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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“You can’t even get a number [for the dead in Vietnam],” he says. “For the next book I’m going to find—”

“The number?”

“You look at these picture spreads in Life and Look of LBJ visiting the amputees in the hospital and you say, you’re also writing about the guy who did this.”

Caro is really taking on the most difficult question in history, trying to find a moral direction in the actions of such morally divided men and nations. If anyone can do it, he can.

Before I left, before he had to go back to his galleys and chapter notes, I wanted to find out the answer to a question about Caro’s own history. When I asked him what had set him on his own arc, he told me an amazing story about his first newspaper job in 1957, which was not at Newsday, as I thought, but a little rag called the New Brunswick [New Jersey] Daily Home News. It’s a remarkable tale of his own firsthand experience of political corruption and racism that explains a lot about his future fascination with power.

“This was such a lousy newspaper that the chief political writer—an old guy; he actually covered the Lindbergh kidnapping—would take a leave of absence every election—the chief political writer!—to write speeches for the Middlesex County Democratic organization.”

“I see,” I said.

“So he gets a minor heart attack but he has to take time off, and it’s right before...the election. So he can’t do this job which pays many times the salary. And he has to have a substitute who’s no threat to him. So who better than this young schmuck?

“So I found myself working for the Middlesex County Democratic boss. At New Brunswick there was a guy named Joe. Tough old guy. And I was this guy from Princeton. But he took a real shine to me.

“Oh God,” Caro interrupts himself, “I hadn’t thought of this [for a long time]. So I write the speeches for the mayor and four council members, and he says, ‘Those were good speeches.’ He pulls out this roll of fifty-dollar bills. And he peels off—I was making, my salary was $52.50 a week, and he peels off all these fifty-dollar bills and he gives them to me! And I didn’t know...all this money.

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