Robert Caro and Mastering Political Power

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).

Robert Caro deftly narrated the events leading up to President Johnson's abrupt transition into the presidency. (Chris Watkins/Flickr)

Robert Caro deftly narrated the events leading up to President Johnson’s abrupt transition into the presidency. (Chris Watkins/Flickr)

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”.

Richard is a sophomore Government/IR dual major with a Leadership Sequence at CMC and a staff writer for the Claremont Port Side. When he isn't guzzling caffeinated beverages like an SUV, futilely trying to keep up with his to-do lists or showing his ignorance of basic technology or pop culture references, Richard enjoys playing the guitar (just barely), watching cliché '90s TV show reruns or reading the latest political news article.

3 Responses to “Robert Caro and Mastering Political Power”

  1. Mack Royal says:

    LBJ was a political genius and spent his entire life around politics. President Obama is not in that league, but then few presidents have been or will be. That being said, LBJ could not WAIT to be president. He was vice president to someone who did not have his experience or genius for making things happen. He was deeply frustrated at being ignored by the Kennedys.

    Now, the sad part is that LBJ and his friends could not tolerate JFK and especially hated RFK. They murdered both of those men so that their boy, Lyndon could exercise his genius and experience. Of course, he hit the ground running and passed significant legislation that JFK did not manage to pass. He knew how to do it. He had been stewing about JFK’s ineptitude for too long. He also orchestrated the coverup with his friend and neighbor, J. Edgar Hoover. Allen Dulles, of course, had been fired by JFK, so he was naturally the head of the Warren Commission coverup.

    So, please don’t praise LBJ for being such a “take charge” guy in such short order. He had plenty of time to plan exactly what he wanted to do and needed to do for his backers.

    • Madeleine Duncan Brown was a mistress of Lyndon Johnson for 21 years and had a son with him named Steven Mark Brown in 1950. Madeleine mixed with the Texas elite and had many trysts with Lyndon Johnson over the years, including one at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, TX, on New Year’s Eve 12/31/63. In the late evening of 12/31/63, just 6 weeks after the JFK assassination, Madeleine asked Lyndon Johnson:

      “Lyndon, you know that a lot of people believe you had something to do with President Kennedy’s assassination.”
      He shot up out of bed and began pacing and waving his arms screaming like a madman. I was scared!
      “That’s bull___, Madeleine Brown!” he yelled. “Don’t tell me you believe that crap!”
      “Of course not.” I answered meekly, trying to cool his temper.
      “It was Texas oil and those _____ renegade intelligence bastards in Washington.” [said Lyndon Johnson] [Texas in the Morning, p. 189]

      [LBJ told this to Madeleine in the late night of 12/31/63 in the Driskill Hotel, Austin, TX in room #254. They spent New Year’s Eve together here six weeks post JFK assassination. Room #254 was the room that LBJ used to have rendevous’ with his girlfriends – it used to be known as the e “Blue Room” and now it is known as the “LBJ Suite” and rents for $600-1,000/night as a Presidential suite at the Driskill; located on the Mezzanine Level. Note: Lyndon Johnson’s presidential schedule and other accounts confirm that LBJ indeed was at the Driskill Hotel on the night of 12/31/63]

  2. Lyndon Johnson also had a personal hitman “Malcolm Wallace” which you can google. And LBJ murdered JFK and a slew of others.

    1) “LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination” by Phillip Nelson
    2) Watch “The Men Who Killed Kennedy – the Guilty Men – episode 9″ at YouTube – best video ever on the JFK assassination; it expertly covers Lyndon Johnson’s role.
    3) “The Radical Right and the Murder of John F. Kennedy” by Harrison Livingstone
    4) “Blood, Money & Power: How LBJ killed JFK” by Barr McClellan
    5) “The Final Chapter on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy” by Craig Zirbel
    6) “The Texas Connection” by Craig Zirbel
    7) “Texas in the Morning” by Madeleine Duncan Brown
    8) “Billie Sol Estes: A Texas Legend” by Billie Sol Estes
    9) “Dallas Did It” by Madeleine Brown & Connie Kritzberg
    10) “Operation Cyanide: Why the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III” by Peter Hounam (LBJ’s role in the attack on the USS Liberty)
    11) “Bloody Treason: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy” by Noel Twymann
    12) “The Dark Side of Lyndon Johnson” by Joachim Joesten
    13) “How Kennedy Was Killed – The Full Appalling Story” by Joachim Joesten
    14) “The Dark Side of Camelot” by Seymour Hersh
    15) “Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson” by D. Jablow Hershman
    16) “Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir” by George Reedy
    17) “Remembering America” by Richard Goodwin, Chapter 21 “Descent”
    18) “JFK and the World Oligarchy: When Enough is Never Enough” by Robert Burnside
    19) “Coup d’Etat: from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush” by Robert Burnside
    20) “JFK: Conspiracy of Silence” by Charles A. Crenshaw
    21) “The Men on The Sixth Floor”by Glen Sample & Mark Collum
    22) Watch “LBJ: A Closer Look” VHS 1998 by Lyle Sardie
    23) “Bond of Secrecy: My Life with CIA Spy and Watergate Conspirator E. Howard Hunt” by Saint John Hunt
    24) Google “LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK”
    25) Google “The USS Liberty, Israel & President Johnson’s Order to Destroy the USS Liberty”
    26) “Lyndon Johnson the Tragic Self: A Psychohistorical Portrait” by Hyman Muslim & Thomas Jobe

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