(The following is an article from the January-February 2013 issue of the Librarys magazine, LCM, featuring an excerpt from an interview with historian and author Robert Caro about Lyndon Baines Johnson.)
LCM: Youve spent more than 30 years researching and writing about Lyndon Johnson, with a final volume yet to be published. What aspects of Johnsons character or career most fascinate you and how do they relate to todays congressional climate?
Caro: The thing that fascinates me most about Johnson is his absolute genius in the use of political power. Conditions are different today. But Johnson always found a way to get power for himself out of the conditions in some institution, and make the institution work. I think he had such a genius in acquiring and using power that he would become a legislative force no matter what the conditions were.
LCM: In this election season, one thinks about the extraordinary conditions under which President Johnson was inaugurated following Kennedys assassination. How do you think he felt about his second inaugural considering the tragic circumstances of his first one?
Caro: Johnsons key words in his first speech, to the joint session of Congress, four days after Kennedy is assassinated, are, Let us continue. First, he pushes through Kennedys stalled legislation, the civil rights bill, the tax cut bill. Then he tells friends, Now its time to make the presidency my own. In his inaugural speech in January 1964, he sets out a new course, a new policythe War on Povertywhich is his great initiative. And he follows that up with the Great Society so we see a transition from continuity to making the presidency his own.
LCM: Youve recently said that Barack Obama is Lyndon Johnsons legacy. Can you elaborate on that?
Caro: Johnson passes the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which really brings black Americans fully into the American political process. Forty-three years later, in 2008which really is just a blink of historys eyethere is an African-American in the White House. Thats what I mean by saying that Barack Obama is Lyndon Johnsons legacy.
LCM: The nation will be marking the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Like Lincoln, Johnsons true motives on promoting racial equality have been questioned. Have you come to any conclusions about that?
Caro: The reason its questioned is that for no less than 20 years in Congress, from 1937 to 1957, Johnsons record was on the side of the South. He not only voted with the South on civil rights, but he was a southern strategist, but in 1957, he changes and pushes through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.
Listen to a podcast of the full interview.
Download the January-February 2013 issue of the LCM in its entirety here. You can also view the archives of the Librarys former publication from 1993 to 2011.