted Sorensen after — you must know how frightened my husband was that Lyndon Johnson might become president.
This is really after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the — Johnson was so hawkish in the meetings of the ExComm.
GWEN IFILL: He was hawkish and he was pretty much pushed to the side as well. . .
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: . . . during that period.
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: So, let’s keep back on this transformation theme.
So he becomes president through no actions of their own. There’s this boiling resentment. This is this grief which overcomes all of the members of the Kennedy inner circle.
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: And yet here comes the Texan to take over. And in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, what does he do? He decides to take on civil rights.
ROBERT CARO: Yes. And he says the most important thing we can do is pass the civil rights bill that Jack Kennedy introduced and fought for, for so long.
And he picks up this bill. You know, at the time that Kennedy was assassinated, at the moment he was assassinated, his two top-priority bill, civil rights and tax cuts, are really dead in the water. And Congress — Congress has stopped them. The Southerners control I think it’s nine of the 16 great standing committees of the Senate. They control the Senate absolutely.
The civil rights bill hasn’t even gotten over to the Senate. It’s in the House Rules Committee, which is ruled over by Judge Howard W. Smith of Virginia. And he is refusing even to tell anybody when he will get to have hearings on the civil rights bill.
Johnson — you know, Johnson was a genius. He was a legislative genius. He remembers that a representative, Richard Bolling of Missouri, has introduced the discharge position to take the bill away from Smith’s committee. Now, these petitions seldom go anywhere. And a president is never behind them because it’s challenging all the House prerogative.
Johnson makes a call to Bolling. And you have to say the first half of the call is Johnson saying, I will never interfere with the House prerogatives. Then, he says to Bolling, do you see any way to get this out of committee? Bolling says no. And I wrote in the book, if there was only one lever, Lyndon Johnson was going to push it. And to watch him push that discharge petition through and get the civil rights bill is legislative genius.
GWEN IFILL: It’s the old Lyndon Johnson that we know from “Master of the Senate,” your last book.
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: And it’s him come back. But — and in it, he also says — you quote him as saying to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian, “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into the martyr’s cause.”
ROBERT CARO: Yes.
And he uses the sympathy that people had for Kennedy. That helped him get the bills moving, but none — he also uses his great knowledge of legislative techniques and the secrets of the Senate to get these bills moving.
GWEN IFILL: And in the next book, we will hear about what brought him down. And that’s the war in Vietnam.
ROBERT CARO: Very dark story.
GWEN IFILL: Very dark story.
ROBERT CARO: Sad story.
GWEN IFILL: But we look forward to reading it.
Robert Caro, thank you so much.
ROBERT CARO: Thank you, Gwen.
JEFFREY BROWN: You can find more of Gwen’s interview with Robert Caro, plus photos from his book on our website.