By Matthew Kredell
Political biographer Robert Caro detailed Lyndon B. Johnson’s swift acclimation to the power of the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy during the Dennis F. and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture on Feb. 13, offered in partnership with the Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and hosted by the USC Price School of Public Policy.
“He was such a genius in the use of political power, in bending Congress and all of Washington to his will,” Caro said. “The greatest genius in the use of political power that America produced in the second half of the 20th century.”
Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, including for the third volume of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson series — titled Master of the Senate — in 2003. His long study of Johnson began in 1982 with The Path to Power, followed by Means of Ascent in 1990. Caro’s fourth volume, The Passage of Power, which details Johnson’s first 47 days in office, was the focus of the Holt Lecture.
“The Holt Lecture series illuminates the intersection of public policy and communication,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott in his introduction. “It explores the relationship between effective communication and leadership, and it examines the role of knowledge and information in assessing significant policy issues.”
During the event held at Town & Gown, Caro shared the story of Kennedy’s assassination from Johnson’s perspective. Johnson was riding two cars behind Kennedy in the cavalcade when the shots were fired. Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood vaulted over the front seat to throw his body over the vice president. Johnson’s car followed Kennedy to the hospital.
With the extent of the conspiracy unknown, Johnson was rushed deep into the hospital and hidden behind a hospital room curtain with Secret Service protection. For 40 minutes, he heard no news of Kennedy’s well-being until an aide entered the room and addressed him as Mr. President.
“It’s fascinating to watch the transformation in Johnson, who for three years had been humiliated and kept powerless by the Kennedys as vice president,” Caro said. “Instantly, during these 40 minutes, Lady Bird said it’s like his face turned into a graven bronze image. He starts giving orders the minute he is addressed as Mr. President.”
Despite having only hours to prepare to be president, Johnson picked up Kennedy’s stalled legislative program that included civil rights, tax cut and Medicare bills and rammed them through Congress in an impressive display of political power.
“What I think you can see with rare clarity in those first 47 days by watching how Lyndon Johnson took hold of presidential power and so quickly began to use that power is the immensity an American president possesses if he knows the levers of power and he wants to push them,” Caro said.
“He is a great storyteller, a master of words and obviously an expert on his subject,” said Dennis Holt, a longtime member of the USC Price Board of Councilors, who founded Western International Media in 1970 and currently serves as chairman and CEO of U.S. International Media and Patriot Communications.
The opportunity for audience members to ask questions and engage with a noted political historian such as Caro “is great for the university and great for the community,” Holt added.
Caro is currently working on a fifth volume that will detail the bulk of Johnson’s presidency.