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)
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He gets up from his chair and goes to a file cabinet and pulls out a Life magazine with a cover story—MISCONDUCT IN HIGH PLACES-THE BOBBY BAKER BOMBSHELL—which came out on November 18, 1963. Life had an investigative SWAT team on the case! The Senate had a subcommittee taking testimony about kickbacks and extortion Baker engaged in on LBJ’s behalf while he was vice president. The kind of thing that got Spiro Agnew kicked out of the vice presidency.

It was in reading this testimony that Caro made a remarkable discovery. He goes to another desk and digs out a timeworn Senate investigative hearing transcript from December 1964 and points to a page on which a witness named Reynolds tells the Senate investigators he had previously testified on this matter on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated.

“A thousand books on the assassination,” Caro says, “And I don’t know one that realizes that at that very moment Lyndon Johnson’s world was to come crashing down, Reynolds is giving them these documents.”

Caro still gets excited talking about his discovery.

“Oh, it’s a great....Nobody writes this!” he says. “Bobby Baker says the thing I quote in the book. ‘If I had talked it would have inflicted a mortal wound on LBJ.’” And it starts coming out—and stops coming out—just as JFK receives his mortal wound in Dallas. The thrilling way Caro intercuts the dramatic testimony with the motorcade’s progress to its fatal destiny is a tour de force of narrative.

“Can I show you something?” Caro goes over to another desk and starts searching for a document. He finds it. “These are the invoices Reynolds produced,” he tells me. “‘To Senator Lyndon Johnson,’ you know?”

The transcript has photographs of canceled kickback checks.

“Look at that! Right in print,” I say. “Checks, canceled checks.”

“To the Lyndon Johnson Company,” he reads to me, “To LBJ Company.”

“This is the life insurance kickback scam?”

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