LBJ chronicler Robert Caro to speak at TU on Tuesday
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2013
2/10/13 at 3:59 AM
For the past four decades, Robert Caro has been chronicling the life - and more importantly, the times - of Lyndon Johnson, from his early years in the isolated Hill Country of Texas through a tumultuous political career culminating in his becoming the 36th U.S. president.
And one of the few times that Caro was able to be in the same locale as Johnson was during a 1964 campaign trip through Oklahoma.
"I was a substitute political reporter for a few days in 1964 when I was working for Newsday," Caro said during a recent telephone conversation. "The guy we had following Johnson got sick, and I was sent out as his replacement.
"I remember being at some kind of fair," he said. "I had forgotten this, until someone went back and looked up the stories I wrote."
Caro paused for a moment to retrieve a file. "Here it is," he said. "It was Sept. 25, 1964, and Johnson was doing 15 hours of nonstop campaigning. He spoke to some 30,000 people in Eufaula, and then - yes, that's it - in Oklahoma City. 'The Chief Executive galloped into the stadium on a palomino stallion as 25,000 people gave him 20 minutes of steady applause.' "
It would be another decade or so before Caro's and Johnson's paths would cross - if only in a metaphorical way.
In 1974, Caro published his first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Power Broker," which examined the life and career of Robert Moses, the unelected bureaucrat who shaped the growth of New York - for better and worse - through much of the 20th century.
"I never thought of my books as biographies," Caro said. "I have no interest in writing about 'the life of a great man.' What I was interested in was power, political power - how it was amassed, and how it was used.
"With Robert Moses, my focus was on urban political power," he said. "And if I did it well enough, it would show how power worked in all cities - not in any textbook way, but the raw, naked reality."
The natural evolution would be to examine national political power in much the same way. And for that purpose, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the perfect subject.
"To my mind," Caro said, "in the second half of the 20th century, no one understood political power - how to get it, and how to use it - better than Johnson."
Explicating Johnson's life and career has grown into a multi-decade project titled "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." Last year, Caro published the fourth volume in the series, "The Passage to Power," which covers the period from the late 1950s, when Johnson left the U.S. Senate to run for president in 1960, the humiliating years as vice president to John F. Kennedy, and the transformative seven weeks following Kennedy's assassination.
Caro will be in Tulsa on Tuesday as the latest speaker in the University of Tulsa's Presidential Lecture Series.
When Caro began work on "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," he envisioned a three-book series. His research has been meticulous, from going page by page through the millions stored at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, to moving to Texas and Washington, D.C., to understand more completely the environments in which Johnson lived and worked, as well as how they shaped him.
Because Caro's theme is the workings of power, he is able to present Johnson in as objective a light as possible - delineating the man's myriad faults and dirty dealings as well as his humanity and triumphs.
"In a lot of ways, Johnson is unique," Caro said. "The Senate was a pretty dysfunctional organization when Johnson joined it. But when he became its majority leader, suddenly the Senate was the center of ingenuity and creativity in Washington.
"This went on for the next six years," he said. "And when Johnson left the Senate, it almost immediately went back to being as it was before."
Johnson's legacy as president is most often seen in his disastrous handling of the war in Vietnam, but Caro said it should not obscure his accomplishments of his first years in the office.
"At the time of Kennedy's death," Caro said, "all of his legislation was stalled in Congress. The civil rights bill was stuck, the tax cut legislation that was badly needed - every major piece of legislation was going nowhere.
"Then Johnson takes over, and within weeks, Kennedy's bills start toward passage," he said. "And 47 days later, when he makes his State of the Union address, he decided to come up with something of his own, which was the war on poverty. Until Vietnam swallowed up everything, Johnson was on course to reshape this country."
Not the end
Caro originally envisioned "The Passage of Power" as the final volume in the series, which includes 1982's "The Path to Power," "Means of Ascent" in 1990 and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Master of the Senate" in 2002.
"I have the outline tacked on the wall of my office here, all 37 pages of it," Caro said, "and if you were here, you'd see that the first 13 pages have been taken down. That's because I realized that this period of time was really a book by itself."
As painstaking as Caro is in his research - usually with his wife, Ina, as his only assistant - he's equally careful in how his books are written.
Caro drafts each of his books in longhand, writing in pencil on legal pads. He will do three or four complete drafts this way before typing the results on his portable typewriter. This draft undergoes more revisions, sometimes to the point of Caro literally cutting out paragraphs and taping them into other sections of the manuscript.
"That's one reason why my books take so long," he said. "For one thing, my publisher doesn't rush me to finish. But I also write and rewrite constantly. I came to believe early on that, if a work on nonfiction is going to endure, then the prose has to be at the same level as that of a novel that will endure."
"The Passage of Power" deals with one of the most devastating events in U.S. political history - John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
"This is probably something I will talk about when I'm in Tulsa," Caro said. "There have been thousands of books on the assassination of Kennedy. But I've never read one that adequately presented that event from Johnson's point of view.
"And it was one of those stories that, the more you learn, the more you find yourself saying, 'Wow, what a story this is!' " he said. "And that was hard to do, finding all this out. But as I got into it, I knew I really wanted to focus on it, tell it in as much detail as possible what had happened that day."
ROBERT CARO, THE UNIVERSITY OF TULSA PRESIDENTIAL LECTURE SERIES
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Allen Chapman Activity
Center, TU Campus, 440 S. Gary
Original Print Headline: The 'Power' and the story
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Robert Caro will speak Tuesday on the TU campus. Courtesy