Robert A. Caro on LBJ and his new book -- The author discusses the second volume of his history of the former president

Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Means of Ascent is not the book Robert Caro planned to write. The first volume of his four-volume history of Lyndon Johnson took LBJ from childhood to his failed Senate race in 1941. Caro had intended this second volume to end in 1963 with Johnson’s swearing in aboard Air Force One. But, instead of covering 22 years, Means of Ascent covers only seven — years that Caro thought would fill only one chapter in a very different book.

The historian’s intentions were derailed by his research, and not for the first time. ”With Johnson,” Caro says, ”the research was always shaping the narrative because no one ever knew what he did. So I was constantly coming across something that destroyed every preconception, and I’d have to start all over.”

What emerged is a Texas-size tale with pistol-slinging suspense and courtroom showdowns — a tale shot through with thievery and corruption. It is the story of Congressman Lyndon Johnson’s dark-horse race to be his party’s nominee for the Senate in 1948 against a legendary former governor named Coke Stevenson. It is the story of a race Johnson won by 87 votes after having stolen thousands.

”Lenin said that power comes from the barrel of a gun,” Caro says. ”But in a democracy it doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun. It comes from a voting booth. And if elections are the means to power in a democracy, you have to understand elections to understand democracy. The deeper I delved into the election, I saw that, in microcosm, it showed such universal truths about the macrocosm of American politics. That’s the elevated reason I wanted to do it.”

And then Caro laughs and adds: ”But the other reason is that I love to tell stories. And this is the most dramatic, the greatest political story I’ve ever heard.”

Caro finds the writing difficult — spending two months on a chapter only to throw it out in disgust — but ”research is endlessly fascinating.” He sat for what amounted to a year at a desk in the Johnson library in Austin, Tex., sorting through 629,000 pages of documents, reading many of them. He tracked down the men and women who lived the history, people who could explain a sentence in a memo here or a nuance in a letter there. And he got them to talk.

Caro managed to find Luis Salas, a voting enforcer who stole the essential votes for Johnson in Alice, Tex., during the 1948 election. Although Salas originally had testified under oath that there had been no vote fraud, the approach of death and the presence of Robert Caro prompted him to recant that testimony.

John Connally broke a silence so steadfast that when a Dallas reporter got wind of his openness with Caro, the Times-Herald ran a story announcing that ”John Connally finally decided to talk.” For years, the former governor of Texas and Johnson’s closest confidant had refused to answer Caro’s numerous letters. He also failed to reply to a request sent by the president of Random House. But after reading The Path to Power, Caro’s first volume on the Johnson years, which he said got LBJ ”right on the head,” Connally had a change of heart. ”He really said a very poignant thing to me,” Caro recalls. ”He said, ‘I used to think that I was going to live in history. But I know I’m not going to. The only way I’m going to live in history is through my association with Lyndon Johnson. I don’t want you to do the second volume without me.”’

Caro went to Dallas, where Connally met him in his private plane and flew him to his isolated ranch. He had promised to answer all of Caro’s questions, and for the next four days, the two men walked the ranch, balanced on fences watching the quarterhorses, or sat up until three in the morning, all the while talking about Lyndon Johnson and power. ”He was closer to Johnson on crucial occasions than anyone else,” Caro says. ”And when Kennedy offered Johnson the vice presidency, everybody says they were part of that decision on the inside. But in truth only five people were on the inside — Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, and John Connally. And four of them are dead.”

Caro doesn’t regard himself as a biographer. ”I was never interested in doing the life of a famous man. I was interested in how political power works,” he says. ”If you spend enough time interviewing men like John Connally and going through documents, there is very little you can’t learn about power.”

Power, for Caro, always seems to show itself in the battles between powerful men. The clash between New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and New York Governor Al Smith is at the center of The Power Broker, Caro’s first book. The relationship between House majority leader Sam Rayburn and LBJ is the pivot on which The Path to Power turns. In Means of Ascent, Johnson’s struggle against Coke Stevenson fuels the story. ”This is not a book about one towering figure, Lyndon Johnson,” Caro says. ”It’s a book about two towering figures, two mighty opposites. It’s a strong contrast. Each one throws light on the other.”

That light reveals a Johnson far more despicable and dishonest in pursuit of a Senate victory than any portrait of him in the first volume. He lies. He brutalizes his staff. He buys votes. ”There is nothing redeeming about him in these seven years,” Caro says.

But when the light is turned on Stevenson, whom Caro calls ”the best of the old era,” the man’s luster is so bright as to make one blink in disbelief. Could he really be as pure as the two chapters devoted to his life — his boyhood hardships, his happy marriages, and his political rise as the people’s choice — make him out to be? Could the one-page summary of his weaknesses as governor — his failure to intervene in wartime race riots, his refusal to act when academic freedom was jeopardized at the University of Texas, his reluctance to use his power to fill a void that had long allowed special-interest groups to wield inordinate power — could all of that be worth only one page?

Caro says it is. He defends his portrayal of Stevenson because it was shaped by research. ”I am very cynical about politicians. There are very few politicians that the more you learn about them the better they are. Coke Stevenson is one of them.” He spoke to 20 of Stevenson’s closest associates, but he was most convinced by what he heard from the other side, from Johnson’s people. Horace Busby, one of Johnson’s closest aides, told Caro: ”You should understand, he wasn’t as bad as we cut him up to be.” And Paul Bolton, who wrote most of Johnson’s speeches slamming Stevenson, assured Caro that he had been ashamed ever since he did it.

Caro remembers, too, the words of Wingate Lucas, an old congressman from Fort Worth. ”I had to support Johnson because he had my supporters (the rich oilmen),” Lucas told him. ”But you know, I was a Stevenson man in my heart. Coke Stevenson lived by the code of honesty.”

”The reason that struck me,” Caro says, ”is that Wingate Lucas was as cynical and pragmatic a politician as I’ve ever encountered.”

Caro’s jaundiced view of politicians displays itself in his portrait of Johnson during the seven frustrating years when LBJ’s ambition was thwarted. And though this volume tells of those years when Johnson abused power for personal ends, Caro acknowledges that LBJ was capable of using power in another way as well. ”Lyndon Johnson had the genius for mobilizing the power of government to help people who were fighting forces too big for them to fight. You do see that in volume one, even if no one wants to mention it. You don’t see it in volume two because it wasn’t there in those years,” Caro says.

Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
  • Book