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kottke.org posts about Lyndon Johnson

How the Relentless Robert Caro “Turns Every Page” in Pursuit of Powerful Prey

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2019

Since 1976, Robert Caro has been writing a multi-volume biography of former US President Lyndon B. Johnson — the first volume is called The Path to Power. In this absolutely fantastic piece he wrote for the latest issue of the New Yorker, Caro details some of his thoughts and strategies about writing and research that have served him well as he’s pursued the topic of power for more than 50 years. Here he writes about what his editor told him at an early stage in his career:

He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

“Turn every goddam page.” Caro is a living national treasure and that’s as close to a superhero origin story as you’re going to get in journalism. Over and over, he applied that strategy to his later writing, first in the masterful The Power Broker and then in the pursuit of the truth about LBJ among the boxes and boxes and boxes of papers at the Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.

I had decided that among the boxes in which I would at least glance at every piece of paper would be the ones in Johnson’s general “House Papers” that contained the files from his first years in Congress, since I wanted to be able to paint a picture of what he had been like as a young legislator. And as I was doing this — reading or at least glancing at every letter and memo, turning every page — I began to get a feeling: something in those early years had changed.

For some time after Johnson’s arrival in Congress, in May, 1937, his letters to committee chairmen and other senior congressmen had been in a tone befitting a new congressman with no power — the tone of a junior beseeching a favor from a senior, or asking, perhaps, for a few minutes of his time. But there were also letters and memos in the same boxes from senior congressmen in which they were doing the beseeching, asking for a few minutes of his time. What was the reason for the change? Was there a particular time at which it had occurred?

Caro’s recounting of this tedious research is somehow thrilling, like a slow motion All the President’s Men, Spotlight, or The Post. Set aside some time to read the whole thing…it will be time well spent. I can’t wait for Caro’s Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing to come out in April.

An ignored 1968 US govt report: racism & inequality are drivers of urban violence

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

In response to unrest and riots in urban areas across the US in the mid-to-late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson formed a commission to find out why it was happening. As Ariel Aberg-Riger’s illustrated piece relates, the resulting report, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (more commonly known as the Kerner Report), was blunt in its conclusions: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Kerner Report

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed the report, calling it “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life”. You can read the entire report here (or just the summary…it’s 13 pages long) and more on its impact (or lack thereof) at the NY Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Atlantic.

Nixon sabotaged Vietnam peace talks

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2013

In 1968, Richard Nixon, then a candidate for President, used backchannel negotiations to scuttle peace talks that may have ended the Vietnam War. Nixon was afraid an end to the war meant an end to his campaign.

By the time of the election in November 1968, LBJ had evidence Nixon had sabotaged the Vietnam war peace talks — or, as he put it, that Nixon was guilty of treason and had “blood on his hands”.

The war went on for seven more bloody years, most of them under Nixon’s watch. Shameful.

Robert Caro has a really long Johnson (biography)

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2012

Charles McGrath recently profiled author Robert Caro for the NY Times Magazine. Caro has been working on a multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson since 1976…the fourth book in the series is out next month.

The idea of power, or of powerful people, seems to repel him as much as it fascinates. And yet Caro has spent virtually his whole adult life studying power and what can be done with it, first in the case of Robert Moses, the great developer and urban planner, and then in the case of Lyndon Johnson, whose biography he has been writing for close to 40 years. Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.

If you’re a subscriber and haven’t gotten to it yet, the excerpt of Caro’s book in the New Yorker is very much worth reading; it covers Johnson’s activities on the day Kennedy was assassinated.

As Lyndon Johnson’s car made its slow way down the canyon of buildings, what lay ahead of him on that motorcade could, in a way, have been seen by someone observing his life as a foretaste of what might lie ahead if he remained Vice-President: five years of trailing behind another man, humiliated, almost ignored, and powerless. The Vice-Presidency, “filled with trips… chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping… in the end it is nothing,” as he later put it. He had traded in the power of the Senate Majority Leader, the most powerful Majority Leader in history, for the limbo of the Vice-Presidency because he had felt that at the end might be the Presidency.

Update: Esquire also has a long profile of Caro in next month’s issue. (thx, aaron)

Lyndon Johnson buys pants

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2011

This is a hoot: in want of slacks, President Lyndon Johnson called up the Haggar clothing company and requested several pairs be made in the style of a pair he already owned. Except a little bigger in the crotch…”down where your nuts hang” as Johnson put it. Just listen: