Last Word: Author Robert Caro on LBJ

(The following is an article from the January-February 2013 issue of the Library’s magazine, LCM, featuring an excerpt from an interview with historian and author Robert Caro about Lyndon Baines Johnson.)

LCM: You’ve spent more than 30 years researching and writing about Lyndon Johnson, with a final volume yet to be published. What aspects of Johnson’s character or career most fascinate you and how do they relate to today’s congressional climate?

Caro: The thing that fascinates me most about Johnson is his absolute genius in the use of political power. … Conditions are different today. But Johnson always found a way to get power for himself out of the conditions in some institution, and make the institution work. I think he had such a genius in acquiring and using power that he would become a legislative force no matter what the conditions were.

LCM: In this election season, one thinks about the extraordinary conditions under which President Johnson was inaugurated following Kennedy’s assassination. How do you think he felt about his second inaugural considering the tragic circumstances of his first one?

Caro: Johnson’s key words in his first speech, to the joint session of Congress, four days after Kennedy is assassinated, are, “Let us continue.” First, he pushes through Kennedy’s stalled legislation, the civil rights bill, the tax cut bill. Then he tells friends, “Now it’s time to make the presidency my own.” In his inaugural speech in January 1964, he sets out a new course, a new policy—the War on Poverty—which is his great initiative. And he follows that up with the Great Society so we see a transition from continuity to making the presidency his own.

LCM: You’ve recently said that Barack Obama is Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. Can you elaborate on that?

Caro: Johnson passes the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which really brings black Americans fully into the American political process. Forty-three years later, in 2008—which really is just a blink of history’s eye—there is an African-American in the White House. That’s what I mean by saying that Barack Obama is Lyndon Johnson’s legacy.

LCM: The nation will be marking the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Like Lincoln, Johnson’s true motives on promoting racial equality have been questioned. Have you come to any conclusions about that?

Caro: The reason it’s questioned is that for no less than 20 years in Congress, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson’s record was on the side of the South. He not only voted with the South on civil rights, but he was a southern strategist, but in 1957, he changes and pushes through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.

Listen to a podcast of the full interview.

Download the January-February 2013 issue of the LCM in its entirety here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.

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