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Catching up with award-winning LBJ biographer Robert Caro

Robert Caro's chronicle of LBJ's rise to the presidency has become the gold standard for presidential biographies.

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Through these and other accounts, Caro pieced together a fascinating portrait of the Dealey Plaza shooting and what Johnson experienced. Those events included Johnson being whisked to Parkland Hospital, the same place the mortally wounded president was taken. Secret Service agents hurried the vice president into a nondescript cubicle in the back of the hospital, where, for 40 minutes, no one knew whether Kennedy would live.

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At last, Kennedy’s aide Kenneth O’Donnell appeared and, as Lady Bird Johnson would recall, the look on O’Donnell’s face made it clear the president was dead. Moments later, an aide walks in and addresses Johnson as “Mr. President,” confirming their suspicions. From there, as Caro puts it, LBJ instantly transformed himself from the hangdog vice president scorned by the Kennedy clique into the most powerful man on earth.

And, as Caro’s book details, over the next 47 days, Johnson would single-handedly resurrect the stalled legislative goals of the Kennedy administration, creating the Great Society and the War on Poverty with a stunning series of feints and maneuvers to put the White House in command of Congress.

The decisions setting the stage for those accomplishments were made in two hours and six minutes, the length of the flight from Dallas to Washington after LBJ takes the oath inside the cabin of Air Force One. Compare that with many modern political science experts’ contention that the two months between Election Day and Inauguration Day aren’t enough for an effective transition.

One photographer, Cecil Stoughton, followed Johnson to the airport while all of the reporters stayed at the hospital reporting on Kennedy’s death. Later, a few pool reporters would be summoned to witness LBJ taking the oath. As Caro tells it, he wanted to take readers inside the 16'x16' cabin where the transfer of power occurred, but he knew that his research had missed something crucial.

“I said, ‘I’ve talked to everyone [in the photo of Johnson taking the oath] who’s alive,’” Caro says, smiling. “But I had forgotten somebody: I had forgotten the photographer. I said, ‘Oh, God, I had years to do this, he must be dead.’”

Despairing, Caro looked in the national telephone directory and found a Cecil Stoughton in Washington. He called and Mrs. Stoughton answered the phone. Caro introduced himself.

Then, Caro says, “Mrs. Stoughton said, ‘Oh, Mr. Caro, Cecil has been waiting for your call …’ He told me a lot of things.”

Stoughton died in 2008, but not before he helped Caro provide a first-of-its-kind, fascinating perspective on what the new president experienced as the old one was shot and pronounced dead.

With such persistence and detail, it remains difficult to believe Caro can wrap up Vietnam, the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the rest of Johnson’s turbulent tenure with one more book.

Munching on a tortilla chip, standing in an emptying reception hall, Caro gets a twinkle in his eye when I ask him – yet again – whether five books will be enough.

“I’m determined to do that,” Caro says.

-Erik Spanberg is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor


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