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Robert Caro declares LBJ had nothing to do with JFK death


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Robert Caro writes — and writes and writes — about LBJ in ‘The Passage of Power’

By Steve Inskeep,

Published: May 3, 2012

The Washington Post

President Lyndon Baines Johnson lived 64 years. Robert Caro has been examining that life for about 35.

“I don’t like to be rushed,” he told me early in April. We met in the room where Caro wrote the fourth volume of his Johnson biography. It is not the last. “The Passage of Power” brings Caro’s work on Johnson to more than 3,000 pages. Only near the end of his most recent book has Caro arrived at the beginning of Johnson’s presidency, which lasted from 1963 to 1969.

Each time he releases another volume — usually after an interval of eight to 12 years — Caro provokes astonishment that he would devote so much time to one subject. He’s been compared more than once to Ahab, Melville’s one-legged captain obsessed with Moby Dick.

The comparison is a bit morbid. Ahab’s life did not end well. The Columbia Journalism Review asked a decade ago if Caro’s excessive interest in Johnson had “led him astray,” and his 80-year-old editor has told the New York Times that he doesn’t expect to live to edit Caro’s final book.

But Caro’s meticulous process delivers powerful results. A onetime newspaper reporter, he abandoned that deadline-oriented mind-set long ago. In a world of snap judgments and ephemeral facts, he makes exceptional use of the commodity that modern journalists have the least of: time.

Now 76, Caro exhibits a youthful enthusiasm when discussing his work among the bookshelves and filing cabinets of his Manhattan office. Saying that he would be too “lazy” if he worked at home, he has commuted to this room for decades. Almost nothing in the office betrays the arrival of the 21st century. His inbox is an inbox. He does use a computer for research, as he says the LBJ Library complained about his clacking typewriter.

For his LBJ biographies, Caro supplemented exhaustive digging by interviewing those who knew Johnson, who died in 1973. He temporarily moved with his wife, Ina, to Johnson’s home state of Texas, driving into the countryside outside Austin to sit with the president’s relatives and boyhood classmates. He met other aging sources in their offices, continued calling after they entered nursing homes and preserved his notes for years after they died.

The roster of available interviewees is thinning — “The human life span is my biggest obstacle,” Caro said — but he occasionally finds one more. In 2008, when he learned that Cecil Stoughton, who photographed Johnson’s swearing-in after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, was still alive, Caro picked up a phone. Stoughton’s wife answered.

“Mrs. Stoughton, my name is Robert Caro,” the author recalled saying. “And she says, ‘Cecil has been waiting on you to call.’ ”

Caro weaves the photographer’s memories into a pivotal section of “The Passage of Power.” In the new volume, Johnson, desperate to lead, was trapped in a powerless vice presidency, irrelevant and despondent. “In the crack of a gunshot it [was] reversed,” Caro said. The new president had to reassure a traumatized nation and begin driving Kennedy’s legislative agenda through Congress.

Having accumulated information for decades, Caro deploys it as ruthlessly as Johnson wielded power. Early volumes of the biography describe a driven young congressman who broke his aides’ spirit and rewarded campaign contributors with federal contracts. Johnson kissed up to anyone who could help him — often literally kissing the bald head of his mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.).

Caro’s prodigious research has not shielded him from criticism. In the 1990s, he was drawn into a debate with the writer Sidney Blumenthal, who accused him of overdramatizing Johnson’s disputed 1948 election to the Senate, idealizing LBJ’s opponent to make Johnson look worse. “What he has overlooked completely is politics,” Blumenthal declared in an epic review in the New Republic, “not to mention a number of facts.”

That’s the other knock on Caro: He’s mean. Years ago, a college professor introduced me to Caro’s work by saying, “He’s a hater.” She said this while discussing Caro’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Power Broker,” a 1,246-page investigation of Robert Moses, New York’s indomitable builder of bridges and highways. Still, her opinion did not prevent her from assigning the book.

I found it breathtaking. For all the devastating detail — the great builder wrecked vibrant neighborhoods to make room for new roads soon clogged with traffic — Moses was not destroyed in my eyes. When I discovered Caro’s LBJ series, neither was Johnson. They grew larger, their stories told by a biographer with ambitions as vast as theirs.

Caro writes about flawed, vindictive men who degraded democracy but wielded power brilliantly. Johnson rose from poverty, put young men to work in the Great Depression and got loans to string electric wires in rural Texas, transforming the lives of people as poor as he had been.

In “The Passage of Power,” Johnson extorts favorable coverage from the media and feuds pointlessly with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, but when he becomes chief executive, he shines. Manipulating Senate rules as well as the men who made them, the new president outmaneuvers his fellow Southern Democrats to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Has Caro grown to like Johnson? “Like” is not the word, he said: “He’s the same guy. In my earlier books, you see a man looking for power and utterly ruthless in his attempts to get it. In my latter books, you see what he does with the power once he gets it, and it is kind of wonderful.”

There’s time for the portrait to darken again, as the fifth book follows Johnson’s administration into Vietnam and social chaos in the wake of the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Caro has outlined the book on a series of typewritten sheets, tacked across two corkboards in his office. At the end of the outline, he has written the final book’s final sentence, which he asked interviewers not to read.

Unlike Ahab, who never caught his whale, Caro can see the spot where he plans to fling the last harpoon.

sinskeep@npr.org

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I want to add something to my previous argument that LBJ had nothing to do with the assassination - if we accept that the conspiracy had a great deal to do with Cubans who wanted us to depose Castro, and who thought JFK was too weak in this refgard - then we can assume that any such conspiracy that accepted LBJ as a co-conspirator would assume that he would act accordingly after JFK's death, in order to bring Castro down, The reality is that he did the opposite, and, if anything, worked to defuse the situation in Cuba. These are not the actions of someone who was in on the planning. And if he HAD been in on it, well, then, the Cubans would have considered him to be a traitor to their cause.

Edited by Allen Lowe
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Guest Robert Morrow

I want to add something to my previous argument that LBJ had nothing to do with the assassination - if we accept that the conspiracy had a great deal to do with Cubans who wanted us to depose Castro, and who thought JFK was too weak in this refgard - then we can assume that any such conspiracy that accepted LBJ as a co-conspirator would assume that he would act accordingly after JFK's death, in order to bring Castro down, The reality is that he did the opposite, and, if anything, worked to defuse the situation in Cuba. These are not the actions of someone who was in on the planning. And if he HAD been in on it, well, then, the Cubans would have considered him to be a traitor to their cause.

You are making the large assumption that Lyndon Johnson could be trusted and why would one do that? LBJ screwed them, too. Lyndon Johnson was on the verge of being politically executed and personally destroyed by the Kennedys: those were his reasons for participation. After the murder of Oswald the public will simply was not there for an invasion of Cuba no matter how hard certain elements of the CIA and the anti-Castro Cubans were advocating for that.

What LBJ did give the military hawks - if not the anti-Castro Cubans - was a war in Vietnam. Just get me elected, LBJ told the JCS at Christmas, 1963, and I will give you your war (in Vietnam). I do think the CIA and the anti-Castro Cubans were deeply involved in the JFK assassination. Remember LBJ was advocating bombing during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was a double traitor to the anti-Castro Cubans: 1) not a full military invasion at Bay of Pigs 2) not bombing during Cuban Missile Crisis ... and he would have become a "triple traitor" if they had found out about his backdoor, secret negotiations in the fall of 1963 for normalization with Fidel Castro.

That last point and the imminent destruction of Lyndon Johnson I think were the 2 big triggers of the JFK assassination.

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Guest Robert Morrow

Here is my review of Caro's "Passage of Power" at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Passage-Power-Lyndon-Johnson/product-reviews/0679405070/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0

I encourage folks to "like" my review and for JFK researchers to get active in the comments sections of reviews of Caro's "Passage of Power." People read those reviews and can learn a lot from (some of your) comments.

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it doesn't matter - no matter who conspired, Cuba was a major part of the deal - a politician of LBJ's magniture - President of the USA - could NOT have made a deal with the Cubans on something like this and then gone against it without leaving himself open to blackmail - if he screwed them, they would have screwed him back; look what they did to JFK - political blackmail would have been easy compared to assassination.

nothing like this happened - hence, LBJ had nothing to do with it.

Edited by Allen Lowe
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The nature of mainstream historians is to reinforce the consensus view. The establishment permits the promulgation of no conspiracy theories, unless of course they are promulgated by officialdom (various "terrorist" conspiracies, for example).

Thus, it is hardly surprising that Caro would find it unthinkable for LBJ to have been involved in the assassination of his predecessor. The establishment has too much invested in the "Oswald acted alone" conclusion, and simply is not going to contradict their dogma.

LBJ's behavior following the assassination was not indicative of a grieving, forlorn political ally. He simply couldn't hide his giddiness at finally being where he'd always wanted to be. I think it's obvious he had advance knowledge JFK was going to be assassinated, although I don't think he was the driving force behind the conspiracy.

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Guest Robert Morrow

it doesn't matter - no matter who conspired, Cuba was a major part of the deal - a politician of LBJ's magniture - President of the USA - could NOT have made a deal with the Cubans on something like this and then gone against it without leaving himself open to blackmail - if he screwed them, they would have screwed him back; look what they did to JFK - political blackmail would have been easy compared to assassination.

nothing like this happened - hence, LBJ had nothing to do with it.

Wrong. Lyndon Johnson was at the epicenter of the JFK assassination. All it would take would be a phone call (or personal meeting) from LBJ and his Texas oil men to some or iwith some key intelligence operatives ("renegade intelligence bastards" in the words of Johnson) to get the ball rolling. Except for the American people, Kennedy's enemies were legion: CIA, Hoover, JCS, Texas oil men, Rockefellers and the anti-Castro Cubans. Post assassination, Lyndon Johnson's hand was far, far stronger than Kennedy's was and all Kennedy's enemies were his friends.. Johnson had the Texas oil men and the CIA who had engineered the JFK assassination on his side. He also had the Rockefellers and CIA/CFR media assets at his back. That is a royal flush; the anti-Castro Cubans would be just a pair of 2's.

Those anti-Castro Cubans were the odd man out having their agenda fulfilled. Compared to LBJ, CIA., FBI Hoover, richest men in Texas & the Rockefellers - ALL of whom had their agenda taken care of - the anti-Castro Cubans look pretty paltry.

They got screwed. And yes, I do believe CIA operatives and anti-Castro Cubans were key players in the JFK assassination.

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Just saw Caro on The Daily Show. He acknowledged something that conspiracy theorists might find helpful. He said that LBJ told a number of people why he took the Vice-Presidential slot, and that the reason HE provided was that he wanted to be President, knew no southerner would get elected in his lifetime, and had observed that 6 Vice-Presidents had gained the Presidency upon the death of their predecessor. In other words, LBJ acknowledged that he only took the VP slot because he thought Kennedy might die. Hmmm....

Edited by Pat Speer
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so I guess we can assume those other 6 were conspirators, too, relative their respective ascendancies. As a matter of fact, they are more likely than LBJ to have conspired because THEY didn't talk about it.

Serously, I find it irresponsible to keep speculating on this without any real empirical evidence.

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Why is LBJ any different than any other suspect? Why exactly is it "irresponsible" to think he may have been involved in the assassination? Do we have a "responsibility" to avoid the discussion of the behavior of certain suspects, but not others? And, if so, could you please explain for us what constitutes "irresponsible" speculation, what constitutes "responsible" speculation, and who makes the call?

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he's different from other suspects, in the JFK assassination, most basically, because we have no evidence that he was a participant. So to accuse someone without evidence is something I would call irresponsible. Your definition may vary. It's historically irresponsible (because, at the same time, we make accusations against the other side for their distortions and leaps of logic) and politically irresponsible (because it distracts us from other, and more direct, leads).

as for who makes the call, that's a silly question - who makes the call that the Warren Commission was botched? Who makes the call that the Tea Party is wrong? Who makes the call that Adolphi Hitler was bad? Well, in each of those, the call is made by citizens like you and I.

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... Now I wonder how much the fear of insurrection was behind the Civil Rights legislation - on Johnson's part, and on the parts of certain of the influential people whe were running him. Fear, also, of suffering the consequences of real or imagined Soviet involvement in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.

It would be useful to track Civil Rights developments against US civil unrest against the war to see at what point Johnson's decision to initiate Civil Rights legislation became an inevitable one.

I share this viewpoint. By the mid 1960's the social fabric of the country was bursting at the seams.

If LBJ were considering his legacy, it was that of a VP who had assumed power under suspicious circumstances after the assassination of a very popular President, and then as President, had turned Vietnam from a trouble-spot into a very unpopular War. Anti-war demonstrations and student protests were commonplace, as were Civil Rights protests and demonstrations. The two movements were becoming linked.

From his viewpoint, the "Great Society" legislation would bolster his humanitarian image, and with the same stroke, attempt to defuse the social unrest that was sweeping the nation.

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he's different from other suspects, in the JFK assassination, most basically, because we have no evidence that he was a participant. So to accuse someone without evidence is something I would call irresponsible. Your definition may vary. It's historically irresponsible (because, at the same time, we make accusations against the other side for their distortions and leaps of logic) and politically irresponsible (because it distracts us from other, and more direct, leads).

...

Considering means, motive, and opportunity, LBJ is an obvious suspect in the murder investigation.

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... Now I wonder how much the fear of insurrection was behind the Civil Rights legislation - on Johnson's part, and on the parts of certain of the influential people whe were running him. Fear, also, of suffering the consequences of real or imagined Soviet involvement in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.

It would be useful to track Civil Rights developments against US civil unrest against the war to see at what point Johnson's decision to initiate Civil Rights legislation became an inevitable one.

I share this viewpoint. By the mid 1960's the social fabric of the country was bursting at the seams.

If LBJ were considering his legacy, it was that of a VP who had assumed power under suspicious circumstances after the assassination of a very popular President, and then as President, had turned Vietnam from a trouble-spot into a very unpopular War. Anti-war demonstrations and student protests were commonplace, as were Civil Rights protests and demonstrations. The two movements were becoming linked.

From his viewpoint, the "Great Society" legislation would bolster his humanitarian image, and with the same stroke, attempt to defuse the social unrest that was sweeping the nation.

As demonstrated in Caro's book, LBJ began pushing Kennedy's civil rights legislation immediately after the assassination. His pumping up the war in Vietnam, and the protests that came as a result, came later, and helped undermine the "Great Society" he'd tried to engineer. This is why many historians consider the Vietnam War a double-edged tragedy. It hurt the U.S. both internationally, and domestically.

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