December 31, 2008
BRIAN LAMB, HOST, CSPAN/Q&A: Bob Caro, bring us up to date on LBJ book number four.
ROBERT CARO, AUTHOR, THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: Well, here’s the part that I’ve written and handed in to the publisher already. I the top page says part one, Johnson versus Kennedy, 1960. It’s about how Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy fought for the presidential nomination in 1960, the Democratic Convention. And how Johnson came to be the vice presidential candidate. Basically goes through his vice presidency and up to the assassination. I suppose I think that’s something like about 570 manuscript pages.
And this is what I’ve written since you know that I haven’t handed into the publishers, it’s still just a manuscript. On type it looks like it’s about the same length. And that’s sort of hard to describe where I’m what’s in there because a lot of is not chronological. But it’s examination of these three figures. This is really a book not just about Lyndon Johnson but, about Robert Kennedy and Jack Kennedy and, the interplay of their personalities. Particularly Robert I guess.
And it’s a very complicated story that I don’t think people know of two very complicated people. And Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And I had to really go into that and try to explain it because it’s part of a story all the way through the end of Johnson’s presidency. That’s done. And I suppose chronologically at the moment Johnson is passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And that sort of, in one way, where I’m up to now.
LAMB: It was 2002 when the last book came out?
LAMB: It was 1167 pages?
LAMB: What’s your guess about the timing and the length of this book?
CARO: You always ask me in our interviews. And I always tell you and, I never make I’m always wrong. I said I have a number of years I’ve decided to say. But I suppose the book will be about as long as that, as Master of the Senate. Judging from where I am
LAMB: And any instinct how you’re doing? What’s your timing?
CARO: My instinct is always wrong. Things always take me longer than I think they were going to. You know my first book, which was about the Power Broker, I told Ina we’re going to be done in nine months, because I had this outline saying I was going to be done in nine months. And it took seven years. So I have to tell you I don’t think my guesses are very good, but it’s a number of years. It’s not I’ve passed the half way mark in doing this book but, I still have a ways to go.
LAMB: I know one of the questions I asked you some years ago, because you told me you were going to go Vietnam
and live there for a while.
CARO: Yes. We
LAMB: Have you done it?
CARO: No, we haven’t done that yet.
LAMB: What’s the plan?
CARO: Well I divided it’s why I say it’s complicated to talk about to complicate it’s structure in this book. Vietnam is going to start to really enter Lyndon Johnson’s presidency right at the point that I am now. By 1964 you could say he kept it tamped down, so, I can deal with briefly. I’m almost up to that point to where I’m going we’re going. And Vietnam will become a central thing.
You know I’ve done all the research in the Johnson Library on that. I have all the notes on the meetings you know on Vietnam. Which is getting that information was quite a job. There’s a lot of it. A lot of meetings. And so from that standpoint I’m sort of done with Vietnam. But as I told you some years ago, I want to go there and really get more of a feel for it on the ground.
LAMB: Best I can tell from the past you started on the project, first book in 1967?
CARO: On The Power Broker?
LAMB: On The Power Broker?
CARO: Correct, yes.
LAMB: 1974 it was published.
LAMB: All about a man named Robert Moses.
LAMB: I’m going to just quote from the opening. That you had a little quote from Sophocles. And then you say you use the quote it says, ”One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”
LAMB: Why did you open the Moses book
CARO: With that? Because it was something that just stuck in my mind. And it seemed to me to sum up Robert Moses’ career. You know for decades, as he was shaping New York, building all the bridges, the parks, the housing projects, determining the city’s priorities. He was such a hero to New York you know and, the policies, but at the end where was New York when his 44 years of power had ended? That’s what we see. And I thought that quote, one must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been, summed up what I was trying to say in that book.
LAMB: You I think told me on the record, if you didn’t, you can counter it, that you sell as many as 25,000 copies of The Power Broker still, every year?
CARO: Oh, I don’t think I I don’t know how many copies they sell. I would say it’s because I don’t ask. It’s I do know because I just had asked for another interview, it’s in 48th printing. And it’s apparently selling sort of as what I know they say, as well as ever. It’s just sell steadily in it’s 34 years since. I’m very that’s the thing I’m proud of. I don’t actually know the number.
LAMB: Do you have an example of where it is used in some way that you think is a good example - what you really set out to do?
CARO: Yes. I think people go to a specific chapter which is called One Mile. When I I was trying to show the human cost of these great public works projects. And when I was writing The Power Broker, nobody was taking you know in every book it said the human cost of highways. Human cost of and, I said to Ina,
LAMB: Your wife?
CARO: My wife and the only person who works on these books, besides me. I said you know I want to show what the human what the words human cost mean. So what I decided to do was he built Robert Moses built 672 miles of the highways in New York. Expressways and parkway. I said I’m going to take one mile, I’m going to just see what happened there. So I took a mile of the course Bronx expressway that ran through this heart of the Bronx, heart of the neighborhood, a real neighborhood.
And Moses not only took down the 54, six and seven story apartment houses in that mile but, the whole neighborhood in which 60,000 people lived was really destroyed. And I went to find those people who had moved away and, see what the highway had done to their lives. And to you know you see people on the subways all the time, kids in school reading The Power Broker but, I notice when they talk to me about it, more than any other chapter, that’s the one that they seem to come back to. And when I think about it, I mean I remember to saying to Ina -- we were really broke at the time that I did The Power Broker. And you know so to each the length of time that the book was taking, which kept getting longer and longer, was a real consideration. And I remember saying to her, you know the research this I mean the book could be done without it. To put this in is going to take six months of research and writing. Of course, Ina said, well it should be done, as she always said. And looking back I’m really glad that I did that chapter.
LAMB: We’re at West 57th Street in New York City.
LAMB: How long have you been in this office.
CARO: Oh, I just signed my fourth lease. So I think I’ve been here 16 or 17 I’ve written three books here. The three Johnson books.
LAMB: Well, in one room?
LAMB: How often do you come to this room?
CARO: Well, I work every day when I’m writing -- I don’t want to exaggerate that I work harder than I do.
By the way, I do a schedules. I don’t take days off while I’m writing. Not because I’m so industrious but, it’s simply too hard. I don’t have the ability to take off a weekend and then come in Monday morning and start up again. I always have to gear up again. So, it’s easier for me not to take days off while I’m writing. Like I haven’t had a day off, because I’ve been doing this section, for quite some time. But then when I finish a section, then I take a long vacation. So
how many straight days have you worked now, do you know?
CARO: Well, I worked since September.
LAMB: Right straight through?
LAMB: Every day, seven days a week?
CARO: Well, I had some sort of flu for a day. I think I worked every day since then, yes.
LAMB: And do you dress like that every time you come to work?
CARO: Well, I probably put on the blazer because I knew I was going to be interviewed but, I always wear a sport jacket and a tie to work because so I don’t sound too foolish. I found it was very easy, my books take a long time to do. Years and years. And I have an editor and a publisher who are very understanding. And they never ask me you know how I’m doing. You know? They don’t rush me.
So, it’s real I found on The Power Broker, it’s really easy to fool yourself about how much you’ve done. You know? To take off you know then you think you’ve been working so hard. So, I started putting down how many words you know I do in a day. And I that was one device to make my to remind myself that I’m going to work. You know that this is a job. So I do that. I try to start at the same time you know in the morning. And I try to work like you know as a boy I went to a high school where you had to wear a tie and a jacket. And that’s why I do it. To remind myself it’s work.
LAMB: And there’s nobody here but you?
LAMB: And Ina is the only other person that works on this?
LAMB: You’ve been married for how many years?
CARO: 50 years.
LAMB: Behind you is what?
CARO: Well, behind me is the this is the outline for the last volume of the book. Want me to tell you how I go about doing it?
CARO: When I finish I try to do the bulk of the research before I start writing. Although that’s you know it never quite works out that way. Because when you get into a specific chapter or, specific section, you realize that the file those files and the Johnson Library that you thought didn’t matter is really the heart of it. And when you get so, you’re always but, I do the bulk of the research before I start writing.
Then comes the thing that’s really hard. And I make myself not do anything until I can tell in one paragraph or, at most, two, what is the book about. That I can sum up the whole book. I mean that’s when I really think it through. And, if you saw me then you’d see me here sitting at this desk sort of you know having a lot of problems doing takes a long time for me to do that. But, when you get the idea of the book so it’s so succinct and, you know what you’re trying to say, then when it’s necessary for you to go off on a digression or something, you know, a biography of Richard Russell or, a study of civil rights and a study then you know it’s easier to get back to your central theme.
So, after I do that from that I take that and I simply sit down and type an outline of the whole book. This is all the way to the last line of the book. I always have to know the last line.
LAMB: So, you’ve already written the last line?
CARO: I know the last line.
Then what I do, having done that, is I take a notebook this is the notebook. And I to each of those sentences become let’s say, I don’t know if I can find one here.
LAMB: And that’s in long hand. A lot of it?
CARO: Long hand. Yes, I do a lot of my work in long hand.
But you’d say you know this is how he dealt with his secretaries. You know? He made them so conscious of time. You couldn’t have any outside friend. Then what you do is you go to the file cabinets where you have I have all my interviews and all my notes. And I simply go through them in order. Whenever there’s a point in there that illustrates one of the points on this outline, I put the number in there in red. So, that as I’m writing the chapter, I simply go to that thing and, at that point, that piece of information that illustrates the point.
And when I’m done with that, I start writing. I write my first few drafts in long hand on these white legal pads. And then I go to my typewriter and do a number of drafts you know on the typewriter.
LAMB: Has there ever been a point in all of these, what is it, 42 year or since you start all this that you ever said, I’m sorry I went in that direction? I wish I would was doing something else?
CARO: You mean I
LAMB: You, personally, saying I know I’ve committed to these four books on LBJ
CARO: Oh, no.
LAMB: Never, ever said this is not a good idea?
CARO: No. Well, the opposite you know the opposite is true. I didn’t realize because you know what I’m trying to do as I you know I think I’ve said to you in previous interviews, I don’t look at these books on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson as biographies. I never had any idea, any interest, in writing a book just to tell the life of a famous man. What I’m interested in is political power and, how it works in America. So, I think of The Power Broker and, to whatever extent it works, it works on this level as an examination of what real power is, in cities, urban power in all the cities of America in the 20th century. Because you say we’re taught that power in a democracy comes from being elected, comes from the ballot box.
But here was a man who was never elected to anything. And he had more power than anyone who was. More power than any mayor, more power than any governor. And he held this power for 44 years. And you say when I was a young reporter and I started to think about Robert Moses. I said so, everything you’re writing Bob is basically bologna because it’s all based on this assumption that elected that all power comes from being elected. So I said if I could find out the sources of Robert Moses’ power, which I had no idea what they were. Neither did anybody else. And show how he got what it was and, how he got it and, how he used it, I would be adding something. I would be saying this goes beyond what we’re taught in the traditional textbooks. This is what the raw naked essence of urban political power consists of.
Now, when Lyndon Johnson, I said I want to do the same thing with national political power. But, I didn’t realize you know how rich that was going to be. Like I though the first volume was going to be very wasn’t going to be was going to be just a few chapters. I didn’t realize how interesting it would be to see how he rose to power. How does someone poor, from an isolated area, how does he rise to national political power? So, these things just keep getting more and more interesting.
LAMB: For those who may be seeing you for the first time, you were born right up here on the Upper East Side?
CARO: Yes, right near here.
LAMB: Princeton graduate?
CARO: Yes, I have one son, Chase.
LAMB: How old is he?
CARO: Chase is 40 is 51.
LAMB: And what kind of work does he do?
CARO: He’s a lawyer.
LAMB: I counted 3801 pages in your four books. You’re first book, The Power Broker, was 1246, including index and everything. Your second book which came out in 1982, The Path to Power, had 882 pages in it. And you dedicated that book to your wife.
LAMB: And in that book, Path to Power, the quote was from Shakespeare. Out front. ”More is thy do than more than all can pay.” Why did you pick that?
CARO: Because that’s how I feel about Ina. ”More is thy do than more than all can pay.”
LAMB: Where did you meet her, by the way?
CARO: I met Ina when I was at Princeton. She went to Connecticut College for Women. And
LAMB: And what does she
CARO: And we got married right after graduation ...
LAMB: And what role
what role does she really play in all of these books that you’ve done.
CARO: Oh, she plays a really significant role. It’s she’s the I’ve never been you know I there’s nothing wrong with having teams of researchers as many other biographers do. So, I’m not saying that. But for myself, I’ve never been able to trust anyone to I’ve never I wouldn’t feel right.
With Ina you know whose a you know she’s a historian in her own right. A medieval historian. She’s written one book which is published. And another one she’s just finishing now. But in addition to that she’s a great researcher. You can put send Ina to a library and you will know if there’s anything to be found in that library, she will find it. And this last book, Master of the Senate, she went down to the Richard Russell Library and came back with a picture of this very complicated, powerful, senator who led the southern block for decades. That’s absolutely because she found, she just refused to stop looking until she looked in every possible file. She’s a great researcher.
LAMB: Give us please, a quick synopsis on the three books that have been written starting with The Path to Power in ’82, what was what did it cover?
CARO: Well, it covered from his birth, his growing up in this lonely, remote, isolated area, the Texas hill country. Which was a really cut off from the rest of the United States. Creating his first political machine in college. Rising, getting to congress. How he while he was still in congress as a young congressman, thinking of a way to get national, political power. That’s the first volume, the heart of it.
Second volume is basically the heart of it is a stolen election. The 1948 election.
LAMB: That’s Means of Assent.
CARO: Means of Assent. And I said you know we keep talking about stolen elections in America. They’re part of the demog I want people to understand political power. We may not like to hear it but, stolen elections are a part of political power in the United States.
I mean when I think of Bush v Gore, people look at it as a you know oh, what is this? It’s part of history. So, I said I’m taking this election in 1948 and, I’m going to show what a stolen election is. Because Lyndon Johnson did steal it to get to the senate. Won it by 87 votes which were cast as you know six days after the other ballots.
And the third volume is really about the Senate of the United States. It’s called Master of the Senate. But it’s as much about the senate and, how the senate works, as it is about Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: Are all of these books still in print?
CARO: Yes, they’ve never none of my books, my publisher just told me, have ever been out of print in either hard cover or paperback for a single day.
LAMB: And how about the number of editions you got on some of the other books. You said 48?
CARO: I don’t actually oh, I don’t actually know. I just happen to know on The Power Broker because someone asked me so, I called and asked.
LAMB: In the Master of the Senate, the book on Lyndon Johnson in the United States senate.
LAMB: The quote you use out front in from LBJ, ” I do understand power. Whatever else may be said about me, I know where to look for it and, how to use it.” Who else in your lifetime, that you’ve observed, understands power? That you can look back on? Other than LBJ?
CARO: Well, Robert Kennedy. Could be could just what’s on the top of my mind right now.
I mean among the things I mean Robert Kennedy I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense I mean he understood. You watch Robert Kennedy take that nomination away from Lyndon Johnson in 1960. It is something to watch. I mean can I tell you I mean like it’s like people think today that Kennedy had this nomination all wrapped up you know
LAMB: John F. Kennedy?
CARO: John I’m I beg you pardon. That John F. Kennedy had this nomination all wrapped up you know?
Not at all. In 1959 Lyndon Johnson is the great majority leader with the to say more accurately, the very end of 1958. Lyndon Johnson is the great majority leader in the United States Senate. He is the powerful democrat. He had all he is the guy who’s ahead. And to watch the Kennedys, President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and then, the little brother, Ted Kennedy. How they take Robert Kennedy was such a gene I mean Johnson among the reasons Johnson looked at Robert Kennedy and saw someone who was just as good as counting votes as him. I mean there’s a quote in this when he finally gets around to the western states, he realizes Robert Kennedy has been there first. Robert Kennedy and, I don’t want to go into too much of this book. But, Robert Kennedy sees there’s a way of taking this nomination away from Lyndon Johnson. And the way is the western states. And there are 172 convention votes from these nine western states. And Johnson thinks he has them all. And, in fact, he has them all. And Robert Kennedy starts to take them away from him. And when Johnson finally gets realizes what’s happening, this guy Irv Hoff who Johnson send out there, says Bobby has the bridle and halter on he’s not letting them take it off. And it was I mean there was just to follow this you know it’s you ask about understanding political power.
This isn’t exactly to your to you. But, I just say when you find out how it really works, it’s something we all should know. I mean if we want to this is the power that shapes all our lives. And in a democracy we have a hand in conferring it.
So, the more we understand about it, hopefully at the end, the better the country would be. I mean when I look back on this, I mean I look back on interviews I had with Ted Kennedy. Can I say a word about I mean you know he was like when I was talking about the western states. The Kennedys originally don’t think they have much of a chance out there. So, Bobby or, Robert, but everyone calls him Bobby, but I’m going to call him Robert. Robert Kennedy sends his little brother out there. He’s 27 years old. Senator Ted Kennedy. This is his first political assignment. And they see sends him out to the western states. And I said and the Kennedys wound up taking most of these delegates.
And I said -- Ted Kennedy was extraordinarily helpful in trying to make me understand what was happening. And I said to him you know if you really want to help you have to get the list they send them out there with lists of the delegates and what he you know and how to approach each one and all. And I said if you really want to help, you have to get me those lists that jog your memory on what you were doing out there. And talk to me going down the lists. And he did that. He had his staff get the original the lists together. And then I went down and I spent, I believe, two nights with the Kennedys in Washington. And we talked all day you know? And you really came away from that and you say, you know Bob, you didn’t understand this aspect of politics at all. So now I forgot about what you’re asking?
LAMB: Let me ask you something that I’ve always wanted to ask you. That you introduced Ted Kennedy to the 2004 Democratic Convention?
LAMB: As a historian, why did you do that? Not as a person but, at did you worry that somebody would say he’s too close?
CARO: Well, I the reason I did it was that he said that he wanted to give and intended to, give a speak that put the Democratic Party in historic context. And I had just finished doing this book on the Senate, you know? And it was like I’m sitting up there thinking about the great senators of the past, Webster, Clay and Calhoun. You know what I’m saying? So but, I’m watching a great senator. I mean a man who always speaks up for the liberal cause. You know? And has been doing it for 40, whatever number of years was then. And I that’s the context in which I introduced him to the convention.
As it turned out, he wasn’t able to give the speech that speech because the people who were running the convention kept cutting his time shorter. It didn’t quite work out as well as it was supposed to. But, no, I didn’t have the feeling that was going to compromise.
LAMB: Is this are is that your politics, the liberal part of the Democratic Party?
CARO: I guess you’d have to say that. Yes.
Well, I don’t know that I define my politics that way. To me, as I’ve done these books, you know it’s like you know you’re learning as you go along, Brian. You don’t sang you don’t start out knowing this stuff.
Like in the first volume there’s a whole big section on how Lyndon Johnson brought electricity to the hill country of Texas. And I was looking I was send you know I don’t know if the New Deal worked or not. I don’t know to what extent it really helped or, other forces would have helped but, I said to Ina I’m going to let’s take a program that we can look at in almost an isolation. Because there was no electricity. The hill country was so isolated from the rest of America that you say there are no outside. The outside forces are reduced to a minimum. It’s not like something in the city where you have to talk about urban renewal or, this or that. And you say, this is a tabular rasa. These people were never going to get electricity by themselves. They were no electric company was going to lay these thousands and thousands of mile of wire to isolated areas. To bring it to one farm or one ranch. And I said let’s start out as if we don’t know anything. And go and interview and, of course, Ina did a lot of this interviewing. Let’s go to these farm wives who didn’t and find out what life was like before electricity and, after electricity. You couldn’t emerge from doing that without understanding that there are times when only government, where people are fighting forces that are too great for them to fight alone. And they better have government on their side. A government that’s trying to help.
So, I don’t know that I would define my politics so much as liberal I don’t think of it quite in that way.
LAMB: Have you had any discussion with Ted Kennedy since his brain cancer?
CARO: I have not spoken to him since his operation, no.
LAMB: You know if you go back in the history of Bob Caro and the books on LBJ, you can find quotes from Jack Valenti saying that he didn’t want to talk to you because you were destroying Lyndon Johnson’s reputation, or Bob Hardesty called you dishonest.
You did interview Lady Bird Johnson ten times seven times early in the whole process but then she cut you off.
LAMB: What is it now? What is your relationship with the Johnson family or the people who are left from that administration?
CARO: Well, since you used those quotes against me, right? I’ll because I keep it to heart. Jack Valenti who as you know and I think you’ve quoted on the air several attacks on me you know in previous interviews.
The last thing that he did was he wrote me this letter. This is a letter asking me, or perhaps I should give a little bit of I mean you asked. When you talk about the early right now, it’s in era of cooperation you know and I can tell you about a number of the people who have come around.
Rightly of course, unremittingly attacked my you know first two books, and then we were on a panel together at the Kennedy Library you know and he was sitting next to me and he pulls out from his pocket the sheets of paper that he’s going to read whatever he says you know from.
And I realize he’s sitting next to me and because his eyes weren’t too good he’s typed this in big type so that if I look over I can probably see what the attack is going to be, and have a minute to prepare for it.
And I look over and I see what I’m reading are words that I wrote. And what he said was I won’t try and quote him was that I didn’t like Mr. Caro’s first two books. But I now, I now realize what he’s doing.
I know he will be the definitive Lyndon Johnson biographer, and in fact I want to read you three of the most magnificent paragraphs I ever read. And he read me those three paragraphs from my book.
Then there was a dinner at the Kennedy, after the panel at the Kennedy Library, and he said we’re staying at the same hotel Mr. Caro, could we ride back together? And when we rode back together, he really said things to me that were was quite extraordinary.
He really well I’m only going to say this because you know you talked about the wording and the attack to me. And he said you know my two favorite the two most the greatest historians were McCaulay and Gibbon and I now you know you will be like one.
And then this letter I have is actually a letter from him and written about a year later asking me for a blurb for his last book...
LAMB: Which was published after he died?
CARO: Yes, but he didn’t know he was going to yes he was working on it and he you know he says, ”Dear Bob I take an implausible liberty by sending you the gallery of my new memoir.”
Says, it is a piece of effrontery for me to even ask you to give me the gift of a comment from you about this book that we could put on the cover. Then he talks about my book again and he says, ”That passage on Page 715 of your volume is the most magnificent summary of Lyndon Johnson I have ever read.”
So I the Johnson the change in attitude of the Johnson people, most of the Johnson people has been very, very dramatic. Can I tell you one George Christian was Lyndon Johnson’s last Press Secretary.
And I have been asking George Christian you know writing him and telephoning him and asking him for an interview for I’m sure ten or 15 years and he hadn’t wanted to talk to me. And when my last book came out, I think just after I talked to you the last time, I was going to speak at the Texas Book Festival be down in Austin. So I felt I might as well try him one more time, it can’t hurt.
And I had heard that Mr. Christian had lung cancer and that in fact he was shortly going to die. And so I telephoned him and he said, well I do want to talk to you. So we had three interviews and it’s a way in a way because of the element of death and mortality in this, it’s something that’s happened to me over and over again in the last few years with the Johnson people.
So as soon as I got to his office the first time, he said I want to start right in on the day that Lyndon Johnson announced that he wouldn’t run again. He said I was with all day, which he was. And he simply took me through that day you know.
I had three interviews with him. The first they had this he was a very powerful lobbyist and very respected man in Austin. He had this huge office that as I remembered looked down on the Capital Dome, which I felt was sort of symbolic in a way.
And the first interview, he hardly seemed ill at all. I remember he was very pale and he had an oxygen, a little oxygen tank on wheels in the corner of his office. But he didn’t really have to use it. This next interview was just about a week later. And that time he had to use the oxygen a lot but we talked all day.
Then the third time, we were talking and after an hour he said something like, well Bob you’re going to have to get the rest of it from somebody else. I’m going to call for someone to take me home. And he was very sick, obviously that day.
And in my memory we get had to get the he died just about a month later. Now I’ve had you asked about you know so many of the so many of the one of the interesting things about doing books that take so long is that so many of the Johnson people who throughout had been amazingly helpful, have died since the last time we talked. So I have all their interviews here you know and but I can’t pick up the phone and call them anymore.
LAMB: This is not a great segue way but I do want to ask this because I know people are asking this you’ll see why the same question. You started this when you were about 37 years old, this whole chase for the power story. You’re now 74?
LAMB: I missed were you born in 19...
LAMB: OK, 73. I give you another year. Have you thought that through about your own age and your health and all that and how you’re dealing with what you already have collected if the worst would happen? I mean we all think about that when we get older.
CARO: Well of course you think about it. But that’s counter-productive to think about it because there’s nothing I can do about it.
LAMB: But I’m talking about that you back things up, I mean you talk to Ina make sure that if something happens you got all this on the record and you can move ahead with at least what you’ve learned?
CARO: Well I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that. I’m doing this for you know you could do these books a lot faster. And I could be doing this a lot faster. The only argument for saying I’m not going to change the way I do things at all is sort of a boastful thing to say.
If you learn something about political power and you write it you know because you want people to understand it, then you don’t want just one generation of people, or one decade of people to get this. You want it to be there to endure.
So what really takes the books so long for me to do is the writing and the re-writing you know I’m trying to get the facts right. And your lots of shortcuts and I know you don’t have to do it this way but on the other hand you say, this is a boastful thing to say but none of these books have ever been out of print.
You know the first day Power Broker came out in ’74 which is 34 years ago, when this interview runs perhaps, 35 years ago. And the first Johnson book came out 27 years ago you know and they’re still there. I mean they’re being used in a lot of colleges. You see them in bookstores. I did have to make a decision with this book because I knew it was going to take a lot of years to do. And I decided to do it exactly the way I did the other books.
LAMB: All right the second one and this was asked of you I’m sure before. I may even have asked it of you. How have you financially through these years been able to do this? I mean if somebody is sitting outside looking at this saying, ”He dedicated himself to book writing only for all these years, can you do it and what else did you have to do to be able to afford to live?” Or do the books alone make it comfortable for you?
CARO: Well, you’re asking very good questions, but they cover such a period of time that you can’t-- I mean when I was writing The Power Broker we were completely broke. I mean when we look back on that, on seven years and I was a reporter, and I decided this book on Moses should be done because somehow he had this power that nobody understood.
I was you know a young when I started that book I was what 29, something like that. And we had the basically no savings. I was a reporter. We lived in a little house, you know. This is before any real estate boom or anything. And I couldn’t quit, and I had a very small contract. And then no one thought anyone would read a book on Robert Moses, including me you know.
I just thought I really wanted to do it. That it was necessary for someone to do it. And I got a contract. I refer to it as the world’s smallest contract you know. I can no longer remember if it was $5000 which they gave me $2500, or $10,000 which they gave me $5000. But it was that area and that wasn’t enough to quit on. I got a grant for a year, so we quit. And at the end of the year we were really out of money.
And I came home one day and Ina said you know we just sold the house. She hadn’t told me she was putting it on the market. She loved that house. I didn’t really care about the house, but Ina loved the house. And without telling me she sold it, so we could go forward with the book.
Unfortunately as I said it was in the days before the real estate boom. So you’re making me remember very emotional things here. So we only got enough money after the mortgage, we got $2500 after the mortgage. That was only enough for another year and the book wasn’t nearly done. You know it was going to take another four or five more years.
And we remember those four or five more years as kind, struggling just how are you going to pay the rent every month you know. I still remember the rent up there. And we were living in a portion of the Bronx and the rent was $362.73 a month. And that every month it was hard to do that. So that was, we were broke, you ask how we did The Power Broker, we were broke.
With the Johnson book, I later, you know both my editor and I wanted me to do the Johnson book. I wanted to do it in volumes you know. And I said I just cant afford to do this because The Power Broker while it’s going on selling and now it’s you know, sold a lot of copies I suppose. It wasn’t an immediate best seller or anything like that.
And I later found out because they were interviewed on television about it, that my editor Bob Gottlieb and my agent Lynn Nesbit basically said it’s-- you don’t have, I told Bob I couldn’t afford to do this in volumes. There was no way I was going to be able to afford to do it. And he basically said to Lynn you know its Bob’s job to do it it’s our job to figure out a way that he can do it.
And my publisher has been extraordinarily generous, of course the last two books as you know have been the number one best seller and have reached the number one best seller. So it’s not I wont pretend that now things are OK. But really I’ve had publishers, not just Bob Gottlieb, but Sunny Mehta the present publisher who have been very patient with me in that area.
LAMB: Do you think people can do this today
knowing what you know about the publishing industry?
CARO: No, no the last conversation David Halberstam and I had had before he died we used to have breakfast together sometimes. He said ”You know Bob, you and I are like long distance swimmers”, because he did books you know that you know that took a long time to do. He also did shorter books, books that take a long time to do. His book on Korea took I think ten years.
He said we, I mean you and I are going to make it to the other side. I don’t think that young writers starting out today could possibly do that and I’m afraid that’s my feeling too.
LAMB: Since your last book in 2002 do you have any idea how many days or trips you’ve taken to the LBJ Library?
CARO: Since the last book?
LAMB: The last book, in other words still spending time down there.
CARO: Well, this year we spent four months down there sometime around the beginning of January through the end of April, something like that. Because they had opened some papers on Vietnam that hadn’t been opened before and it took a long time to go through.
And then they had discovered they kept saying on the Vice Presidency there’s something missing here you know where are George Reedy’s memos you know. They said here are George Reedy’s memos which are a lot. I said you know Reedy’s writing several a day to Lyndon Johnson where are they?
LAMB: And he was just pressing?
I’m sorry George Reedy was this large bear of a man you know. I mean you know you talked before about the Johnson people who are hostile, through the first two books, but you know people who were there people like Valenti and they came along later. The people who were with Johnson during the time that the first, covered by the first book never gave me any trouble.
They all said something like you know he got it right, you know. They were all extremely helpful like Reedy who was Johnson’s press secretary for 15 years and was closer to him professionally for most of this time than anybody else.
I could just pick up the phone I had all these interviews with him and then if you wanted to just call him and say George that scene you gave me was Johnson sitting in the rocking chair or on the sofa, and he’d say ”On the sofa”. And I could just hang up and go back to typing you know.
But they discovered some of Reedy, all the bulk a huge a trove of memos were filed under the name of Willie Bay Taylor who was Reedy’s secretary they were misfiled actually. So they had never been opened and they were opening them for me. I mean they were very helpful.
One day ahead of me, you know each file when you want a file open from the president at least when Lyndon Johnson Library, it has to be cleared you know the CIA, joint chiefs of staff, foreign affairs but there are all these agencies even if it’s domestic stuff all it has to be cleared by them. And finally it has to be cleared by an archivist down there to see that it doesn’t harass or embarrass a living person and that it conforms to the deeds of his will under which things are released.
So they were delivering to me file folders. Like the woman who was doing this or the archivist who was doing this was Claudia Anderson. And she was coming up to my desk and saying, which I was there in January, when the opening process is completed they write across the top of the file folder opened on whatever date by the name of the archivist.
So, she would be handing the files, opened on January 17th, 2008 by Claudia Anderson and I would be reading it January 17, or January 18. No one had ever seen this volume of stuff that it took me four months to go through. So it’s sort of that sort of feeling that I have spent a lot of time down there.
LAMB: Do you ever find others as dedicated to one subject, as you have been? I mean do you find a lot of
CARO: I’m sure there are I mean
I’m talking about LBJ do you ever see people in those libraries doing the same kind of research you’re doing?
LAMB: Of all the things you have had access to, your interviews you’ve done you have a total of how many interviews you’ve done?
LAMB: But it would be thousands upon thousands.
CARO: Sure for the first volume I did total it up it’s in the back of the book am I going to say 522 I cant remember but there are hundreds of them in here.
LAMB: Your access to the library and other libraries the oral histories what of the you know the techniques that you have used as a researcher what has been the most valuable of all those different sources?
CARO: Well you ask such good questions but it’s hard to answer them in there different something’s in the archives, in the written papers, that absolutely as you come across them, they’re absolutely incredible.
Like we taught at like I’m trying to think of a fast way to tell this you say how did in 1940 Lyndon Johnson is a junior congressman in say October, the beginning of October 1940 and you could tell this from the files because he’s writing the committee chairman or he’s writing the majority leader John McCormack, ”Can I please have a few minutes of your time.”
Suddenly, after November 4, which is election day, 1940, they are writing him the committee. Lyndon, can I have a few minutes of your time. What happened in October 1940 to change his status from junior congressman to a powerful guy? How did he get this power?
Well I was told the answer to that in my early interviews with a guy named Thomas J. Corcoran, Tommy (the Core) Corcoran who was an intimate of both Roosevelts and Johnson, a Washington, very powerful Washington figure.
And I asked him that, and I mean he said he used to call me kid he said, ”Money, kid, money.” He said, ”But you’re never going to be able to write about that, kid.” And I said, ”Why not” and he started saying, ”fellow said why not Mr. Corcoran” and he said, ”Because you’re never going to find anything in writing.”
And of course he was right. If you couldn’t document that he was talking about campaign contributions, cash campaign contributions and you felt no I never write anything that I can’t document and I’m not going to be able to do anything with this.
And then in the Johnson Library, quite by accident one day, because it was filed under a file folder heading that seemed to have nothing to do with this, you suddenly found I mean you can find the details of it in my first book.
A telegram from George Brown of Brown & Root , predecessors to Howard Burton saying in October 1940, ”Lyndon the checks are on the way” you know. A telegram back from Lyndon Johnson saying, ”I got them but I’m not acknowledging them. Tell them.”
But then you found the most amazing thing. There are four typewritten sheets of paper. They were in one of my file cabinets over here. There are three typed columns, Brian. In the left-hand but let me explain something.
Lyndon Johnson was a political genius. He has no power. He’s a junior congressman but he realizes he has something that no other congressman has. He is the only congressman who knows two groups of people.
On the one hand he knows the Texas oil men and contractors who want favors from the Federal government, the continuation of the oil coalition allowance, big contracts, and are willing to pay in the form of campaign contributions to get them. On the other hand he knows and they are conservatives. They are in fact reactionaries. They are anti-Roosevelt.
On the other hand he knows all these northeastern congressmen who are liberals but who need campaign money. What he does is he says to the Texas people only give through me. Give me enough money and only give it through me to hand out. And he lets it be known that this is the way they can get campaign contributions from Texas.
On these four sheets of paper there are three columns, typed columns. The left-hand column is the name of each congressman. The middle column is how much he’s asked. The amounts are so small then, you know its $500 and $1500. I mean it was a different you know age.
The third column is why he needs it, what they told John Connolly, Johnson’s secretary, Walter Jenkins, his other assistant like Lyndon, one more round of advertising and I could win. Lyndon I’ve got to have money for poll watchers. Lyndon I need $700 for one more ad. I can take these guys.
Then in the left-hand margin in Lyndon Johnson’s handwriting is written if he’s giving the guy the full amount that he asked for, he writes, ”OK.” If he’s giving them part of it he says, ”OK $500” or whatever. If he’s not giving them anything he writes, ”No.”
But sometimes he writes, ”No out,” and I asked John Connolly what did ”No out” mean and he said that this guy was never getting anything from Lyndon Johnson. He says you didn’t cross Lyndon Johnson. Now I have you know when I came across that I said you know if you spend enough time looking here you can find anything.
You know there’s all these discussions now we can’t prove the effect of economic forces on the political process. Well, yes you can and that’s the documentation of it.
LAMB: A little time left. You dedicate one of your books to Bob Gottlieb. Is he still your editor?
LAMB: Random House has published all your books, Knopf.
CARO: They’ve got a division of Random House.
LAMB: Has it made any difference as they’ve changed ownerships over the years?
CARO: No. No, Bob has always been my editor. He’s been my editor, you know he was my editor even when he was editor of the New Yorker he kept editing my books. And Sonny has taken over, and as I said
LAMB: Sonny Mehta?
CARO: Sonny Mehta. I’m one author who has nothing bad to say about their publisher.
LAMB: You dedicated one of your books to Catherine Hourigan.
LAMB: She’s still involved?
LAMB: Who is she?
CARO: Well, she’s managing editor of Knopf and Bob Gottlieb brought her in basically when I think she was just someone’s assistant when The Power Broker was being edited because he and I were having such fights. I think he felt it would help to have someone else in the room.
And she turned out to have this Cathy doesn’t talk very much but I think I wrote in the book that I dedicated to her that Bob and I learned that when she said something we had both better listen. And so she’s worked with me in so many ways. I mean, I have the same editor. Cathy has worked on the other aspects of the book for the whole 37 years I’ve been at Knopf, 38.
LAMB: And you dedicated one of your books to Dr. Janet G. Travell.
LAMB: Who is she?
CARO: Well, Dr. Travell, we know her as she was Jack Kennedy’s White House physician the one who got his back better. There was time when I was doing The Power Broker when I hurt my back really badly. I couldn’t get out of bed very much for about a year. That’s when I had to start doing research, a lot of research during that time.
And I remembered I think I got well I don’t want to go into this I couldn’t seem to get any better and I didn’t want to operate and Ina said didn’t when you were covering Robert Kennedy’s senate campaign didn’t he want to say that his brother would never have been president if it wasn’t for this wonderful woman doctor.
And I said, ”Yes, but she’d never treat me.” You know I was just you know and Ina called her and of course she came up and treated me. She designed this desk so that it holds my weight. I mean I don’t have a bad back really anymore, but you see it’s designed with this cutout here so that when you’re sitting here for long hours it is holding the weight of your body, not your back.
So I couldn’t I mean the time she came to help me things were sort of a desperate state you know and that’s why I dedicated it to her as well as Ina. All four books of course are dedicated to Ina, even if they’re dedicated to someone else as well.
LAMB: On that note, Robert Caro, we are out of time and I think you very much.
CARO: Thank you.