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Q&A: Robert Caro on viewing Kennedy through LBJ’s eyes

By William McKenzie
4:34 p.m. on October 25, 2013 - Permalink


Robert Caro has won almost every major literary prize, including two Pulitzers, for his books on Lyndon Johnson. His deep dive into the life of the Texan, perhaps the most authoritative look at the career of any president, includes his latest work, The Passage of Power. Caro, who will speak to a sold-out crowd Tuesday at SMU’s Tate Lecture series, talked with Points about another president, John F. Kennedy. He did so, naturally, through the lens of LBJ.


You have an interesting angle into the Kennedy presidency, having studied his vice president so thoroughly. If President Kennedy had lived, would LBJ still have been a pivotal player in passing civil rights legislation?


The Kennedys pretty well excluded LBJ from working on their legislation. Johnson once said about the civil rights bill, “I have to read about what’s in the bill in The New York Times.”


Now, Johnson did give Kennedy advice on how to pass the civil rights bill. He also let him know what not to do. The Kennedys ignored that advice. As a result, on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy’s civil rights bill was completely stalled in Congress. It was not going anywhere.


Johnson came in and used the sympathy created by Kennedy’s death as a way to help pass the bill. In addition, he hit on a stroke of legislative genius. He found the only lever he could use. The bill was stuck in the House Rules Committee. The committee chairman wouldn’t even say when he would hold hearings.


Johnson found a way to get it out and threw his full weight behind that maneuver. All of a sudden, this bill starts to move. To watch Johnson do that — threatening, charming, cajoling and bullying — is to see a master of political tactics at work. He found a strategy that would get it moving.


This echoes what Richard Russell, the Democratic senator from Georgia, is quoted as saying in The Passage of Power: “We could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”


Yes, that is in my book. And Russell was the man who knew. He was the leader of the powerful southern caucus, the Southern Bloc. It controlled Congress. And he had been beating presidents on civil rights for 30 years.


Kennedy and then Johnson were facing a congressional opposition that had stymied not only civil rights bills, but also basic social welfare legislation. The last major social welfare bill was in 1938.


This congressional coalition had ruled Washington for 25 years. Johnson, in only a few weeks, shifted power back to the White House. You can’t overestimate his achievement in getting this civil rights bill through Congress. Part of it was through sympathy for Kennedy. Part of it was legislative genius. Part of it was sheer will. He was savage, vicious and determined to win.


Much has been written about the contrasts between JFK and LBJ. Where were they actually similar?


That is very interesting. Everybody underestimated Jack Kennedy before he became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960, including Lyndon Johnson.


You quote Johnson as once saying about Kennedy: “He was pathetic as a senator. He never said a word of importance in the Senate, and he never did a thing.”


That’s correct.


What Johnson didn’t understand was this was a guy who wanted to be president just as much as he did. And Kennedy understood what Johnson didn’t: how to use the new politics.


Johnson was sure he would get the nomination in 1960. He was the most powerful Democrat, the mighty majority leader of the Senate, and Kennedy was just a young senator. To watch that 1960 fight was to see that Johnson didn’t wake up to the political threat Kennedy was until it was too late.


To answer your question, both were great politicians. But they were great in opposite ways.


Was it a given that LBJ would have been on the ticket for a second Kennedy term?


No. It was a very open question. When you talk about the president’s trip to Texas in November 1963, there is a very revealing element. Kennedy invited Gov. Connally to come to Washington to meet with him about the trip. He didn’t invite LBJ.


When I was visiting Connally on his ranch, I talked to him about this. He told me that the Johnsons knew he was coming to Washington and they had invited him over for dinner. Then they found out that he was meeting with the president and that Johnson hadn’t been invited.


Have you ever wondered why someone like John Kennedy could be seen as a second-tier senator but so captivating as a president?


When you evaluate Kennedy, which is what this next month is about, the Cuban Missile Crisis stands out as a good example of his skills. You could see him avoiding a nuclear war. We came so close. That was a magnificent thing he did. There were moments of crisis around his Cabinet table when most of his advisers were calling for an invasion of Cuba or a bombing attack. Yet he pulls them back and finds a peaceful solution.


Kennedy had this remarkable ability to touch what’s best in America: the idealism and the hope. He did that through his remarkable public presence in speeches and press conferences. He had this easy charm and sense of idealism.


Why didn’t that come through as a senator?


What he was not good at was dealing with Congress. It’s impossible to say otherwise. Look at his record with Congress.


By contrast, you had in Lyndon Johnson a president who wasn’t handsome, who wasn’t a good public speaker, and yet he knew how to pass legislation. Johnson said: We have been talking about civil rights legislation for 100 years; it’s time to write it into the books as law. That’s what he wanted to do: He wanted to write social legislation into the books of law. He saw himself as a lawmaker. He was something monumental in that role.


And here we are, 50 years later, looking back at that time.


One of the interesting things with all these books about the assassination of Jack Kennedy is that none have ever, in the kind of detail I believe is necessary, looked at it from the standpoint of Johnson. You have to remember that it was not only a president who was killed that day. A president also was created.


In The Passage of Power, I wanted to look at that day from Johnson’s point of view. There was something magnificent in how he took over. There are about 11 weeks between when a president is elected and when he takes office. Political scientists now say that is not long enough to prepare to be president.


Well, Johnson had only two hours and six minutes. That was the length of time between the moment at Love Field that he took the oath of office and the time that Air Force One arrived in Washington. He had to step out of that plane and be ready to become president. It was awesome to watch him take the reins with such a sure, strong grasp.


This Q&A was conducted and condensed by editorial columnist William McKenzie. His email address is