First draft: When young Robert Caro trailed President Lyndon Johnson
The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in Robert A. Caro’s epic “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” comes out on Monday, with a title that refers to the book’s two halves—the passage of power from Lyndon Johnson as he is exiled to the vice presidency, and the passage of power to Johnson after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
It is also the biography of a man in passage. Each of Caro’s previous works contains a strong sense of place: New York (The Power Broker) Texas (The Path to Power and Means of Ascent) and Washington (Master of the Senate). The Passage of Power has no such foothold. It is six hundred pages of transition, a book en route.
Caro himself writes that the 1958 to 1964 period “stands out as different from the rest” of Johnson’s life, especially when compared with what is to come next. “The story of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson will be different in tone from the story of the transition in part because the elements of his personality absent during the transition were shortly to reappear.”
That Lyndon Johnson would stand before a 28-year-old Robert A. Caro in the fall of 1964, as the Newsday reporter spent half a week on the presidential campaign trail.
Among the five stories he filed are the first published impressions of the subject that would become his life’s work. It is his first draft of history, recorded in the period of Johnson’s life that Caro will write about in his next volume—the period of Johnson’s life that Caro will not talk about again until that book is published. (He has declined to talk about those years in interviews promoting his new book, and he declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Everything that follows is drawn from those five articles, checked against Johnson’s daily diary.
ON OR ABOUT SEPTEMBER 24, 1964, ROBERT CARO was flying high as Newsday’s investigative reporting ace, coming off his latest series uncovering financial irregularities at a shady Long Island medical research foundation. It was unglamorous work with impressive results: His questions spurred immediate resignations from four board members and their counsel.
Caro's next assignment was among the most coveted in journalism: the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, for a fifteen-hour day of nonstop campaigning through Texas and Oklahoma.
Caro’s first report carried the dateline of El Paso, Texas, bearing witness to L.B.J. in his domain, his home state. "Homespun" was the word Caro kept returning to—“big and brassy and homespun” bespoke the president’s easy manner. “Johnson made four speeches yesterday in a breathtaking tour of the Southwest,” Caro wrote, “mixing serious talk on Vietnam with homespun story-spinning folksiness that delighted the crowds everywhere.”
His brief time on the campaign trail was marked by the release of the Warren Report on President Kennedy’s assassination, and the security of the chief executive was again the top subject of discussion. Caro and other members of the presidential press corps were given advance copies of the report, with its list of new precautions the Secret Service had undertaken to prevent a recurrence.
But his confidence was not inspired, because that very day, in El Paso and in Austin, two separate reporters told Caro they were able to get onto the tarmac where Air Force One landed—and then within twenty feet of the president—simply by calling out, “White House Press,” to local police at the gate.
But if anyone was worried for the president’s safety, it was not the target himself. Caro wrote that throughout his ten months in office, Johnson “had stayed largely in the closed cars the Secret Service recommends,” with the “goldfish bubble” tops he so detested.
“But when Johnson got back to Texas Friday,” he wrote, “all this changed. You could see it change.”
The reporter watched him embrace the crowds, pumping hands, leaping from his car—“a style perfected in Texas, and the Texans loved it.” He stood by while the president told a joke, not a very funny one, but all the Texans laughed just the same. There were 100,000 of them out there in the streets of El Paso, shattering the record 50,000 J.F.K. garnered in 1963. From Caro’s perch, it was a hungry swarm of humanity. “The crowd swirled around [the president], often blotting him from view.”
That was Johnson with his people, the stump politician returning to the very place he learned the trade.
But Caro also got close enough to see how Johnson performed politics with the powerful: the physical invasion known simply as “The Treatment.”
Caro wrote of how Johnson wrangled an El Paso city councilman, pulled him to his face, full-on nuzzled him and said, “You’re loyal. In every crisis, you’re loyal. I need that. I don’t want my state going back on me now. You stick by me, I’ll stick by you.”
That, right there, was how Johnson corralled wayward votes to pass difficult legislation. And that was how Johnson was going to keep his conservative home state in the Democratic column in the year of civil rights.
There was also responsibility for a war weighing on him, along with a thousand other burdens. Here, Caro heard a solemn president speak of the ghosts who wandered his new home.
“Sometimes in the late of night, when the great capital city has gone to sleep, I sit by myself to read and think," he said. "Oftentimes, it is so quiet in the White House that I can almost hear the footsteps of the men who lived in that house, and who walked the hall and who slept in those rooms. And I also remember the men who lived in this house before me kept one cause in their hearts—what is right for the American people.”
Then it was off to Oklahoma City, where Caro observed that even outside of Texas, L.B.J. was not going to be a cloistered president—“a President who waved only through the bullet-proof glass of a closed limousine, who never mingled with crowds and who was always encircled by a protective cordon of Secret Service agents.”
Johnson rode the ten miles from the airport to the Oklahoma state fairgrounds in an open car, where he saw a fine palomino stallion hitched up by the entrance.
“On the spur of the moment,” Caro wrote, the president “jumped from the convertible, mounted the horse and charged the speaker’s stand a quarter-mile away like a burly John Wayne in a blue silk suit.”
Johnson received twenty-five minutes of continuous applause in response to this spectacle, according to Caro's report. He then dismounted, grabbed his wife, Lady Bird, and plunged into the sea of welcoming faces.
Caro took note of how vulnerable the president had been in that moment. He had ridden off on the stallion nearly all by himself, without even his ever-present “grim-faced” Secret Service agent, Rufus J. Youngblood, who pinned Johnson to the floor of his limousine as Oswald cut down Kennedy and the passage of power took place, a scene Caro vividly depicts in his latest volume.
It had been a long day by the time they got back to the L.B.J. Ranch. They had departed the White House south lawn at 7:58 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, and retired well after 10:15 p.m. Central. The president would rise late the next morning, and relax at his ranch by riding, talking with friends and watching Gunsmoke—Lady Bird’s favorite TV show. Caro’s reporting from that single day would appear in Newsday over two issues.
NEXT WAS ANOTHER MARATHON DAY: A FIVE-STATE tour of New England on September 28. Caro wrote of the crowds—560,000 people in all—setting new records in Providence, Portland and Hartford, and dwarfing Goldwater’s turnout in Vermont. Five hundred waited for him at Boston’s Logan Airport, and another 700 stayed past midnight to see him enter the hospital where Ted Kennedy mended his broken back after a plane crash.
Caro studied the gestures of his speech that day, how he pounded forward with a big fist as he spoke. Over and over, he heard Johnson express reservations about Vietnam, drawing a contrast between himself with his hawkish Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.