New York As the centennial of Lyndon Johnson's birth is observed this week, historian Robert A. Caro would like to think of his longtime subject at his happiest and most fulfilled: Not when Johnson was president, in anguish over Vietnam, but a few years before, as Senate majority leader, the one-man legislative machine.
"I want to remember him in his days of just undiluted glory," says Caro, a Pulitzer Prize winner currently in the middle of his fourth and final Johnson volume, which will cover his vice presidency and presidency.
Johnson, born Aug. 27, 1908, remains a president with a double legacy - the great champion of civil rights and the despairing commander in chief who didn't bother to seek a second term. Caro, who for 30 years has been writing and reporting on Johnson, believes his presidential standing is higher now than it was when he left office. But the historian says his research confirms that Johnson's gifts didn't travel well abroad.
"You listen to the ones who were concerned with what Lyndon Johnson did on the domestic side, and you say, 'There never was a surer touch. There never was more of an understanding of what exactly needed to be done to get this legislation passed,"' Caro says.
"Then you turn to Vietnam, reading the minutes of the meetings, talking to people. You have a sense of a man who didn't know what to do. ... If I write this book correctly, that contrast will emerge."
Johnson died in 1973, and no writer has done more to sustain the debate than Caro, whose three LBJ books have been praised, honored and condemned. His second work, "Means of Ascent," was so harsh a portrait that former Johnson aide Jack Valenti wondered why Caro bothered with a man "he thoroughly despises." The third book, "Master of the Senate," pleased Valenti so much that he reconciled with Caro, agreed to be interviewed for the fourth volume and even asked Caro to blurb his memoir, published last year.
Battle for power
Caro, lean and energetic at age 72, was interviewed recently in his midtown Manhattan office, a bright, businesslike array of legal pads, briefcases, file cabinets, outlines and heavily marked papers, all processed and sifted for his Smith Corona typewriter.
The historian says he has completed the opening section of his fourth LBJ book, filling hundreds of pages just to tell of Johnson's brief, unhappy vice presidency under John Kennedy, concluding with Johnson being sworn in as president after Kennedy's assassination. The last book will be "very long," although likely less than the 1,000-plus length of "Master of the Senate." He is reluctant to reveal details but says the Kennedys will be "more than characters; they are protagonists in this book."
Caro tells of the 1960 presidential election, when Johnson and John Kennedy battled for the Democratic nomination. The race was close and would be settled by how the candidates fared in the Western states. The Kennedys sent the youngest brother, Ted Kennedy, then in his 20s, to organize support. Decades later, Caro went to Washington and met with Kennedy, the longtime Massachusetts senator.
"I said to him, 'If you really want to do this, you have to go back and get your notes on the delegates and what went on out there and talk to me in detail. If you can do that, I think I can add something to the understanding of politics in this country,"' Caro explains.
"These were long hours of interviews. You feel you're sitting there and you are a hearing a story that with everything everybody thinks they know about American politics, nobody knows this story."
Time, not the loyalists of LBJ, is now Caro's greatest foe. Countless former colleagues and aides - and enemies - of Johnson have died. Caro still flies often to Austin, Texas, to look through papers at the Johnson library, and feels like he's visiting a "city of ghosts." He speaks of a former Johnson press secretary, George Christian, who resisted interview requests for years until he learned that he was fatally ill with lung cancer. They had three conversations, and Christian looked weaker each time.
"It was very sad," says Caro, visibly moved by the memory of their last discussion. "He was very pale, and thin, and it was harder and harder for him to breathe. Then he said, 'Well, Bob, I guess you'll have to get someone else to tell you the rest of it."'
Cruel and ruthless
Johnson has been in the news in 2008 even without the centennial. During the Democratic primary race, Sen. Hillary Clinton said that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of equality only "began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Many criticized Clinton for minimizing the power of King's oratory - and by implication, the speechmaking of her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama.
Caro was not among them: "I thought, 'Right!"' he says of her comments.
Two of this year's biggest stories - Obama's candidacy and the Iraq war - remind Caro and other historians of the best and worst of Johnson's past. "I see Barack Obama as the apex of the Lyndon Johnson legacy," Caro believes, saying that his presumed nomination would not have been possible without the civil rights legislation that enabled millions of blacks to vote.
"But you can't talk about Iraq without talking about Vietnam," he adds. "You can't leave that out. His presidency did not end in triumph."
Historian Michael Beschloss, currently working on a third Johnson book, notes that Obama's nomination became official right around the anniversary of LBJ's birth. Like Caro, he thinks that Johnson's reputation has improved, helped by time and perspective.
"Every generation pays very close attention to the major controversies of the time and when Johnson left office, in 1969, Vietnam was still raging and a lot of Americans were furious at Johnson," Beschloss says. "They weren't thinking about a lot of things they had liked about him, like civil rights. And in 1969 people were not as aware as historians are now of the efforts he made to get the country out of the war."
Caro is far more certain of Johnson's record in the Senate than he is of his presidency. He looks back on his time as majority leader, from 1955-61, as a model "of governmental ingenuity, of governmental creativity and governmental energy." And "the sense of that seems to be very much lost," he says.
But he also acknowledges that Johnson used cruel, ruthless means to advance the highest ends. The ability to "get things done," Caro says, can work at the expense of democracy.
Asked if, on balance, he considers Johnson's presidency a success, the historian pauses and thinks, briefly shutting his eyes.
"I will have to answer that for myself before I can answer it for you," he says.