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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“Yes. Yeah, KTBC [ Johnson’s TV station, which he extorted advertising for from lobbyists]. But this is the line that got me. The counsel to the Rules Committee says, ‘So you started testifying what time?’ And [Reynolds] says, ‘Ten o’clock.’ That’s on November 22. He was testifying while President Kennedy was being shot!”

It’s thrilling to see how excited Caro, who may be one of the great investigative reporters of our time, can still get from discoveries like this.

So what do we make of it all, this down and dirty corruption alongside the soaring “we shall overcome” achievements?

“The most significant phrase in the whole book,” Caro tells me, is when LBJ tells Congress, “‘We’ve been talking about this for a hundred years. Now it’s time to write it into the books of law.’”

“There’s something biblical about that, isn’t there?” I asked.

“Or Shakespearean.” he says.

In the light of LBJ’s echoing Martin Luther King’s “we shall overcome,” I asked whether Caro felt, as King put it, that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice”?

“Johnson’s life makes you think about that question,” Caro says. “Just like Martin Luther King’s life. And I think a part of it to me is that Obama is president.

“In 1957, blacks can’t really vote in the South in significant numbers. When LBJ leaves the presidency, blacks are empowered, and as a result, we have an African-American president, so what way does the arc bend? It’s bending, all right.”

I didn’t want to spoil the moment but I felt I had to add: “Except for the two million or so Vietnamese peasants who [died]...”

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