BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Caro, in your fourth book about Lyndon Johnson, ”The Passage of Power,” you talk about the tension between Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert Kennedy.
ROBERT CARO, AUTHOR: Yes.
LAMB: Give us some background on when they met and why their was so much hatred between the two of them.
CARO: Well, the first time they met is fascinating. Lyndon Johnson is the great, powerful majority leader of the Senate. Robert Kennedy is this 27-year-old, new staffer for Senator Joseph McCarthy on his committee.
The first how do we know what happened the first time they met? Because two of Johnson’s staff people were with him and told me the same story.
He had breakfast every morning, Johnson, in the Senate cafeteria and Joe McCarthy had this big round table near the cashier’s register where he would sit with his staffers and Johnson walks in one morning and McCarthy was there with four or five of his staffers, including Bobby Kennedy, and McCarthy jumps up in deference to Johnson, as they all do, and all the other staffers get up, except Robert Kennedy. He just sits there.
And Johnson walks over to the table and shakes hands and he sees that Bobby Kennedy isn’t getting up, so Johnson, you know, knows how to handle any situation like that so he sort of stands there, as it’s described to me, like this, sort of forcing Robert Kennedy to get up and he does.
And George Reedy who was Johnson’s press secretary who was there says there was no reason for it.
You ever see two dogs come into a room and they’ve never met and the hair rises on the back of their neck and there’s a low growl? There was just something chemical between those two guys.
LAMB: When was the next time they had some kind of a confrontation?
CARO: Well, the next time they actually had a confrontation would probably be at the Democratic convention in 1960 where Jack Kennedy joined President Kennedy well, he’s still the nominee has offered Lyndon Johnson the vice presidency.
LAMB: Now, just just a second on that ...
LAMB: ... age factor. How old would Bobby Kennedy roughly have been then and how old would Lyndon Johnson have been?
CARO: In 1960?
CARO: Well, Lyndon Johnson was 52. I can answer that very quickly. Bobby Kennedy was born in ’29, so I guess he was ...
LAMB: 34, 35. Yes. But so there was a great deal difference in age and what had Lyndon Johnson done up until the time he was selected and what had Robert Kennedy done?
CARO: Well, up to the time at the time that Johnson starts running against Jack Kennedy for the nomination for the 1960 Democratic nomination he has been the Senate majority leader for six years. He has been the greatest majority leader in history.
He made the Senate work. It introduced its own bills. It passed bills. It was the center of governmental ingenuity and energy in Washington and he was considered the most powerful Democrat in the country.
The second they called him the second most powerful man in the country, second only to President Eisenhower.
Robert Kennedy had been a congressional staffer, but for the last two years, he had been running his brother’s presidential campaign.
LAMB: You say he worked for Joseph McCarthy. Why?
CARO: Well, he left McCarthy’s committee eventually, you know, but there was a time and he’s frank to admit it in his memoirs where he believed that something had to be done about the communist conspiracy in this country and that McCarthy was the only person doing it.
And, you know, considering so a large part of this book is about how Bobby Kennedy changed. It’s a fascinating thing. I mean, it’s an evolution. You know, he says to somebody, ”All that happened was I got older.”
But I don’t think that’s all that happened. He changed as a human being into something by the end of the book, you see something quite different.
But when he was a young prosecutor for, first, McCarthy’s committee and then John McClellan’s rackets’ committee, liberals called him a Torquemada and, if you see newsreels of him questioning witnesses in this way you know, not giving them a chance to answer. You know? He was a very hardnosed militant prosecutor.
LAMB: So you go back to this ’60 convention.
LAMB: Why did John F. Kennedy offer Lyndon Johnson the vice presidency?
CARO: Can I say first, nobody knows, you know, what’s in somebody’s mind? He had to in retrospect, we see. And do I think that John F. Kennedy saw it from the beginning, not in retrospect, because he was quite a brilliant politician. He had to have Lyndon Johnson.
In 1956, Eisenhower had the ”Solid South” was not solid for the Democrats anymore. Eisenhower had taken five of the 11 Confederate states in 1956. One of them was Texas. No Democrat, including John F. Kennedy, was going to win the presidential election against Nixon without carrying Texas.
So we had in a way, you see, he had to have Johnson on the ticket.
LAMB: So Lyndon Johnson ran against him for the nomination. Why did he lose?
CARO: Well, that’s one of the fascinating stories in the book, you know, to me. But it’s fascinating.
All his life, the one quality about Lyndon Johnson, above is his decisiveness, his his ability to his willingness to act, to make decisions, and to act
And to try as hard as he could for everything.
Here, he’s wanted to be president all his life. You know, Lyndon Johnson has only one goal in his life to be president. In 1958, he seems perfectly determined perfectly positioned to become president.
He’s been the a majority leader. He has all the senators in his camp. He has passed the first civil rights act in history to blunt some of the Northern antagonism, too. He calls I I have in the book in 1958, he calls seven or eight of his top lieutenants to his ranch. He says, ”I am destined to be president.” I mean, one of them says yes ”I was meant to be president. You all know that. And I’m going to be president.”
And then, suddenly and they’re waiting for the campaign to begin and, suddenly, he doesn’t run. He doesn’t give any orders. He doesn’t want to go and speak anywhere. He’s terribly indecisive and really he throws away his chance at this nomination.
CARO: Well, it people who knew him best say like John Connally was his who later became Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of the Navy, this great politician, once had me down to his ranch for three days and those interviews were fascinating to me because he was closer to Lyndon Johnson during his early years than anyone else.
He’d come to to my guest house. He had this grand, great ranch down in Floresville. He’d come about 5:30 in the morning or 6:00 in the morning. He’d knock on my door. He’d be in jeans and an open, you know, rancher’s shirt. He he then had a great stable of quarter horses. We’d go over to the railing where the Mexican vaqueros were running them and we’d sit on the fence and he talked to me.
And I asked him that question and he said, ”You know, the one thing about Lyndon Johnson. He was afraid to fail.”
Why was he afraid to fail? His brother, Sam Houston Johnson, said to me, ”The one thing that was most important to Lyndon was not to be like daddy.” His father had been a politician for awhile, a successful politician, and had failed, lost the ranch, and the family was plunged into not only bankruptcy, but being the laughing stock of their town.
So Johnson, when he was Senate majority leader, you know, Bobby Baker is his the man who countedauvotes for him and Baker says, ”I learned never to let him fail on a vote. Never.”
LAMB: By the way, in your acknowledgements, you say there are two people that have not talked to you. One of them, Bobby Baker, and the other, Bill Moyers.
LAMB: Why not and how hard have you worked to get them to talk to you?
CARO: Well, Bobby Baker, years ago, I made repeated efforts to get him to talk to me. He doesn’t think much of my books.
As for Mr. Moyers, he does say complimentary things about my books. You know, he’s said repeatedly, I think, complimentary things about my books, but he simply said that he doesn’t want to talk to me.
For a long time it was said that he was going to do his own book on Lyndon Johnson which is perfectly, you know, understandable. I don’t think he’s said that for many years. He simply you’d have to ask him why he hasn’t talked to me.
LAMB: What have you missed because these two men I know you there’s a lot of these people have talked to you, but what have missed from either Bobby Baker or Bill Moyers?
CARO: Well, you miss a lot from both of them. You can remedy like, of course, Bobby Baker went to jail. He had a trial, a long trial. He’s written a very revealing memoir and there’s so much testimony about him at the time of this scandal in in the book that you were able to put together most of the picture of what you want, but, of course, it would be better it’s always better.
You know, I’ve talked I don’t think there’s another off the top of my head, I I can’t think of another Johnson person, important to me, who didn’t talk to me. I’m sure there’s somebody, but I’ve talked to, you know, scores and scores of them and, people like George Reedy or Horace Busby, I’ve talked to probably 20 or 30 times.
Whenever you can’t talk to someone, you miss something.
LAMB: How much of the Moyers lack of talking about this has anything to do with some of the charges made back when he was an aide, that he was involved in things like wiretapping of Barry Goldwater?
CARO: You’d have Brian, I have to say, you’d have to ask him that. You know, with Moyers, there are he’s written so many memos.
You know, I think I spent three probably three months going through all the Moyers memos when he was Johnson’s aide in in aide in the White House.
So you see a lot of what he was doing, but, of course, you know, he’s a very keen observer of people and you’d liked to have been able to talk to him.
LAMB: Go back to the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, you ...
CARO: Can can I just go so his brother said that Lyndon Johnson was afraid to fail. All the people who knew him best say that he was afraid to fail, to be like his father, and he was afraid that if he ran for the presidency he would fail. That’s really, basically, I think, why he didn’t run.
LAMB: All right.
CARO: Why he didn’t run hard.
LAMB: I want to go back to Bobby Kennedy. How badly did JFK beat LBJ?
CARO: Well, the final the the final tally on the first ballot was 806-to-409, but that’s not a realistic talent tally. When they get up to Wyoming, Kennedy still doesn’t have the necessary votes and you see Johnson’s strategy and it’s a strategy that the more you look at 1960, you say, gee, it would’ve worked if only he can keep Kennedy from getting a majority on the first ballot.
The bosses, the the Dave Lawrences, the Dick Daleys, the Carmine De Sapios, in the backrooms, they will want Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy comes close. When it gets down to Wyoming, he still doesn’t have the necessary votes.
The the chairman of the Wyoming delegation has promised Teddy Kennedy that, if it comes down to his delegation, he will give the last five votes of that delegation I he they have 10 of the 15. He will give anyway, he will give the last five votes to Kennedy.
And we see it’s coming down to Wyoming and Walter Cronkite says on television, ”There’s Teddy Kennedy, hurrying across the floor.” You know? And he’s hurrying over to the Wyoming delegation and you see him say something to the delegation chairman who says, ”Wyoming casts its 15 votes for John F. Kennedy.”
So after Kennedy has the majority, of course, a number of states switch to him, but actually it was it was close that he was going to make it on the first ballot.
LAMB: I started to ask you earlier, you say of LBJ and Robert Kennedy that they were both ruthless.
LAMB: Explain what that means and give us some examples, if you can.
CARO: Well, of course, it’s always easier to do it for me with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s ruthlessness throughout his life was was striking, you know? In the last volume, he ruined he destroyed the Senate career of a senator named Earl Clements by forcing him to vote for what later an early version of Medicare.
He Clements knew that, if he voted for it, he would be destroyed because the AMA had been very active in his in his state and they called it socialized medicine.
So Johnson says, ”Unless it’s unless I need your vote, I won’t call on you.” But he really knows that he needs the vote and when it’s a I think it’s a tie vote and he sends Bobby Baker to Clements and Baker says the sweat was pouring down Clements’ face, but he had to give that vote.
Johnson had to win. He had to win.
Robert Kennedy had to win, also, and it’s quite fascinating. In this 1960 campaign, Johnson realizes the key to the campaign are the Western states. Johnson thinks he has them.
The Kennedys think, at the beginning, that he has them, so they send their younger brother, Ted, out there because he’s the youngest and it doesn’t and they’ve lost anyway. Ted is such a great politician at whatever age he is like 27 that he starts to win the Western states.
Bobby goes out to reinforce this and Johnson then realizes what’s happening and starts. But he says someone had I I forget the guy who put who went out there for Johnson first says Robert Kennedy had put the bridle and the halter on the delegates and, once Bobby Kennedy put that bridle on, these people knew they could not take it off.
LAMB: Go now to the selection of LBJ as vice president, running mate for John F. Kennedy. There’s a huge amount in your book, a back-and-forth ..
LAMB: Not a huge amount, but a lot the back-and-forth of Bobby Kennedy’s involvement. Did he really try to stop his brother from putting LBJ on the ticket?
CARO: Well, let’s say he he tried to get what there’s no question about is that he tried desperately to get Lyndon Johnson to withdraw or not to accept the offer of the vice presidency.
That the Kennedy has won in this thing the night before with 806 votes on the on the ballot. The next morning at 8:00, Kennedy goes now, this is in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The two suites of the two candidates are in the a back corner of the hotel. Johnson’s in 70 on the seventh floor in 7334. Kennedy’s two floors up at 9334, but they were suites of rooms.
LAMB: I have to stop you for a minute.
LAMB: Did you go to those suites?
LAMB: How long ago?
CARO: Well, it’s been renovated. It’s not it wasn’t productive. You could tell what they had been like before.
LAMB: OK, go ahead.
CARO: I’m sorry. But so there’s a back stairs. This chapter of my book is called ”The Back Stairs.” So at night in in the morning, Jack Kennedy comes down the back stairs because they don’t want the reporters to see him, either he or Robert, and offer Lyndon Johnson he has a conversation with Lyndon Johnson.
You know, whenever there are only two people in a room, Brian, you really can’t say, as a historian, you know what happened because one gives one version and one gives the other, but we know what happened after the meeting.
Johnson calls in his three closes advisers. That’s John Connally, Bobby Baker, and James H. Rowe, Jr. who had been Roosevelt’s adviser and Truman’s adviser. And he says, ”Jack Kennedy was just down here and he offered me the vice presidency.” That’s what Johnson says.
Kennedy goes back upstairs where there’s a group of Northern bosses who who know they can count votes that Kennedy has to have Texas and some Southern states. There’s Dave Lawrence, for one, is up there. And Kennedy walks into the room and he says, ”He hasn’t said he’ll except it, but it looks like he’s going to.”
And Lawrence there’s a picture in this book of this very moment and Lawrence, a tough old Irish politician, reaches out his hands to Jack Kennedy, this young great, you know, charismatic, handsome Irish politician, and they shake hands because Lawrence knows this is the key to the election.
What happens the rest of that day, I said no one can know. Everybody has different versions, but we do know that Bobby Kennedy came down those back stairs at least three times and each time tried to get Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the ticket.
LAMB: So which version do you trust the most of whether they met three times and what happened in those meetings?
CARO: Well, what happened in the meetings in in two of the meetings, we we do know because there are other people involved. Like the first time that Bobby Kennedy comes down, he meets with John Connally and Sam Rayburn.
Sam Rayburn gave a description of what happened a couple of weeks later, so we have that. And John Connally talked to me. I took him back over and basically what happened is Robert Kennedy comes down. He’s very upset. Rayburn says in his statement, ”His hair was hanging all down.”
”His hair was hanging down all over his face.” And he basically says we’re going to have a floor fight. The labor and the liberals won’t stand for Lyndon Johnson. They’re going to put up their own candidate and we we’d like him to consider, instead, being the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.”
Rayburn replies with a single word epithet, and Robert Kennedy leaves and so we know what happened in that because Connally and Rayburn both say the same thing.
The second time Robert Kennedy comes down, he apparently am I going on too long here?
LAMB: No, you’re fine.
CARO: Fine? OK. The second time he comes down, what’s happened what happens is that John at each of these meetings, he wants to meet with Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird is saying, ”I don’t think they ought to meet together. I don’t think they ought to meet together.”
And Rayburn also knows they shouldn’t meet together. There’s simply too much antagonism there.
And the second time that Bobby Kennedy comes down, Connally says, ”I’ve got to get Rayburn.” You know, Johnson said of Connally he made him his campaign manager because he was the only man tough enough to handle Bobby Kennedy.
But Connally knows and tough as is and he knows he’s tough there’s someone a lot tougher and it’s Sam Rayburn. Sam Rayburn is old. We know now he has cancer at the time. He’s blind. But he’s Sam Rayburn, this massive, unsmiling grim figure who has ruled the House of Representatives for a quarter a century.
LAMB: And he’s from Texas, so tell us why he and Lyndon Johnson are so personally close.
CARO: He was almost a father-son thing. Rayburn loved Lyndon Johnson like a son and he would spend perhaps most Sundays in Washington at the Johnson’s home and he loved the two Johnson girls and, all during Johnson’s Senate career, Rayburn is his rock. Rayburn is his support. Rayburn is the guy nobody can go around and he’s for Lyndon Johnson.
And Connally says to Horace Busby, the speechwriter, ”Go in there and talk to Bobby Kennedy. Keep him occupied. I’ve got to find Sam Rayburn.”
Busby walks in the room. He’s a very smart, brilliant young little man, but a little timid and he walks right back out and he says, ”Bobby Kennedy was glaring at me. I couldn’t that that was a glare.” He says, ”I walked outside. I said, ’I’ll deal with him from out here. I won’t stay in there.”
Connally comes back with Sam Rayburn and Bobby Kennedy says, basically, that he wants Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the ticket.
And Rayburn says to Bobby Kennedy, ”Are you authorized?” This old, blind man, so tough, he says, ”Are you authorized to speak for your brother?”
And Bobby Kennedy says, ”No.”
And Rayburn says, ”Then come back and speak to the speaker of the House of Representatives when you are.”
That’s the Bobby Kennedy leaves, goes back upstairs, and there is yet a third time he tries to come down to get Johnson to withdraw from the ticket and this time he meets with Johnson alone.
LAMB: So what do you think after all the research you’ve done? Did Jack Kennedy send his brother down to get him off the ticket or not?
CARO: I do not know, OK? I don’t know. I don’t no one can really know that.
And Robert Kennedy in his oral history says, basically, in answer to your question, if he were sitting there, ”Of course not. I was so close to my brother. What do you think I did? Go down and secretly try to get his vice president off the ticket?”
However, all that of the thing we know is that all that day, Jack Kennedy did everything he could to get Johnson to accept the nomination. At one point, he goes down. Jack Kennedy goes down the same back stairs to see Sam Rayburn alone.
And Rayburn I don’t remember this this quote offhand, but Rayburn said in his description of this, says, basically, to Jack Kennedy, ”I ask you two things. Will you keep Lyndon Johnson occupied and happy as vice president?” And something else.
And Kennedy says, I ”And will you make him a real part of your administration?”
Kennedy says, ”I tell you that.” Rayburn says then, he says, basically, ”Then Johnson will go on. I agree that Johnson can go on the ticket.” Because Johnson will not go on the ticket if Rayburn doesn’t approve.
LAMB: What did the Kennedy people call Lyndon Johnson behind his back?
CARO: Among other things? Rufus Cornpone. Uncle Cornpone. Uncle Rufus.
CARO: Well, they’re, of course, mocking the fact that he has this Southern accent. They’re mocking the fact that he’s a big, clumsy Southerner. You know, that he’s corny, in their beyond that, you say, why did they treat him with a meanness, in fact, a cruelty a cruelty, when you get down to it for three years.
I try to explain, you know, that in the book. Among other things, they were afraid of him. They had watched Lyndon Johnson, you know, when he was majority leader, running Washington. They had seen his incredible energy, his incredible drive.
And one night Robert Kennedy when he’s still in the Senate is leaving. You know, he’s been working until midnight or 1:00, whatever the time is. He’s walking out and there’s one light building one light burning in the Capitol and it’s in Lyndon Johnson’s office. And he turns to his aide and he says, ”Nobody outworks Lyndon.”
They’re afraid that if they let Lyndon Johnson off a very tight leash he will start to build up his own power in Washington.
LAMB: If I count right, including the index and the notes in your four books, 3,267 pages.
CARO: Is that right?
LAMB: 3,267 pages. Now, the last time we chatted, a couple of years ago, you were going to have four books and that was it on Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: What happened? You’ve got five. You’ve got a fifth one coming.
CARO: Yes, I have a fifth one. They’re I’ve divided them. The what I thought was well, you know, what happened well, that’s such a good question.
You know, the last half of this book is the assassination and what happens in the 47 days after that and I’m writing it and I’m watching Lyndon Johnson take all the reins of power up. It’s so dramatic to see what he does.
And I’m saying, you know, all my books, I I know I’ve told you this on previous programs. I don’t regard this as just the biography of Lyndon Johnson. I want each book to examine a kind of political power in America.
And I’m saying this is a kind of political power, seeing what a president can do in a moment of great in a time of great crisis great crisis, how he gathers all the and what does he do to get legislation moving to take command in Washington. That’s a way of examining power in a time of crisis.
And I said I want to do this in full. I suppose it takes 300 pages in there, so I couldn’t that’s why I just said let’s examine this.
LAMB: In your book, Lyndon Johnson, I think it’s safe to say, does lies to the public ...
LAMB: About a number of things, including his relationship I mean, you go on his relationship with his blind trust and things like that, but how often from what you’ve seen in this book did Lyndon Johnson lie to public about anything when he became president?
CARO: Oh, this you know, these seven 47 days, seven weeks, is a period unlike any other in Lyndon Johnson’s life. I mean, he has all these forces within him. Lying is a big part of his entire career up to here.
But it’s like he rises to something else and I don’t think it’s really part although there are hints of it, you know, in his stopping the Texas what he does to stop the Texas journalists from looking into his fortune but it’s a minor part of what he does because he knows he has to be a president. He has to the country needs continuity. Their young president has just been struck down in an instant and, although, you know, most of these conspiracy theories are disproved in a couple of days, that’s not the headlines.
As Air Force One is flying back to Washington, here are the headlines. You know, ”Suspect Arrested,” ”Suspect Charged,” ”Suspect Visited Soviet Embassy in Mexico City,” ”Soviet Suspect Has Ties to Castro Anti-Castro Groups.”
We had just come through a year before the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear crisis of nuclear war. The country it would be very easy for the for the country to become very it’s worried. There’s a let me just strike that. The country was worried. There was a great anxiety in the country.
Johnson knows he has to step off that plane and be a president. And he is. He rises to it. And for the next seven weeks, he he he is the president. There are no rages. You know and you’ve interviewed me before. A big part of Lyndon Johnson’s life is not just his lying, but his raging, his bullying of subordinates.
There’s none of that. Someone says it’s like an alarm clock had always told him to yell at somebody every 20 minutes. He says, for seven weeks, this alarm clock didn’t go off.
LAMB: I actually want to take a moment out here just a couple of minutes and run an audiotape of one of your sources. Before I do, though, I want to ask you to tell us how important George Reedy was to this book.
CARO: George Reedy was really important to this book.
LAMB: And who was he?
CARO: George Reedy was Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary for, basically, in a couple of intervals from 1950 to 1965 and, in the Senate, he was the closest aide to him and Johnson relied on him for strategy. Reedy was quite a brilliant man and Johnson relied on him to help him work out the strategy in the Senate.
LAMB: This is about a couple of minutes and it’s Lyndon Johnson on the phone with George Reedy, so we can get a sense of what their relationship was.
REEDY: Yes, sir.
JOHNSON: Why won’t you answer me in there?
REEDY: Because I was outside. Just stepping in as it rang, sir.
JOHNSON: All right. Now, tell me, I’ve got to announce to the cabinet what time we have the ceremony and where and so forth. It’s in the East Room, isn’t it?
REEDY: The East Room. The networks say 6:45 is the absolute best time, sir. We put to them cold and they say 6:45 both NBC and CBS will carry live. And some ABC stations will carry live and others will tape.
JOHNSON: I thought 7:00’s what we asked them to do.
REEDY: It was. It was. And they’ll do it, but we’ll get better play at 6:45, they say.
JOHNSON: Well, I don’t believe that. That’s cheaper time and 7:00 is the 6:45 is 4:45 in a good part of our country, George.
REEDY: That’s right, sir, but that, of course, will be replayed in tape.
JOHNSON: Well, I mean, that’s not an answer to it.
REEDY: No, I know it’s not.
JOHNSON: It seems like it’d be better to me in Texas to have something at 5:00 when people are getting off than it would be at 4:45. I mean, that’s 15 minutes, but I don’t see why it would be better at 6:45 than 7:00.
REEDY: Because more of their stations will carry it live. That’s why.
They’ll do it at 7:00. There’s no there’s no question there. They just say ...
JOHNSON: better at 7:00?
REEDY: I think it’d be better if they’d carry, but fewer stations will carry it at 7:00, they tell me.
JOHNSON: I just don’t believe anybody’s going to turn down ...
REEDY: I don’t either, sir.
JOHNSON: 7:00 now.
REEDY: I don’t either.
JOHNSON: I just don’t believe it.
REEDY: I don’t either, but I’m just passing on what the pool said.
JOHNSON: . I guess they don’t want to interrupt the the let’s see the 7:00 news, NBC doesn’t. And that that they get it on at 6:45 and then I guess CBS doesn’t mind that cheap time, but it seems like ...
REEDY: Well, that’s what they’re after. There’s no doubt of it, sir.
They’ll carry it, I think. I can’t imagine their turning it down.
JOHNSON: Well, now, what time are we going to announce it? That’s what I’ve got to do. Let’s think about it. We’ve got I don’t want to do this in a hurry and I don’t know enough about it and I don’t think anybody in our outfit knows enough about the radio or television and I believe they’re selfish bastards.
They’re like Jesse Kellam. He wants anything to carry in the afternoon he can because he don’t want to give up that night primary hour.
REEDY: That’s right.
JOHNSON: And, you see, it’s 7:00 here. It’s 5:00 in Texas, but it’s 6:45 here. It’s just 4:45 there and, hell, it’s about 3:45 in California and I just don’t believe you’re going to get much audience. I think the later in the evening you do it, the better, but that’s my offhand thought.
Let’s don’t decide it. Let’s talk about it. Bill Moyers in here and let’s just try to reason it out.
LAMB: There’s a lot in there I want to ask you about, including his reference to Jesse Kellam, just so we could put that into perspective.
LAMB: Who is ...
CARO: Jesse Kellam was the manager of the Johnson radio and television stations in Austin.
LAMB: And how many stations did they did he have?
CARO: In Austin? One. Austin had only one television station, WLBJ, later changed to different call letters.
LAMB: But it had all three networks. It was an affiliate.
CARO: Yes, it did. Yes, it did.
LAMB: Why only one television station?
CARO: Well, the FCC only allowed one channel there. You know, airplane pilots used to say you could always if you got lost over the United States, you could always tell when you over Austin because it was the only city that only had one television antennae.
LAMB: You do talk in the book about Jesse Kellam and the money managers of Lyndon Johnson and I’ll come back to that, but what did you hear in that?
CARO: Well, I heard, first of all, a a a press secretary and Reedy was always like this who wasn’t going to agree with Lyndon Johnson. He says, no, they’ll carry it. This is what I arranged. I’m explaining it to you.
That’s why, if you I’m going to go into this in the next volume among the reasons that Johnson gets rid of George Reedy as the Vietnam war escalates, Reedy is telling him not to escalate it and Johnson doesn’t want to hear it and Reedy always tried to tell Johnson the truth.
The second thing you hear is Johnson this is a master politician he’s a micromanager. He’s thinking what time does it go on in California and he’s probably right about this. It seems to me he’s right about this. He wants it at 7:00, instead of 6:45, but he manages every detail of everything.
The third thing I hear is the tone of his voice, to tell you the truth. His tone with Reedy, that’s a there are other conversations where the tone is a lot harsher, a lot more demanding.
LAMB: The Jesse Kellam part of this ...
CARO: What do you hear what do you hear in that conversation?
LAMB: I’ve I’ve I’ve listened hundreds of hours of it and you hear the I mean, you hear it even harsher in some conversations.
CARO: Yes, definitely.
LAMB: But go back, though, to the Jesse Kellam thing. And I asked you about how often he lied to the public. You have a whole section where you talk about his relationship to the media and his threats.
LAMB: And we heard a lot of that during the Nixon administration, but this was going on ...
CARO: I don’t think I don’t think we’ve known this about Johnson and it’s the reason that I do go into the three threats that he makes. Down in December 1963, he’s been in office for a month from November 22nd, obviously, and he’s defeated Congress. He’s got Kennedy’s civil rights bill started through Congress. He’s got Kennedy’s tax cut bill which was stalled started.
He defeats his Congress on another thing. He just he says, ”I want them murdered on this,” and he murders them. He flies off to Texas, but down for a two-week vacation during which he starts to create the war on poverty, a wonderful thing but he also has a number of conversations about he’s worried that the press is getting too close to the fact that he’s accumulated a fortune during his life.
What do you want me to tell about the Kellam ...
CARO: Sure? One of them involves this man, Jesse Kellam. Kellam comes out to the ranch and says, ”There’s a reporter, Margaret Mayer, but pronounced ”Meyer,” from the ’Dallas Times-Herald’ who’s sent me this list of questions. What do I do about it?”
Johnson telephones the managing editor of Mayer’s newspaper, the ”Dallas Times-Herald,” and says, basically the exact quotes are in the book says, ”You know, you don’t want to be investigating me because you know someone might investigate you.”
And I don’t know if he actually uses the word ”tax returns,” but it’s pretty he says, ”We may investigate, you know, a lot of things we can investigate.” He says, ”We can investigate licenses.” You know, and he says, ”You know” there’s a sentence in there. I can’t remember it, but it’s approximately, ”You know, the last time they were up for an application, they don’t go into thanks to me the public service percentage,” meaning the FCC likes to look at how much of of television time how much time a radio or television station devotes to non-paying public service.
So he’s basically saying, ”I helped you before. I might not help you again and someone might start looking into these things.”
The managing editor named Albert Jackson is heard on the phone. He’s saying, ”Don’t worry. We’ll stop her. We’ll stop Margaret Mayer.”
Johnson ”I’ll talk to her next week.”
Johnson says something like, ”Next week’s not good enough. It’s a Saturday. Call me back tomorrow morning.”
Tomorrow morning Jackson calls back and says, ”She will be stopped.”
LAMB: And was she?
CARO: Yes, I talked to her about it. Yes. They made clear to here they didn’t want the story. They didn’t want her investigating it anymore.
LAMB: How long did she stay with the paper?
CARO: Oh, she stayed. Margaret Mayer, you know, was quite a wonderful in an era before women became bureau chiefs in Washington, I think she I I say, I think she was the first woman to head the Washington bureau of a national newspaper. She became a great, close friend of mine, I’d like to say. She covered Lyndon Johnson, you know, for years and years, but she knew she was stopped on this.
LAMB: We hear politicians tell us all the time the money’s in a blind trust.
LAMB: Whatever they own, whatever they are worth, it’s being invested in a blind trust. You suggest in the book that it wasn’t very blind.
CARO: Well, I don’t think I yes. The people involved say it wasn’t very blind and, in fact, he had I talked to the there was a law firm called Morrison and Ferguson. Morrison was one of the trustees of the blind trust and his partner, Thomas Ferguson, who was a judge in the Hill Country would tell me that it seemed like again, the the correct quote’s in the book it seemed like almost every night Johnson was talking to Morrison and telling him what to do.
LAMB: But do you say that there was special telephone lines involved?
CARO: Absolutely. Yes, there was a special telephone in Morrison’s house. You just picked it up and got the White House. There was a special telephone line on the desk of someone named Earl Deeth who was the general manager of KTPC and several others.
And this book and - we’re going to go in in the next book into what was actually happening with the blind trust, but in this book what is happening is that ”Life” magazine has found out about this and, at the very moment, that they have been investigating. They started investigating Bobby Baker and campaign contributions, but they soon found that it was leading to Lyndon Johnson.
The very morning that Jack Kennedy is assassinated, as the motorcade is at the at the same time that the motorcade is going through Dallas, there is a meeting in the offices of ”Life” magazine to divide up the areas for a major series on what one of them calls Lyndon Johnson’s money and they’re going to they’re about to investigate this. They’ve started and they’re about to just make it a big series at ”Life.”
LAMB: So this book covers from what time period and ends at exactly what time period?
CARO: Well, I well, it ends exactly with the State of the Union address on January 8th unless it’s the 7th, I forget 1964. No, January 8th, 1964, because in that period of time, why I do that, in this period of time, he takes Kennedy’s programs, he gets them started, he makes the country stay have a feeling of continuity.
But he does something more. He says to a friend to friends, ”I’ve got to continue Kennedy’s programs, but if I want to run for reelection and I want to do what I want to do with the presidency, I have to make a program of my own.”
And that Christmas down at the ranch, he basically has his his advisers create the war on poverty and, in the State of the Union address, he says too many Americans live on the outskirts of hope and he lays out the basic outline of the Great Society and the war on poverty. That’s the ending point.
LAMB: So back to the Bobby Kennedy/LBJ relationship, what impact did that relationship have on history?
CARO: Oh, an immense it had an immense impact, although that’s going to play out in 1967 and ’68, largely over Vietnam and and, in a way, over civil rights, too.
But the seeds of it all, the absolute antagonism, you know, there are scenes in this book where Bobby Kennedy makes as Kennedy is attorney general and has a lot the power in the administration, Johnson is the vice president and Bobby Kennedy just humiliates him, time after time.
CARO: Well, in in a lot of ways. Every time Johnson wanted to use a plane excuse me he had to get written permission from the Pentagon. That was Robert Kennedy.
Every time he wanted to give a speech, every word had to be cleared. And Kennedy does more. There are meetings of they are both on the president’s commission on on civil rights, on equal opportunity employment and, in two consecutive meetings, Johnson is chairing this the scene I mean, when I wrote this, you know, you really say you can hardly believe that you’re writing this.
Johnson who was once the most powerful man second most powerful man is chairing this meeting, all the advisers are around this huge table. Bobby Kennedy walks in and picks on at the aide, Johnson’s chief aide, starts demanding answers to questions, humiliating him, in effect, humiliating Johnson.
And then when Johnson tries to reply, Bobby Kennedy walks over to someone else and starts chatting with him. Johnson is trying to talk, but Bobby Kennedy is having a chat and then he simply walks out of the room.
On another in the second of these meetings, he says to a civil rights leader, black civil rights leader named Louis Martin who was also an official, as you know, in Kennedy’s administration, ”Listen, I have to catch have to make a trip.” I forget what he says. ”I have to catch a plane. Tell the vice president to cut it short.” Johnson is giving his thing.
So Louis says, ”I knew both these men.” He says, ”I did not want to tell the vice president that. I knew he I knew how how he would be if he was angry.” Robert Kennedy comes over and he says, ”I told you to go over and tell him to cut it short.” So Martin does. Johnson just looks at him and continues talking.
There are scenes between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in this book that when you’re writing them, Brian, you can hardly believe you’re writing them. You keep looking down at your notes to see are you exaggerating or not because it seems you must be exaggerating.
LAMB: You talk about Robert Kennedy cutting off his ability to fly wherever he wanted to fly. Why then did LBJ do the same thing to Hubert Humphrey ...
CARO: Well ...
LAMB: ... when he became his vice president and he wouldn’t even let him use a jet plane to cross the United States?
CARO: You’re certainly right. I mean, you really know this stuff. He certainly did the same thing to Hubert Humphrey, perhaps in spades.
I have to say that I haven’t finished my research on why on that. Can I take a pass on that? It’s the next volume and I I just don’t think I’ve examined enough.
LAMB: Well, as long as we’re there, let me ask you about the next volume.
LAMB: I know you hate this question, but what’s your time what is your timetable?
CARO: Does it really matter what I say to you? Would you believe me?
LAMB: Of course.
This book took 10 years.
CARO: Yes, but, although, that’s not really right because I thought this was going to be one book, so a large part of the 10 years was done was doing the research on the rest of it. I have done most of the research on the next volume as well.
LAMB: Are you writing the next volume now?
CARO: Pardon me?
LAMB: Have you started writing the next volume?
CARO: Yes, I I’ve written part of it, just a small part, but I’ve written part of it. I’ve outlined it, you know.
LAMB: Now, do you think this will be the final book?
CARO: Well, I thought originally it was going to be three volumes and, you know, I remember you saying. is this going to be the final book? And I said, yes. And you said that I said it was going to be four volumes and I seem to remember a similar question from you ...
CARO: ... and I said, flatly, yes. So I’m saying is the next one going to be the next the final volume and I say, flatly, yes.
LAMB: What is the update on your memoir that you say you’re writing?
CARO: Well, that’s getting very long. I can do that sort of when when I with my I don’t know how to say it. I don’t have to do any research on that. You know, it’s my own life. It’s not sort of a memoir about how I grew up in New York. It’s more of a memoir about what it was like to try and find out the truth about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson and how they wielded political power.
I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s interesting to me about how they both tried to this the just say, about how I was tried it was made difficult for me to do the research on these two books. That’s a more accurate way of putting it and how I got around that or tried to get around that.
LAMB: What ways have you changed in the way you approach this whole subject since you began this back in, what, 19 ...
LAMB: ... ’77? Yes.
CARO: What ways have I changed?
LAMB: You know that whole, we know we’ve talked about your routine of going to the office, having the outline on the wall, all those things, and doing your research, seven days a week writing, and then taking time off and not paying attention to the book while you were on vacation and all that.
But what is anything changed in this in the way of gathering information?
CARO: No, I always try to talk to everybody who’s involved in something. Excuse me. Now, a lot of the people are dead, but I got them, you know, before they died.
I’d like to be able to still talk to them. Excuse me. You know, I used to be able to call George Reedy. You know, I had gone out to Milwaukee. We had had many a lot long conversations in person. We got so friendly.
It got the point where, you know, if you’re writing away and there’s some detail that you don’t have. You don’t want to stop and have to schmooze somebody before you ask them the question. I got so I could just call Reedy. I say, ”George, when Johnson was meeting with with George Wallace, where was Johnson, on the rocking chair or sofa?” He’d say, ”The rocking chair.” I’d say, ”Thanks,” and I’d go back.
So not sometimes my hand actually reaches out to the phone to call Reedy or Horace Busby or somebody and they’re not there anymore, but I don’t think much has changed in the way I try to do the work.
LAMB: Ted Sorenson’s gone. How important was he to you? You write about him in the and I guess, didn’t you deliver a eulogy at his funeral?
CARO: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Inadequate for the help that he gave me. You know, Ted lives between me and my office. We both live on Central Park West about 69th. He lives 62nd. I had, again, formal interviews with him, but over and over again, I would call and ask him about something that happened in the Kennedy administration and he would say, generally, because he was a very he was a very thoughtful man. Every word, I thought, was considered.
He’d say, ”I’ll think of why don’t you come by after work today?” So I’d come by and I’d just meant going into his lobby instead of walking by it and we’d sit there. He lived in this wonderful apartment that looked out on Central Park West and he was blind, or effectively. He doesn’t like to say he’s blind, but he was effectively blind.
So he would sit on one couch and I’d sit on the other and outside the window it would get dark. It would be late in the afternoon and he would be talking about things and I remember feeling, ”Boy, I hope nothing happens to him. Nothing further happens to him.” Because he’s once those lips start I can’t he knows stuff that nobody else knew.
I thought I think his relation to Jack Kennedy was so special and he himself, Ted Sorenson, was so brilliant, not just at words, but at analyzing things that it was like each of these things was like a lesson to me. I hasten to say that he wouldn’t agree with everything that I have in the book, but he told me a lot of things that no one else could have told me and explained a lot of things to me that no one else could have explained to me.
LAMB: What part of this book was the hardest to research and write?
CARO: Probably Johnson the hardest to write, the hardest to research, too, was Johnson’s vice presidency because it was so poignant, the period, to see this powerful man humbled, humiliated, day after day, that it was actually painful for me to learn about it.
I mean, I I sort of sort of I mean, Horace Busby once said he couldn’t go over to the White House on the rare occasions when Johnson was was over there and watch how the Kennedy lower-level people treated him because it was so horrible.
And sometimes when they were describing this to me, however Johnson’s a very complicated character you felt this is a terrible thing to happen to any human being, but to happen to a Lyndon Johnson, you know? Somebody said it was like a great bull put out to pasture late in life. You know, he doesn’t know what to do. And that’s that’s what happened to Johnson.
LAMB: Was there a time before he left the presidency at the end of ’68 where he got revenge?
CARO: Oh, yes. Although we’re going to see that, you know, I mean you know, it’s funny. I mean, Bobby Kennedy says to Bobby Baker at the Democratic convention when Johnson has insulted Bobby Kennedy’s father and called him a Chamberlain ”umbrella man” you know, Robert Kennedy loved his father, was devoted to his father, this fascinating character, Joseph Kennedy and Bobby Baker thinks he can this is all just normal politics so he invites Bobby Baker to come over and have breakfast with him and his wife and just takes a minute before Bobby Kennedy throws bills on the table and gets up and says, ”Don’t worry. You’ll get yours when the time comes.”
In the three years of Johnson’s vice presidency, Bobby Kennedy seems to think that’s his time. When Johnson becomes president, he starts to act the same way toward Robert Kennedy.
LAMB: Of all the subject matter besides the vice presidency in here, again, the civil rights, the tax cut, all that, which of those was the most difficult to get your hands around?
CARO: The tax cut, probably. The civil rights bills and the tax cut are just to understand how Johnson got them moving again, you know, it’s like a lesson in politics. I mean, it’s like why I decided to stop the book here. I mean, I I I said, you know, you want to just see what he does in this time of crisis and what he does with these two bills which are effectively stalled, how he almost immediately comes in and gets them moving, you say, wow.
You know, if you’re interested in political power, this is I mean, he has a gift, a legislative gift that I write is beyond it’s a gift beyond a gift, a talent beyond a talent, that is genius.
Johnson to see Johnson in and in an instance grasp the situation and know what to do about it, it’s hard to figure out what he does, but when you figure it out, it’s thrilling.
LAMB: How did he turn Harry Byrd of Virginia? I mean, it’s the figure, the number, in the budget which would blow people’s mind today. This was 1960.
CARO: ’60. ’63.
LAMB: ’63. The number is $100 billion. Kennedy’s last budget was, I think, $98.9 billion, if I’m wrong I’m bad on numbers and Harry Byrd has said something like, ”You know, it’d be nice if it came in under $100 billion.”
The Kennedy people seemed to feel that he doesn’t really mean $100 billion, that if they come in at $101.5 or $102 that’ll OK, but Harry Byrd is not releasing his the Kennedy tax cut bill he’s not releasing the budget from I have to go back and say who Harry Byrd is.
Harry Byrd is the chairman of the Senate finance committee and he rules the Senate. He’s one of the lords of the Senate and he rules the finance committee absolutely. He’s Kennedy introduced the budget and the tax cut bill back in January ’63. It’s now November 22nd. These bills are not going out. They’re not being released from the finance committee.
And Harry and Harry Byrd has sort of linked them together, the budget and the tax cut bill. Kennedy’s people seem to feel that if they only allow if they only get it close to $100 billion that’ll be OK. They keep talking about going around Harry Byrd. ”We’ll go around Harry Byrd.”
The night of Jack Kennedy’s funeral, Johnson summons to the Oval to his office it’s still in the Executive Office Building. He’s not in the Oval Office. Kennedy’s three top economic advisers, Walter Heller, who’s the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; Douglas Dillon, the secretary of the Treasury; and Kermit Gordon, the budget bureau director. They they’re Kennedy’s three top advisers.
They start to talk about going around Harry Byrd. Lyndon Johnson basically says, ”You can’t go around Harry Byrd.” They say, ”Why not?” Lyndon Johnson basically says, ”There are 17 people on the finance committee. Harry Byrd has nine votes.”
They say, ”How do you know he has nine votes?” Lyndon Johnson says, ”Because Harry Byrd always has nine votes.”
And all of the sudden, two of these people write memos on what happened and, again, the memos have Johnson saying the same thing. There are just small differences in wording. All of the sudden, they say, the problem disappeared. We had to give Harry Byrd what he wanted on the budget and we could have the tax cut bill.
And they they realized $100 billion is a magic figure to Harry Byrd. He wants the budget under $100 billion. Johnson gives them that and the tax cut bill starts moving.
LAMB: Robert A. Caro is our guest. This is ”The years of Lyndon Johnson” and his fourth book called ”The Passage of Power.” We thank you.
CARO: Thank you.