Robert Caro: Interviewed by business periodical about LBJ

Historians in the News

Editor's note: Historian Robert A. Caro is a student of power, leadership, and the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. In this Harvard Business Review excerpt from Diane Coutu's interview, Caro discusses Johnson's strategy for getting close to powerful people.

Why should business executives be interested in the life of Lyndon Johnson?
As far as I'm concerned, biography is a tool for understanding power: how it is acquired and how it is used. I never had any interest in writing about a man or woman just to tell the life of a famous person. All my books are about power and about how leaders use power to accomplish things. We're all taught the Lord Acton saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the more time I spend looking into power, the less I feel that is always true. What I do feel is invariably correct—what power always does—is reveal. Power reveals. When a leader gets enough power, when he doesn't need anybody anymore—when he's president of the United States or CEO of a major corporation—then we can see how he always wanted to treat people, and we can also see—by watching what he does with his power—what he wanted to accomplish all along. And if you pick the right subject—like Lyndon Johnson—you can also see through a biography how power can be used for very large purposes indeed.

Lyndon Johnson was enormously skillful in amassing and wielding power. He once said, "I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it." He wanted to use it to change the world, and in some ways—civil rights; the Great Society; unfortunately, Vietnam—he did. That's not only power but leadership in the most important sense. That's a rare combination. Many people want to be leaders, but very few are leaders in the sense that I mean it: using great power for great purposes.

To use biography in that way, of course, you have to pick subjects who understand, and whose lives show they understood, how to acquire power and use it. I picked two men to write about: first, Robert Moses, because he understood urban political power—how power is used in cities. Robert Moses was never elected to anything in his entire life, but he held power in New York City and State for forty-four years, enough power to shape the city the way he wanted it to be shaped. Then I turned to Lyndon Johnson because he understood national political power—understood it better, I think, than any president since Franklin Roosevelt. If you pick men like that, and find out and analyze how they got power and how they used it, you can get closer to an understanding of the true nature of power: how it works in reality—its raw, unadorned essence. [. . .]

How did Johnson get close to powerful people?
Among his many techniques was one that was especially striking. With powerful men, he made himself what his friends called a "professional son." In each institution in which he worked, he found an older man who had great power, who had no son of his own, and who was lonely. In Austin, it was the powerful state senator, Alvin Wirtz; in the House of Representatives, it was the Speaker, Sam Rayburn; in the Senate, it was the leader of the Southern block, Richard Russell of Georgia. In each case, he attached himself to the man, kept reminding him that his own father was dead and that he was looking on him as his new "Daddy." Rayburn and Russell were bachelors; Johnson made them part of his family, constantly inviting them over for meals. Sundays were very important in this technique: On Sundays, Johnson would have Russell to brunch, Rayburn to dinner. He wouldn't have them together because, as one of Johnson's friends put it: "He didn't want his two daddies to see how he acted with the other one."

With older men of authority in general, Johnson would do literally what the cliché says: sit at the feet of an older man to absorb his knowledge. He started using this technique in college. If the professor was sitting on a bench on the lawn, students might be sitting around him or sitting next to him, but Lyndon Johnson would often be sitting on the ground, his face turned up to the teacher with an expression of deepest interest on it....

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