Robert Caro: LBJ and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:54
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Biographer Robert Caro, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has been researching and writing about Lyndon Johnson for nearly 40 years. In his book titled "Passage to Power," published in 2012, the forth in his bestselling series on Johnson, Caro details why the president made this legislation a top priority and how it passed.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:31
Robert Caro joins me in the studio to talk about Lyndon Johnson, the making of the civil rights law and political lessons for today. Before we begin our conversation with Robert Caro, I do want to say a word of thanks to all of you for the messages of condolences so many of you sent. I wish I could respond personally to each one of you who sent in your kind thoughts over the death of my husband of 54 years, John Rehm.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:08:08
He was a wonderful, an extraordinary husband, a terrific father and grandfather as well as a great supporter of this program and this station. I will miss him forever. Now, let's turn to Robert Caro. And it's so good to see you again.

MR. ROBERT CARO

11:08:29
Nice to be here. Nice to see you, Diane.

REHM

11:08:31
Thank you, thank you. Set the scene for us. Take us back to 1964, 50 years ago, shortly after President Johnson had been sworn into office. He decides to make civil rights a top priority. Even his advisors were saying, don't do this.

CARO

11:08:57
Don't do it. You know, he has to give a speech, his first speech as president to a joint session of Congress five days after the assassination. On the night before, he's not even in the Oval Office yet, Diane. The night before, four of his advisors are sitting around his kitchen table in his home and he comes in and they say to him, whatever you do, don't emphasize civil rights.

CARO

11:09:20
Don't make it a priority. It's a noble cause, but it's a lost cause. It can't pass. The Southerners control Congress. Johnson looks at them and when they say don't make it a priority, he says, well, what the hell's the presidency for then? And in his speech, you know, he says, the first priority is to pass the civil rights bill.

REHM

11:09:42
Wow. And do you think that his advisors still felt the same way they did, that is advising against it and feeling so strongly it was going to be a lost cause, how could they then get their arms around it?

CARO

11:10:04
That's a terrific question. Of course, what they're feeling is, no meaningful, strong civil rights bill has passed since reconstruction almost 100 years. The Southerners still control Congress. I forget exactly -- I think of the 15 great standing committees of the Senate, in 1964, eight had Southerners as chairmen and they controlled the other seven. They made sure that they did.

CARO

11:10:31
So they had a stranglehold on Congress. It just seemed impossible to get a bill passed and, in fact, on the day President Kennedy was assassinated, the bill was basically still going nowhere.

REHM

11:10:47
But now, take us even farther back to when LBJ was in Congress and how strongly he was opposed then to any civil rights.

CARO

11:11:04
Well, you know, for 20 years, when he was representing Texas and his district in Congress, he was not only a consistent vote for the South on every civil rights bill, even anti-lynching bills, he was not only a vote for the South, he was a Southern strategist. In fact, he was raised to power in the Senate by the mighty Southern caucus, the Southern bloc and particularly Richard Russell.

CARO

11:11:30
But if you go back even further, you see that's not what was really inside Lyndon Johnson at all. I don't know if you want me to go into that now.

REHM

11:11:41
I do.

CARO

11:11:41
Okay. Well, when he was 20 years old, he was very poor, of course, and he's going to a college, San Marcos, Texas, and he has to drop out between his sophomore and junior years to earn money. And he does it by teaching school down in a little town near the Texas/Mexican border called Cotulla. And I wrote about that. He was teaching the Mexican/American kids, the children of migrant workers.

CARO

11:12:12
And I wrote, "no teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared." He believed the key was that they learned to speak English and not speak Spanish so at recess, if he was inside this classroom and he heard a boy speaking in Spanish, he'd run outside and give him a spanking. And a girl, he'd give a tongue-lashing to.

REHM

11:12:37
Wow.

CARO

11:12:38
And, you know, if I can add one more thing, you know, some people could say that was just an example of Lyndon Johnson doing the best job he could at whatever job he had, which was a characteristic of Lyndon Johnson. But the reason I felt it was truly in his heart was because he didn't just teach the kids. He taught the janitor. The janitor's name was Tomas Coronado. And Johnson bought him a textbook so he could learn English and he would teach him before and after school.

CARO

11:13:09
The two of them, Lyndon Johnson and the janitor, would sit on the steps outside the school and the janitor said Johnson would spell, I would repeat. Johnson would pronounce. I would repeat. So I felt this was what was truly in his heart.

REHM

11:13:26
But then, Bob, politically, he realized he had to be very, very different when he got to Congress.

CARO

11:13:35
Oh, yes. He had to basically conceal it. You know, Johnson was a very complicated man. He was filled with ambition and he was filled with compassion, but the truth is, whenever the two of them collided, whenever he had to be one the Southern side, ambition was what won. But I wrote "when ambition and compassion were both pointing in the same direction, he was a force that was unlike anything else in American history."

REHM

11:14:06
All right. But then, what do we know about why he decided to move so quickly once he became president?

CARO

11:14:18
Well, I'll tell you what he said to someone who doubted he was sincere. A speech writer of President Kennedy's before him, named Richard Goodwin, quite a brilliant man, Goodwin sort of asked the same question you did. And Johnson said, you know -- why are you making this a priority? And Johnson said, you know, when I was teaching those kids, I swore that if I ever had the opportunity to help them, I would.

CARO

11:14:44
Now, I have the power and I mean to use it.

REHM

11:14:47
Wow. So it was really an immediate and emotional decision on his part.

CARO

11:14:58
Exactly.

REHM

11:15:00
And it worked.

CARO

11:15:02
Well, it worked because combined with the emotion and the passion was this political genius where he outmaneuvered the Southerner whom really no one had outmaneuvered before.

REHM

11:15:18
How did it pass the House Judiciary Committee?

CARO

11:15:24
Well, it passed the Judiciary Committee after a hard fight. But the hard fight, the fight that, at the moment President Kennedy died, civil rights advocates were losing was in the House Rules Committee. That was chaired by a Southerner named Judge Howard W. Smith of Virginia who was an unapologetic racist. And, of course, his district didn't care what national sentiment was.

CARO

11:15:51
They liked his view. And he was doing what he had done with, let's say, a dozen civil rights bills before. He was keeping it bottled up in the Rules Committee. You know, no bill can go to the floor of the house until it goes from the Rules Committee with what they call a rule. Now, on the very day that President Kennedy died, The Washington Post asked Howard Smith, when do you plan to hold hearings on this bill?

CARO

11:16:18
He said, I have no plans. He won't even give them a date when he's going to start discussing a schedule. Now, Johnson comes in. You see, the civil rights bills always died in the Senate where they had the filibuster, but Smith was keeping it from even getting to the Senate and Lyndon Johnson sees in an instant what he's doing. How do we know? Because he calls Katharine Graham and we hear his voice.

CARO

11:16:43
He says, you know, if we don’t make him give a schedule right now, before Christmas, he's going to start talking about it and discussing the schedule in January. Then, this is Johnson's phasing. He'll piddle it along and get it into February. The hearings will last until the end of March. And if it doesn't get to the Senate till the end of March, Richard Russell can filibuster it to death.

CARO

11:17:05
We have to make Smith move now.

REHM

11:17:08
And why did he involve Katharine Graham?

CARO

11:17:13
Because he wanted The Washington Post to write editorials saying the House Rules Committee has to move now.

REHM

11:17:21
And how long did it then take?

CARO

11:17:25
Well, what happened was, Smith is not going to move. He seems like nothing can touch him. You know, Lyndon Johnson, you talk about his legislative -- I say he had a talent that was beyond a talent and was really a kind of genius. He knows that there's only way to get a bill out of the Rules Committee. It's called a discharge petition where a majority of the House of Representatives, 218, can sign a bill to take a measure away from the committee and bring it to the floor itself.

CARO

11:18:02
Now, that's a procedure, but it's almost never used because it's a sacred tradition. The House committee chairman then had this unchallenged power. Johnson sees it's the only lever. A freshman representative has introduced one, but it's just been going nowhere. Johnson gets it started again.

REHM

11:18:26
Robert Caro, his most recent book, "The Passage of Power," the fourth in his study of the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. Short break, right back.

REHM

11:20:00
And welcome back. My guest this hour, the most distinguished Robert Caro. His most recent book is titled, "The Passage to Power," the fourth in his study of the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was published in hardback in 2012, paperback 2013. He is the winner of two Pulitzer prizes. One for "The Power Broker" in 1975 about Robert Moses and then, "Master of the Senate," about Lyndon Baines Johnson, published in 2003.

REHM

11:20:50
I do invite you to join us, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. How long did it take for Lyndon Johnson to put that kind of pressure on Howard Smith and how did Howard Smith react?

CARO

11:21:22
Well, you know, Lyndon Johnson had a genius, but he was also a very tough cookie and he sees that the Democrats are never going to be able to provide enough votes for this discharge petition because 90 Democrats came from the South and others came from the border states. The only place he can get these votes are the Republicans.

CARO

11:21:43
And the Republicans, sort of like today, their leader, Charles Halleck is really saying whatever Johnson wants, we're not going to give him and he has basically told the Republican caucus, anyone who signs this discharge petition is going to be red out of the Republican Party. Johnson has Charles Halleck over to the White House and, you know, Johnson was a genius.

CARO

11:22:09
People say Johnson talked all the time. He talked a lot, but if you listen to him, he doesn't start talking until he knew the other guy talked a lot, until Johnson saw what he really was afraid of or what he really wanted or needed. He sees that what Halleck really wants -- the largest employer in his Indiana congressional district is Purdue University.

CARO

11:22:35
What Halleck wants is NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, grants for Purdue. So with Halleck sitting there, Johnson picks up the phone and we hear his voice on the tapes. I was just -- listening to him, I was just astonished. He calls the NASA administrator, a guy named James Webb, and he said, Mr. Webb, I'm sending Charlie Halleck over to see you. I want you to see what you can do to make him happy.

CARO

11:23:04
And then, he says, when can he come over? They set the appointment and Halleck leaves. Johnson picks up the phone and calls Webb again. He says, now, Jim, I want you to make sure that Halleck is happy when he leaves you. And Webb says, oh, Mr. President, I certainly hope I'll make him happy. You got to hear Johnson's voice. He says, I'm not talking about hoping. If he's not happy when he leave you, you'll be hearing from me.

CARO

11:23:36
And the next day, the New York Times reports for some reason, as the Republicans are caucusing, some leaders are calling them and telling them to change their -- to sign the discharge petition and he gets the vote.

REHM

11:23:50
Wow.

CARO

11:23:50
Yes. It's one of the amazing things that Johnson does.

REHM

11:23:55
And so the discharge petition is signed. What is the next step?

CARO

11:24:04
Well, what actually happens is, as the number mounts, Smith sees he's going to be humiliated by having it taken away from him so he actually gives the schedule and holds the hearings in January. But there's still the Senate, the Senate which is this graveyard of civil rights, has always been the graveyard of civil rights, you know. The Senate was the South's revenge for Gettysburg and Richard Russell is the leader of the South.

CARO

11:24:39
And he's this great legislative tactician and a tough cookie himself.

REHM

11:24:46
A real match for LBJ.

CARO

11:24:48
In many ways, the guy who taught Johnson how to -- and, you know, someone asked, Orville Freeman, the secretary of agriculture, which is a friend of both Johnson's and Russell's, is talking to Russell before the Senate fight starts and Russell says to him, we could've beaten Kennedy on civil rights. We're not going to beat Lyndon Johnson. And Freeman is sort of astonished 'cause Russell has beaten everybody for 30 years and Russell says to him, you know, Johnson is a man who truly understands power.

CARO

11:25:22
He'll tear your arm off at the shoulder and beat you over the head with it. But he's going to get the votes. We could've beaten Kennedy, but we can't beat Johnson. And Johnson has a number, you know, Johnson is certainly, you know, when you talk about the civil rights bill, can I just interject, I mean, you can't talk about the civil rights bill and the heroes of it -- the heroes were all the black men and women and children in the South who were enduring what they endured in those years in the '60s to bring this to the -- and I remember seeing the police dogs in Birmingham biting people's, you know.

REHM

11:26:04
I do, too.

CARO

11:26:04
And the -- yes.

REHM

11:26:06
I do, too.

CARO

11:26:06
And do you remember the fire hoses?

REHM

11:26:08
Of course.

CARO

11:26:08
I mean, I remember some announcer shouts, they're rolling that little girl down the street with the water from the fire hoses like a bowling ball. So you say, that required that heroism. It required extraordinary efforts from senators like Hubert Humphrey to get it passed. But behind it all is Lyndon Johnson, laying out the strategy, doing things like -- it seems like only he understood. You sometimes say didn't anyone else get this?

CARO

11:26:39
I mean, one of his strategies -- and he had told Kennedy, he had advised President Kennedy, don't put any other major bills on the floor until the civil rights bill is disposed of because the South will hold it hostage and say, we won't take the other bill up until you withdraw civil rights. So Johnson, when he's president, says -- he announces, I'm not putting another bill on that floor until the civil rights bill is over.

REHM

11:27:04
And it was those images of children being hit with the fire hoses and being bitten by dogs that really helped move the country.

CARO

11:27:18
Oh, yes. It made people see. They sacrificed their bodies.

REHM

11:27:24
They did.

CARO

11:27:24
I mean, you know, we think of all the college students from the North, black and white, who came down there. So three of the first of them, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodwin were murdered. The whole country is trying to find their bodies, you know, and the kids never stopped going down there. And, you know, you talk to them and they say, yes, we were afraid. You know what they would do before they would get on the buses for the South, they would hold hands and sing "We Shall Overcome" because it said -- it made us less afraid and said, we are not afraid.

REHM

11:27:59
But, you know, it's interesting when you talk about the blacks and the whites who worked together, but there's a piece in this morning's New York Times about what happened afterwards. It's titled "When Civil Rights Unity Fractured." It's an opinion piece by Peniel Joseph saying that the whites and the blacks took different direction thinking that what they had achieved went into different directions. How do you see it?

CARO

11:28:46
Well, I see it that way. That started, you know, almost as soon as the civil rights bill was passed. It started the next year, you would say, in '64 where the leaders, like Martin Luther King, Roger Wilkins, you know, they were no longer radical enough for the younger generation of blacks. They really didn't feel that moderation, you know, gradual progress was sufficient.

CARO

11:29:26
So Johnson, you know, by the end of his presidency, was basically saying, why aren't they grateful? Look at all I did for them. 'Cause the '60s was all -- was a time of riots. Of course, the '60s was a time when society fractured, you know, in many directions. The Vietnam War came to overshadow everything. Martin Luther King, who really was an ally of Johnson in '64 and in '65 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, which was also quite a tough thing, he came out against the Vietnam War.

CARO

11:30:06
And so things become a lot more complicated. But you really say, if it hadn't been, in my opinion, for those two acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, you really say to yourself sometimes, would we have those acts today because American society turned to the right, you know, with Nixon, immediately after Johnson's presidency.

CARO

11:30:38
And so you think the whole course of history might have been different if Johnson hadn't been president when he was.

REHM

11:30:46
But comment now, if you would, Robert Caro, on the efforts to restrict voting rights that are now being put into place.

CARO

11:31:00
Diane, to tell you the truth, sometimes I get up and read the paper in the morning and it almost makes me -- well, it makes me very depressed. It's like parts of this country are trying to go back to what things were like before the Voting Rights Act. You know, Johnson said, if we just give them the vote, they will have the power. They can do the rest themselves.

CARO

11:31:27
This is America. The vote is the most precious thing. As soon as you talk about restrictions on voting, you have to say to yourself, are we striking at the very heart of Democracy. I know that what I'm saying is going to be objected to by approximately half of America, but that's the way I feel.

REHM

11:31:49
And do you find it frightening?

CARO

11:31:54
Yes. It's frightening the speed with which immediately following the Supreme Court decision, the state's rushed to implement restrictions on voting. You know, it's not a new thing. My first book was on Robert Moses and how he was aided in his rise to power by Tammany Hall and Al Smith, the first Irish Catholic governor, you know. And Tammany Hall knew that one of the most effective things you can do to restrict voting among poor people -- this was not black people, this was poor Irish people -- is just spread a rumor on Election Day that police are looking at the voting lines.

CARO

11:32:41
The police are checking identification. It's a horrible fact of life in America that there are segments to whom the very word police and voter identification, any sort of identification raises specters that do, in my opinion, restrict voting without any overt thing being done.

REHM

11:33:02
Robert Caro, and we're looking back at 1964, the Civil Rights Act and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. 800-433-8850. And first, let's go to Jennifer in La Plata, Maryland. Hi there, you're on the air.

JENNIFER

11:33:33
Hello.

REHM

11:33:35
Hi there.

CARO

11:33:35
Hi.

JENNIFER

11:33:36
Well, first, I wanted to say how nice it is to hear you talk about the work that Johnson did being, you know, of his heart. It has once again become fashionable to say that everything that President Johnson did toward the civil rights movement was politically motivated. And those of us who are familiar with him and familiar with his early years know differently and know that it very much came from his experiences of being a poor young man and working with disadvantaged children in South Texas.

JENNIFER

11:34:16
So first of all, I appreciate that. But my question is, how did you, Robert Caro, come to choose Johnson as the subject of this multi-part epic. You know, I can recall works on Washington and Jefferson and even Winston Churchill, but how did you come to choose Johnson of all the modern-era presidents?

CARO

11:34:44
Well, that's a good question. When I was doing my first book on Robert Moses, you know, I've never been interested in just writing a biography, Jennifer. I never wanted to write a book just to tell the story of a life of a great man. I never had any interest in that. I was always interested in political power and trying to understand it and trying to explain it. I mean, the more -- when I was a reporter, I remember thinking, you know, we live in America.

CARO

11:35:15
It's a democracy so basically, at bottom, power comes from our votes at the ballot box so the more we understand about how power really works, the better informed our votes would be and presumably or hopefully the better our country would be. So that's what my books are interested in, political power. And I picked Lyndon Johnson -- sorry to take so long to actually answer you. That's why my books are so long, I guess.

CARO

11:35:45
I picked Lyndon Johnson because I said, he understood political power better than anyone else in the second half of the 20th century. So if I can understand what he did, if I can figure it out and explain it, I'll be adding something.

REHM

11:35:57
Was there a time when you were thinking you might, instead, do a biography of La Guardia?

CARO

11:36:06
Yes. I did this book on Robert Moses who, of course, for those of you who don't live in New York, this is the man who built, basically, all the highways that you drive in in New York and many of the bridges and the parks and all, did it without ever being elected to anything. Then, I thought I was going to do a book on the great mayor of New York, La Guardia, but I realized I had already said most of what I wanted to say about New York in "The Power Broker," so I looked for another subject.

REHM

11:36:34
You know, there's an interesting story, and I think we're going to have to wait until after the break to tell it, going back to when you were a reporter and when you ultimately saw how power really affected the political process, that it wasn’t just politics. It was, indeed, power. And I want to hear about that when you traveled on Election Day in the Middlesex Country elections.

REHM

11:37:17
Short break here. Robert Caro, when we come back, more of your calls, your comments, your email. Stay with us.

REHM

11:39:58
And for those of you just joining us, the eminent Robert Caro is with me. We've been talking for the most part about his most recent book, the fourth in his study on the life of Lyndon Johnson titled "The Passage to Power." That book was first published in 2012 and in paperback in 2013. He is the winner of two Pulitzer prizes and the two-time national Book Critic Circle Award for the best nonfiction book, the 2012 New York Historical Society's American History Book prize for "Passage to Power."

REHM

11:40:52
And it is power in which you've said you are most interested. And there was a story that really got you interested in power. You say that the New York Times had offered you a copyboy's salary for $37.50 a week. But then, because you wanted to get married, the New Brunswick Daily Home News and the Sunday Times offered you $52.00 a week as a reporter and you took it. How did that shape your understanding of power?

CARO

11:41:39
Well, that's a terrific question. There was an incident that made me understand what I was interested in to make more money because we were just married, going to have a baby. I took a job as speech writer for the Middle Sex County democratic organization. That was New Brunswick basically. And the political boss of the city took a shine to me. And I would -- he had me accompany him everywhere. Also he was paying me with a roll of $50 bills. You know, my salary at the newspaper then was $52 a week. So every time I wrote a speech he'd like -- he'd pull out this wad of $50 bills and start peeling them off.

CARO

11:42:24
So I found I had found my, you know, heaven. However, the incident was on an election day so he had me, because he liked me, I guess, ride the polls with him. That means that day his regular chauffer didn't drive his big limousine. A police captain drove it. And he drove from poll to polling place form one precinct to the other. And in each one a police officer, a captain or a lieutenant, would come up to the car and say basically everything's going okay. They had a very powerful organization in New Brunswick -- political organization then.

CARO

11:42:59
But at one polling place, the police officer came over to the window of the car and said that there was trouble. They were having trouble from protestors, from poll watcher meaning, now that I look back on it, that they were catching them -- the organization stacking the numbers. And they were black people. And as we watched, policemen herded a group of the well-dressed -- this was the early -- late '50s, early '60s -- well-dressed men and women were being herded away from the polling place and put into two, as I remember, or three black police wagons.

REHM

11:43:39
Wow.

CARO

11:43:39
And the thing -- there was something about it that just struck me without any thought, really struck me inside. And I remember, you know, the thin that got me was they were so meek about it, you know. Just like they expected to be treated like this.

REHM

11:43:58
Those people who were being herded.

CARO

11:44:00
...were being herded. And I remember thinking, I don't want to be in here with him in this big black car with him. I want to be out there with them. So we drove away and at some stop, at a traffic light or something, I remember I simply got out of the car. I didn't say one word. I simply got out of the car. And what's interesting, he must've understood what was in -- what I was thinking because he never got in touch with me again, you know.

CARO

11:44:31
But from the point on I think I started realizing that what I really wanted to do was explain -- try to figure out and explain political power in the United States.

REHM

11:44:46
And political power could be purchased. It could be won over. Political power could be exercised in so many ways. And LBJ was one of the most brilliant...

CARO

11:45:06
It's simply amazing. I mean, you know, it's like I'm learning -- over and over again while doing these books you say, wow, I didn't know you could do that, just watching what Johnson's doing. He seemed to have this almost unbelievable gift combined with this real toughness.

REHM

11:45:27
All right. Let's go to Robert in Houston, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.

ROBERT

11:45:38
Hello.

REHM

11:45:38
Hi, you're on the air. Go right ahead, sir.

ROBERT

11:45:41
Wow. I just wanted to call and say Mr. Caro, I'm a tremendous fan. I've read all your books and I love Lyndon Johnson in large part because of you.

CARO

11:45:51
Thank you.

ROBERT

11:45:51
Diane, I watch your show every day. My question, I was wondering, so it sounds like it's mostly from the beginning of this call, Mr. Caro, you are -- from the show.

CARO

11:46:02
What?

ROBERT

11:46:03
So and all the stuff I've read before, it sounds like you kind of had a healthy respect for Lyndon Johnson, but not so much like an admiration or you liked him. But now it sounds like, I don't know, it sound like you're more affectionate towards the man himself. Would you...

CARO

11:46:16
Well, that's a really good question. It's not so simple to answer that. People say my view of Johnson has become more positive, if that's the word. But it's less that, Robert, than, you know, he's a very complicated character. There are things that he does that are just really awe inspiring and wonderful, and things that he does that are quite vicious and cruel.

CARO

11:46:47
In this last book, where he takes over, I mean, I call it "The Passage of Power" because it's about how power passes from one president to another and how the two presidents -- the difference in how the two presidents exercise it and how he picks up this power and passes not only the civil rights bill, but Medicare and Medicaid and 70 education bills. You say he's doing something so wonderful that your view of him is really awe inspiring. At other times he's doing something quite different than you have a different view of him.

REHM

11:47:22
Here's an email from Bill who says, "Who bore the greater responsibility for the thermo nuclear hatred between LBJ and Robert Kennedy? Why could they never reach a common ground?"

CARO

11:47:43
Bill, that's a terrific question. I have to say the Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson relationship, which you know is going right on into the fifth volume which I'm writing now, is one -- you know, as a historian you hate to use loaded words, Diane knows, like hatred. But hatred is not too strong a word, in my opinion, to describe the feeling between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. There were a lot of reasons, specific incidents that contribute to it. But just to say one -- you know, sometimes it isn't an incident.

CARO

11:48:19
It's the first time they meet each other. I could just briefly describe...

REHM

11:48:23
Please.

CARO

11:48:23
...the first time Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy meet. The year I think -- I have to look in my book -- but I think it's 1953, Robert Kennedy is a brand new young staffer on Senator McCarthy's Senate committee. And Lyndon Johnson is the might majority leader. Now, in the Senate cafeteria, Lyndon Johnson had breakfast every morning and so did Senator McCarthy. McCarthy -- there was a big round table right next to the cashier and McCarthy would sit at it every morning with four or five of his staffers.

REHM

11:48:56
You better identify which McCarthy you're talking...

CARO

11:48:58
Oh, Senator Joseph McCarthy...

REHM

11:49:00
Exactly.

CARO

11:49:01
...the red hunter, sorry. And this morning one of the staffers was Robert Kennedy. Johnson walks in to have his breakfast with two of his staffers, George Reedy and Horace Busby. And this amazing scene, which both Busby and Reedy recounted to me, to have them both done it, I wouldn't have written it. McCarthy jumps up and most of his staffers jump up. McCarthy rushes over to Johnson, as everybody did in the Senate. Mr. Leader, good morning. What a great thing you did yesterday. Never thought you could do it, Lyndon.

CARO

11:49:34
And Johnson -- and the other staffers chime in. And Johnson goes around, they all shake his hand. One of McCarthy's staffers does not get up. He does not move to shake Johnson's hand. Well, Johnson knew what to do in any situation like this. No one was ever going to get the better of him. He walks up to the youngest Kennedy and he sort of extends his hand a little bit so Kennedy has no choice but to either stand up and shake his hand or to give him a deliberate snub.

CARO

11:50:03
And I said, why did -- what happened there? Why was that? And Reedy said to me, you know Bob, sometimes there isn't an explanation. Did you ever see two strange dogs come into a room and as soon as they see each other the hair rises on the back of their neck and there's a low growl? That's the way Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were from the first time.

REHM

11:50:25
And did Kennedy stand up or not?

CARO

11:50:30
Yes. Johnson sort of made him stand up and I make that...

REHM

11:50:32
He made him stand up.

CARO

11:50:34
...stand up, yeah.

REHM

11:50:36
And what happened to that relationship after LBJ became vice-president and then president?

ROBERT

11:50:47
Well, you know, in the -- becoming vice-president, you know, it's one of the stories -- it's an amazing story but I don't pretend I know because no one knows the whole story. Johnson said that after Jack Kennedy picked him to be vice-president, Robert Kennedy came down three times to his room to try to get him to withdraw from the ticket. No one really knows the truth of that but Johnson regarded it as one of the most humiliating moments of his life. And he never forgave Robert Kennedy for it.

CARO

11:51:17
Then when they -- or when Robert Kennedy is attorney general under his brother's presidency, Johnson is vice-president, Robert Kennedy does -- and he can because the vice-president has no power -- Robert Kennedy does everything to humiliate him. You can't believe these things. He had these parties out at Robert Kennedy's estate, as you know...

REHM

11:51:37
Hickory Hill.

CARO

11:51:38
...Hickory Hill in McLean. And whenever Johnson was invited, which was not often, he and Lady Byrd would be put at, what Ethel called, the losers table. And Johnson knew he was at the losers table. And then in an instant in the crack of a gunshot in Dallas, the tables are completely reversed and Lyndon Johnson has the power to hurt Robert Kennedy. And he does.

REHM

11:52:02
How?

CARO

11:52:03
Well, it starts really on the plane, on Air Force One. He calls Robert Kennedy to get the exact wording of the oath of office. You know, a Kennedy's deputy Nicholas Katzenbach said, you know, Johnson could've called anyone of a hundred officials and asked the wording of the oath. Everybody knows it. He said, he didn't have to call -- he was really calling when the -- he was calling this brother who loved Jack Kennedy so much about -- just a few minutes after he's been told his brother is dead and asking for the exact procedure that he will take over his brother's office.

CARO

11:52:44
And that was only the start. These two men throughout their lives just hated each other. And a lot of -- everything that they did politically in regard to each other has a personal overtone.

REHM

11:53:01
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Patrick in Butler, Penn. You're on the air.

PATRICK

11:53:13
Yes, ma'am. Thank you very much.

REHM

11:53:15
Certainly.

PATRICK

11:53:15
I'll make the comment for Mr. Caro first and I have a brief question.

CARO

11:53:20
Sure.

PATRICK

11:53:20
The comment is that I started reading your books on Lyndon Johnson when I was 27 years old, just a kid. Now I'm pushing 60 and I can't wait until your next volume comes out. So thanks a lot for that, sir. My question is, in the past hour you comment that -- or you write about on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated that there was a meeting -- and I don't have your book in front of me right now, it's on my shelf somewhere else -- that there was a group that met to discuss Lyndon Johnson and his money and some corruption he was involved in. And then because of the assassination it didn't happen, but could you speak to that a little bit?

CARO

11:54:05
I can. It's a complicated story. I'll try to make it as fast as possible. On the very day, Life magazine -- you know, Lyndon Johnson started out as a very poor boy. He entered the White House as one of the richest presidents, perhaps the richest president personally ever...

REHM

11:54:21
Because...

CARO

11:54:23
Well, because there's a complicated story. And Life magazine was investigating that and had been investigating it for months. And they were ready to run this story, which one of the editor's said, we'll just call it Lyndon Johnson's Money. They might've had a different title eventually. And at the very moment of the assassination, as I recall, 14 editors and reporters -- I may have that number wrong -- are meeting in the office of the Life managing editor.

CARO

11:54:54
And they're discussing this article which is going to run in the very next issue of Life magazine, it's going to be a two-part series, when a secretary runs in and says, the president has been shot. So they all, of course, run back to their desks to start working on whatever aspect of the assassination it has. And the story is put aside.

REHM

11:55:16
What was the story?

CARO

11:55:18
Well, the story -- it eventually ran -- but I must say in sort of a toned down -- I mean, it was a good job of investigative reporting, I'll say that -- about ten months later. And it's really about how Lyndon Johnson accumulated this fortune, which was in part because he owned -- he and Lady Byrd -- well, Lady Byrd owned it but Texas is...

REHM

11:55:43
...Lady Byrd owned.

CARO

11:55:44
Yes. But Texas is a community property state.

REHM

11:55:47
Ah, so she owned the radio stations and he...

CARO

11:55:51
...and the television...

REHM

11:55:52
...and the television stations.

CARO

11:55:54
You know, that's the other side of Lyndon Johnson because in the Christmas following the assassination, he learns that another reporter, a wonderful reporter named Margaret Mayer, now deceased but she was a great help to me, the first woman ever to head the Washington bureau -- to be the Washington bureau chief of a major American newspaper, for the Dallas Times Herald, was investigating how this television empire worked to provide Lyndon Johnson with money.

CARO

11:56:25
And he finds out about it and he calls her editor on the Dallas Times Herald and he basically says to -- he couldn't have more direct -- if you don't call her off to stop investigating me, we, the government, can start investigating you. You don't want to be investigated.

REHM

11:56:45
Whoa. And what a note on which to end. Robert Carol, I can't thank you enough. So glad to see you.

CARO

11:56:53
It's a pleasure, as always, to be here.

REHM

11:56:55
Thank you. "The Passage to Power," the fourth in his study on the life of Lyndon Johnson,
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