Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Robert A. Caro

The Passage of Power is the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

From the author's Q & A with James Mustich at the Barnes & Noble Review:

JM: Let's take a moment to talk about the Johnson project in a longer view. In the course of thinking about his life for three decades now, has your idea of him shifted at all? Or have you found yourself able to connect the dots of his character across all that time?

RC: My view of him hasn't shifted. It's the same guy. Is he ruthless in the first volumes? Yes. And he's still ruthless in The Passage of Power. Look in this volume at what he does with the newspaper people in Texas. He learns Margaret Mayer, a tough reporter, is starting to investigate his fortune, and he in effect says to her editor, "We'll have the Internal Revenue Service investigate you." I don't want to go beyond what I say in the book. But he's clearly threatening investigations of tax returns. He hasn't changed.

But there is one thing that has changed: now he has the power of the presidency. Everybody likes to quote Lord Acton, "All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Well, the more I've worked on my books, the more I believe that that's not always true. What I believe is always true is that power reveals. When a guy gets enough power to do whatever he wants, then you find out what he's wanted to do all along, and I believe that's very much true of Lyndon Johnson and his passage of civil rights legislation. Did he want to do this? Has he always wanted to do this? For me, the proof of it is when he was able to talk to the civil rights leaders, like Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, one-on-one, in his office. I write that he was talking to these men about matters that, at bottom, had to do with color, and when it had to do with color, they were very hard people to fool. But they all come out of that office saying, "Now we understand him; we've got a champion in there." And that goes back to his days teaching as young man in Cotulla, when he vowed to do something to help poor people of color if he ever got the chance.

Yes, to use your phrase, you can connect the dots. It is the same Lyndon Johnson. The only thing that happens is, in the first couple of volumes, he doesn't have power. He is desperate for power, and he is going to do almost anything necessary to get it. Steal an election. Did he steal an election? He stole an election. All the Johnson people say, "We don't really know if he stole it." He stole it. Did he blackmail a young woman in college to get her out of the race for the campus organization? He blackmailed her. Was he known as "Bull" Johnson -- for bullshit -- at college? When you say, "Are all the dots connected?" Yes: he's "Bull Johnson" in college. And what's one of the most notorious legacies of his presidency? The Credibility Gap of Vietnam. Isn't that the same thing?

But on the other hand he always wanted to help poor people -- particularly poor people of color. And when he gets the power to do so, he does. So people may say...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue