History Buzz May 10, 2012: Robert Caro: LBJ’s ‘Passage of Power’: The Transformation of a ‘Legislative Genius’

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Robert Caro: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4

LBJ’s ‘Passage of Power’: The Transformation of a ‘Legislative Genius’

Source: PBS Newshour, 5-10-12

SUMMARY

Historian Robert Caro has spent nearly four decades telling the story of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Gwen Ifill and Caro discuss the pivotal four years between 1960 and 1964 when Johnson rose from senator to an overshadowed vice president, and then to president — the premise of his latest biography, “The Passage of Power.”

Transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, the unfolding drama of a political figure at a key turning point in American history.

Gwen Ifill has our conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Historian Robert Caro has spent nearly four decades telling the story of a single man, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The fourth hefty volume in his series of biographies is “The Passage of Power.” It covers the pivotal four years between 1960 and 1964, as Johnson rose from senator to vice president then, through the stunning tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, to president.

And there is yet a fifth volume to come.

Robert Caro joins me now.

Thank you.

ROBERT CARO, author: Nice to be here.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like this is a book about transformation.

ROBERT CARO: Yes, the transformation of Lyndon Johnson at the beginning of it is the mighty Senate majority leader, the most powerful majority leader in history.

He descends to the pit of the vice presidency and three years of humiliation. And then, in a single crack of a gunshot, it’s all reversed, and he’s president of the United States.

GWEN IFILL: You use that term crack of a gunshot throughout the book. It seems like that that is the running theme.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, and the people who are in — when you ask John Connally, for example, he says: Everyone else thought it was a motorcycle backfire or a firecracker. But I was a hunter all my life. I knew it was the crack of a hunting rifle.

So does the Secret Service agent in Johnson’s car. At the moment the gunshot fire — sounds, he sees President Kennedy two cars above start to fall to the left. He whirls around, he grabs Lyndon Johnson’s shoulder, throws him down to the floor of the car, leaps over the backseat, and lays on top of him — Johnson was later to say, “I will never forget his knees in my back and his elbows in my back” — and shields Johnson’s body with his own as they’re racing to Parkland Hospital.

GWEN IFILL: This moment, this transformative moment in our history, happened just at a time when Lyndon Johnson was his most miserable in his entire public career as vice president.

ROBERT CARO: He was telling his aides to find other jobs. He said, I’m finished. Go with somebody else.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s possible that Kennedy thought he was finished, too.

ROBERT CARO: Well, it certainly was starting to look like that might be more of a possibility.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit about his relationship with the Kennedys.

Garry Wills wrote one of the reviews of this book. And he described the book as a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, there are three strong personalities, Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

Lyndon Johnson despises Jack Kennedy. When he’s the Senate majority leader, Kennedy is a young senator. Johnson said of him, he’s pathetic. He was pathetic as a senator. He didn’t even know how to address the chair. He used to mock him. He used to literally call him not a man’s man. He said — he used to say to people, you know how skinny his ankles are? And he’d hold up his fingers like this.

He doesn’t realize. He thinks he’s going to have the Democratic nomination in 1960. He doesn’t realize that this young senator for whom he has no respect really is a great politician and is racing around the country corralling delegates, impressing people, and taking the nomination away from him. By the time Johnson wakes up, it’s really too late.

GWEN IFILL: And that his little brother, who eventually was considered really — the real number two when President Kennedy was president, even though he was attorney general, that he would be undercutting him at every turn. At least, that’s the way Johnson saw it.

ROBERT CARO: Bobby Kennedy, you know, you hate to use words as a historian like hatred, but hatred isn’t too strong a word to describe the relationship between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They hated each other.

Robert Kennedy said of Lyndon Johnson after his brother was killed, he said — he never would call Johnson president. So when he uses the word president, it’s his brother. He said, my president was a gentleman and a human being. This man is not. He’s mean, bitter, vicious, an animal in many ways.

GWEN IFILL: An animal.

There were two episodes right around the assassination between them, one in — when — actually when Lyndon Johnson call Robert Kennedy to ask if it was okay to get sworn in, in Dallas, and the other when Bobby Kennedy arrived at Air Force One when the plane landed in Washington.

ROBERT CARO: That telephone call, you know, is one of the things that when you learn about it, you’re really sad. I mean it’s a moment you can hardly understand.

Robert Kennedy is sitting by the swimming pool at Hickory Hill, his place in Virginia. Suddenly, he sees a workman painting the house clap a transistor radio to his ear and come running down toward the pool. At the same moment, the telephone rings on the table by him. And Ethel, his wife, picks it up. And it’s J. Edgar Hoover to tell Robert Kennedy that his brother has been shot.

Less than an hour later, the man that Robert Kennedy hated is on the phone to him asking the formalities of how he assumes his brother’s power. The secretary who took down the oath, Johnson asked Robert Kennedy for the wording of the oath.

You know Kennedy — he could have asked any one of a hundred people for that. And the secretary — Kennedy has Nicholas Katzenbach, his deputy, give him the oath. I asked the secretary, a woman name Marie Fehmer, who still lives in Washington, you know what it was like. And she says, Katzenbach’s voice was like steel. Bobby wasn’t. He had started. I thought, you shouldn’t be doing this.

GWEN IFILL: Jackie Kennedy was also — we see her in that photograph. And she gave great legitimacy to the passing of power by standing next to Lyndon Johnson when he took that oath. But she had mixed feelings as well about Johnson.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, she once wrote to Ted Sorensen after — you must know how frightened my husband was that Lyndon Johnson might become president.

This is really after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the — Johnson was so hawkish in the meetings of the ExComm.

GWEN IFILL: He was hawkish and he was pretty much pushed to the side as well. . .

ROBERT CARO: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: . . . during that period.

ROBERT CARO: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s keep back on this transformation theme.

So he becomes president through no actions of their own. There’s this boiling resentment. This is this grief which overcomes all of the members of the Kennedy inner circle.

ROBERT CARO: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And yet here comes the Texan to take over. And in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, what does he do? He decides to take on civil rights.

ROBERT CARO: Yes. And he says the most important thing we can do is pass the civil rights bill that Jack Kennedy introduced and fought for, for so long.

And he picks up this bill. You know, at the time that Kennedy was assassinated, at the moment he was assassinated, his two top-priority bill, civil rights and tax cuts, are really dead in the water. And Congress — Congress has stopped them. The Southerners control I think it’s nine of the 16 great standing committees of the Senate. They control the Senate absolutely.

The civil rights bill hasn’t even gotten over to the Senate. It’s in the House Rules Committee, which is ruled over by Judge Howard W. Smith of Virginia. And he is refusing even to tell anybody when he will get to have hearings on the civil rights bill.

Johnson — you know, Johnson was a genius. He was a legislative genius. He remembers that a representative, Richard Bolling of Missouri, has introduced the discharge position to take the bill away from Smith’s committee. Now, these petitions seldom go anywhere. And a president is never behind them because it’s challenging all the House prerogative.

Johnson makes a call to Bolling. And you have to say the first half of the call is Johnson saying, I will never interfere with the House prerogatives. Then, he says to Bolling, do you see any way to get this out of committee? Bolling says no. And I wrote in the book, if there was only one lever, Lyndon Johnson was going to push it. And to watch him push that discharge petition through and get the civil rights bill is legislative genius.

GWEN IFILL: It’s the old Lyndon Johnson that we know from “Master of the Senate,” your last book.

ROBERT CARO: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s him come back. But — and in it, he also says — you quote him as saying to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian, “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into the martyr’s cause.”

ROBERT CARO: Yes.

And he uses the sympathy that people had for Kennedy. That helped him get the bills moving, but none — he also uses his great knowledge of legislative techniques and the secrets of the Senate to get these bills moving.

GWEN IFILL: And in the next book, we will hear about what brought him down. And that’s the war in Vietnam.

ROBERT CARO: Very dark story.

GWEN IFILL: Very dark story.

ROBERT CARO: Sad story.

GWEN IFILL: But we look forward to reading it.

Robert Caro, thank you so much.

ROBERT CARO: Thank you, Gwen.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can find more of Gwen’s interview with Robert Caro, plus photos from his book on our website.

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History Buzz January 16, 2012: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Past & Present at the White House

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

President Obama and Dr. King

Source: WH, 1-16-12

President Obama visits MLK memorial at night

President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It’s been 29 years since President Reagan signed the law to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This year for the first time, however, those who wish to honor Dr. King on the holiday will be able gather in celebration at his memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Seven years ago, then-Senator Obama spoke at the groundbreaking for the memorial.

And back in October, the President spoke at its dedication, where he described the way that Dr. King continues to inspire new generations to work to fulfill his legacy:

He would not give up, no matter how long it took, because in the smallest hamlets and the darkest slums, he had witnessed the highest reaches of the human spirit; because in those moments when the struggle seemed most hopeless, he had seen men and women and children conquer their fear; because he had seen hills and mountains made low and rough places made plain, and the crooked places made straight and God make a way out of no way.

And that is why we honor this man –- because he had faith in us. And that is why he belongs on this Mall -– because he saw what we might become. That is why Dr. King was so quintessentially American — because for all the hardships we’ve endured, for all our sometimes tragic history, ours is a story of optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth. And that is why the rest of the world still looks to us to lead. This is a country where ordinary people find in their hearts the courage to do extraordinary things; the courage to stand up in the face of the fiercest resistance and despair and say this is wrong, and this is right; we will not settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept and we will reach again and again, no matter the odds, for what we know is possible.

From the Archives: Dr. Martin Luther King at the White House

Source: WH, 1-16-12

Martin Luther King, Jr. leaves the West Wing after meeting with  President Johnson

Martin Luther King, Jr. leaves the West Wing after meeting with President Johnson. August 5, 1965. Abbie Rowe, NPS: National Archive and Records Administration. (by Abbie Rowe, NPS: National Archive and Records Administration)

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders in the  Oval Office

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer in the Oval Office. January 18, 1964. . (by Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

To mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the White House Historical Association has searched their archives and created a slideshow of historic images that show the impact the civil rights leader has had on several administrations. Dr King’s interactions with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson leading up to the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the 1968 Civil Rights Act are well documented, but his first visit to the White House was actually in 1958, when he and other prominent civil rights leaders met with President Dwight Eisenhower. Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr’s Life and Legacy features images of Dr. King himself at the White House and also includes photos of President Reagan signing the King Holiday Bill in 1983 with Coretta Scott King at his side, and President Obama and his family at the national memorial that was dedicated just last year.

See the slideshow on Flickr

From the Archives: President Reagan Designates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a Federal Holiday

Source: WH, 1-13-12

Reagan signs MLK Day legislation

President Ronald Reagan signs legislation to create a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Rose Garden of the White House on November 2, 1983. (by National Archives)

Only three people have a national holiday observed in their honor: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, celebrated on the third Monday of January each year, marks the birthday of the civil rights leader and nonviolent activist. The call for a national holiday to honor Dr. King’s legacy began soon after his assassination in 1968—U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation to establish the holiday just four days after Dr. King was killed, but Congress took no action on the bill.

In the years that followed, millions of people signed petitions in support of the holiday. Coretta Scott King testified before Congress multiple times, calling for a federally recognized day to honor the life and work of her late husband. In 1980, Stevie Wonder released a song, “Happy Birthday,” which became both a hit and a rallying cry for supporters of the holiday, and civil rights marches in Washington in 1982 and 1983 only served to amplify their mission.

A bill to establish the holiday successfully passed through both houses of Congress in 1983, and President Reagan signed it into law on November 20 of that year. The first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated in 1986.

Many Americans now honor Dr. King’s legacy by participating in a community service event in their own neighborhood andhis vision of service and volunteering is more critical than ever during this economic recovery. President Obama has called on the nation to participate in a service event in their own community this Monday, January 16, 2012.

The First and Second Families, numerous members of the President’s cabinet, and thousands of other Americans across the country have committed to serve, and you can, too. Visit MLKDay.gov to find a service opportunity in your neighborhood and learn more about the Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Remembering Lady Bird Johnson, 1912-2007

LADY BIRD JOHNSON (1912-2007): Lady Bird JPG

Lady Bird JPG
Lady Bird JPG

  • Lady Bird Johnson Tribute Site
  • PBS NewsHour – Lady Bird Johnson
  • Michael Beschloss: historian Michael Beschloss reflected on her life and legacy on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. (mp3) – PBS NewsHour, 7-13-07
  • Lewis L. Gould: Remembering Lady Bird Johnson First Lady Recalled as Charming, Media Savvy and Deeply Connected to Nature – WaPo, 7-12-07
  • Robert A. Caro: “She conducted herself, often in the most difficult circumstances, with a graciousness and dignity and total devotion to her husband that was heroic.”… “She already had this dignity, no matter how he yelled at her, but she transformed herself from the shy young woman afraid of speaking in public into the poised, dignified, gracious first lady the American people would come to admire in later years. It’s an act of willpower and heroism that is very thrilling.” – WaPo, 7-12-07
  • Gil Troy: “She went one step further than her heroine and role model Eleanor Roosevelt by being more intimately involved in the president’s day to day life and political career. If Eleanor Roosevelt showed just how influential a first lady could be in advancing her own concerns, Lady Bird Johnson demonstrated just how influential a first lady could be in shaping and selling the president’s agenda…. She pushed him to invoke themes of self-sacrifice and patriotism, to work in references to World War II and to blame Congress squarely for failing to fund the Vietnam war properly. This intervention typified ‘Bird’s’ great influence and her role in protecting Lyndon and trying to position him on the grand historical stage.” – NPR, 7-12-07
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