On Valentine’s Day, the Athenaeum hosted author Robert Caro for a talk sponsored by the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies. Renowned for his Pulitzer Prize winning political biographies of New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses and the 36th President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), Caro drew a diverse audience of students, professors and guests. (Perhaps some remembered his interview in Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central program, The Daily Show, footage of which you can view here.) I personally had the privilege of sitting with Mr. Caro at the head table during the dinner (The interesting discussions we had, along with others who sat at the head table, I will divulge later in this piece).
Caro’s Ath talk was unusual in that he narrated a particular episode from his latest volume about LBJ, The Passage of Power, for a large portion of his time. With an astonishing amount of specific detail, Caro vividly takes us back to Dallas, Texas of 1962, that fateful day when the charismatic John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. With a slow, hardly audible, but resounding voice, Caro brought these characters and flashpoints from the past back to life. The Secret Service agent that reacted in seconds to push Vice President Johnson down to the ground and cover his 6’4″ tall body with his own. JFK’s blood oozing onto Jackie Kennedy’s pink Chanel dress. The bright lights and signs of New York’s Times Square, one by one, shutting off. The people on the streets, openly weeping and mourning the murder of their beloved president. The cameraman, Cecil, who took the iconic picture of LBJ being sworn in as President of the United States with Jackie Kennedy by his side on Air Force One, moments after JFK’s death.
Here, Caro gives a near-eyewitness report of the star of his books: LBJ. When everyone was being swept up by the emotional maelstrom and political crisis that accompanied Kennedy’s sudden death, LBJ immediately takes charge, prepared to become the leader of the free world in a scant two hours and six minutes. By the end of the harrowing ordeal, he makes the presidency his own. So vivid was Caro’s account of these moments that one of the first questions asked after the talk was whether Caro ever imagined his books being adapted into movies (Caro said no).
But, why write about Lyndon Johnson? Caro says it is because he was fascinated with political power, of which LBJ was a master. It is here that Caro then dives into the political mastermind, extraordinary leader, and complex individual that was Lyndon Johnson. Considered the most effective Senate Majority Leader in American history, LBJ “led the Senate like a conductor does an orchestra”, said Caro. With the wave of a hand, Johnson could make roll call votes go as fast or slow as he wanted, like lapdogs under the palm of a master’s hand. He used an unending arsenal of charm, sympathy, intimidation, cajoling, near-bribery, discomfort, and any other lever possible to get the legislative votes he wanted.
But, why write about Lyndon Johnson? Caro says it is because he was fascinated with political power, of which LBJ was a master.
As president, Johnson was one of the most progressive presidents in American history. He passed civil rights and voting rights in an age of rampant racism. He declared war on American poverty and launched the Great Society, an onslaught of social welfare programs like HeadStart, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental and consumer protections, designed to end American poverty and make lives better for all Americans. A legacy that gives American progressives and liberals pangs of desire and derision and fury to conservatives even today. But on the other side of the coin is a man that was safe to call “sinister”. LBJ stuffed the ballot boxes to win his first congressional race. He engaged in shady financial deals for political leverage and campaign contributions. How was it that a man that actively undertook such unscrupulous things achieve such lasting change and progress in America? “Do you think Johnson was a good person?” a student asked Caro. That question remains an open question.
Caro’s exemplary portrayal of LBJ and the importance of political power and its elusive qualities reminds us of the world we live in today. One of the interesting discussions I mentioned above was a question that was asked during dinner. “Do you believe that President Obama understands political power?” Caro responded “What do you think?” Is Obama lacking in leadership, naïve and spineless against the nation’s challenges and his political opponents? Is he learning, empowered by his recent reelection to stand strong? Is it not possible to compare Obama to the genius that was LBJ, who lived in a different media and political environment? These questions bring valuable insight into what exactly political power can be today and what lessons our future statesmen can learn from LBJ’s experiences.
As Caro himself said, “understanding political power can result in a better democracy”.