Should LBJ Be Ranked Alongside Lincoln?

Robert Caro, the esteemed biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, talks on the Shakespearean life of the 36th president

Caro’s hunt for the soul of LBJ has become a thrilling race against time. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

“But the thing that got me was I found this interview with the janitor at the school. His name was Thomas Coranado. He said Johnson felt all these kids had to learn English. And he also felt the janitor had to learn English. So he bought him a textbook. And he would sit on the steps of the school with the janitor before and after school every day and, the exact quote is in my book but it was something like, ‘Mr. Johnson would pronounce words; I would repeat. Mr. Johnson would spell; I would repeat.’ And I said ‘That’s a man who genuinely wanted to help poor people and people of color all of his life.’”

Caro pauses. It’s a sweeping statement, which he knows presents a problem.

“That was 1927....So you say, now—until 1957, which is 30 years [later]—there’s not a trace of this. He’s not only a Southern vote, he helps [senator] Richard Russell defeat all these civil rights bills; he’s an active participant. So, all of a sudden in 1957 [he forces through that first civil rights bill since Reconstruction] because why?

“Because the strongest force in Lyndon Johnson’s life is ambition. It’s always ambition, it’s not compassion. But all of a sudden in ’57, he realizes he’s tried for the presidency in ’56, he can’t get it because he’s from the South. He realizes he has to pass a civil rights bill. So for the first time in his life, ambition and compassion coincide. To watch Lyndon Johnson, as Senate majority leader, pass that civil rights bill....You say, this is impossible, no one can do this.

“To watch him get it through one piece at a time is to watch political genius, legislative genius, in action. And you say, OK, it’s a lousy bill but it’s the first bill, you had to get the first one. Now it’s ’64. He says this thing to [special assistant] Richard Goodwin, ‘That was a lousy bill. But now I have the power.’ He says, ‘I swore all my life that if I could help those kids from Cotulla, I was going to do it. Now I have the power and I mean to use it.’ And you say, I believe that.

“So we passed [the Voting Rights Act] of 1965. So in 2008, Obama becomes president. So that’s 43 years; that’s a blink of history’s eye. Lyndon Johnson passes the act and changes America. Yeah, I do think he deserves comparison with Lincoln.”

“That’s what’s so interesting,” I say, “Because...yeah, it came across as deeply felt and yet it’s side by side with qualities that you call deeply deceptive and all these other bad things. I think you use the term at one point, [his character weaves together] ‘gold and black braids.’”

“Bright and dark threads in character,” he replies.

I ask him about one of the darkest threads: Bobby Baker. LBJ’s “protégé,” a bagman, fixer, pimp. People have forgotten just how much of an open secret the sexual goings-on were in Baker’s Quorum Club, the Capitol Hill hideaway he stocked with liquor and girls. It would be an earthshaking scandal in today’s climate and probably about a third of Congress would have to resign in disgrace if it happened now.

Caro’s narrative has an astonishing reminder of how close the investigation of Bobby Baker came to bringing LBJ down. In fact, until now, Caro believes, no one has put together just what a close call it was.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus