tv Keynote Address by Robert Caro CSPAN December 24, 2021 9:56pm-11:02pm EST
survives. and i was thinking history makes nothing happened but it survives. that now given the historical society and now robert caro can make something happen. thank you. [applause] uthor himself. >> what you are joining us here or live stream. so with the new york historical society our chair elect thank you for all you
have done for the new york historical. so thank you for that. but then to reflect on a poignant and exhilarating experiences. it will last an hour that the q&a will be conducted and you should have received a note card on your way into the auditorium that my colleagues are r circulating. so there will not be a formal
book signing today. but please find copies otherwise you can bite on the 7h street side of the building. we are so very honored to have robert caro honor stage today. he has twice won the pulitzer prize for biography twice the national book award three times the critics circle award and an honor including the gold-medal from the american academy of arts and letters from the society of american historians to the books that best exemplify the union of the historian and the artist. and our very own american history book as well. his second national book award
was for lifetime achievement and in 2010 president barack obama awarded mr. caro the national humanities medal. in 2019 he published a memoir, working. he graduated from princeton, leader of fellow at harvard and worked six years as an investigative reporter for newsday. he is currently at work on the fifth and final volume of the years of johnson and just before we begin as part of the program i ask once again that you make sure anything that makes a noise like a cell phone is switched off remember to keep ono your mask. no photography except the house photographers and just before we walk him on the stage we are pleased to share with you a very special video tribute to mr. caro by the 42nd president president clinton.
>> i wish i could be with all of you today of my favoriteit places in new york society —- new york city at the historical society as we pay tribute to one of my favorite writers the great robert caro. favorite writers. the great robert caro. this was written a few years ago bob has given us the gift of some of the finest books on politics and poetry ever written. always meticulously researched, worded and always cutting to the heart of the matter. chattering what drove people in power to make the decisions that they made and how those decisions affected real lives both positively and negatively. and i will always remember the afternoon bob and i spent in harlem a few years ago talking about history in the writing
process. there is a greater appreciation for his book. now his archive is at the new york historical society i can't wait to visit. who knows bob maybe you could give me a tour of the exhibit maybe you could give me a tour of the exhibit. i do want to pull you away from finishing that final volume of the lbg series and in all seriousness i want to thank you for all you have done to help us expand our understanding of the past and the present leaving to our possibility of envisioning the future. i wish you and anna a wonderful celebration and many more years of continued good work.
>> thank you, bill. thank you, louise. this is such a thrilling day for me to have people who i so much admire talk this morning about what it pretentiously perhaps -- bob woodward bill lisa, jane, brenda. if i said what i wanted to about each of you i could use up the entire time allotted me so i'll just say from the bottom of my heart you have given me a day i will never forget and i thank you for it. the people i've so much admired
here to talk about me makes this day the only word i can think of that's actually thrilling. today is thrilling also because it is in the way an announcement that my papers are here and they are always going to be here paid out till you why and when person a reason why am so happy and thrilled to be here at the new york historical society. i grew up on central park west and 94th street. my brother, my mother got sick when i was five and was pretty much bedridden after that. every saturday her little sister my aunt bea would come in and take me down either to the museum of natural history or to the new york historical society. those saturdays were something special to me when i wasas a little boy.
and that's one reason that it's great for t me that they are he. there's another aspect to this. people knew i wanted to be a writer and the only thing i can honestly answer to that is as far as i can remember, as far back as i can remember i always wanted to be a writer. i used to walk up central park west i suppose and have that in my thoughts. i went back a long way when i was going through my papers to give them to the historical society. i found a short story and i couldn't tell if it was in the sixth or fifth grade but it was a biography and was called honk the moose's. [laughter] i started to read it and my overwhelming thought was it certainlynd is -- so used to wah
here is a little voice he wanted to be a writer and now when i'm no longer quite so little to have my life's work as a writer preserved here sort of makes a perfect circle. i use the word thrilling before to describe my feelings. it's a word but it's the right word to describe the way i feel today. those are personal reasons. there are professional reasons, historical reasons as well. some of us as you have heard this morning call ourselves journalists. some of us call ourselves historians. to me there's no real distinction between the two professions because at bottom we are both after the same thing. there is of course as i said
this morning and brenda said it very well, no truth with a capital t, no simple truth either. there are out there a of a lot of facts and the more facts you can compile the more facts you can find out the closer you come to whatever truth there is and that's what lines is altogether. as for myself i have started as a journalist and now i am called an and the story appeared when i look back at my life i don't see it that way. seems to me that my life has been opened. so much that i learned during my seven years as t a reporter translated without a hitch into the books i wrote.
journalists or historian, whatever the research whether it was for an article or a book in my opinion i spend my life doing the same thing. i'll try to illustrate that by giving you an example. g i was struggling to be an investigative reporter almost by accident without knowing the first thing about being an investigative reporter. they decided to sit me next to the investigative group ordered agreed who was a legend in his time in the newspaper business. he was a very hefty legend i must say. bob would approximately 300 pounds and in the sitting room in those days we said that these 10 desks so they put me next to a green and when he was sitting at his desk half of them were sitting at my desk. i certainly learned a lot from
him. once we were doing a piece about some state senator we would forget stations in a residential area and we would have to prove it by getting the real estate deeds showing the properties and when they had audience then sold etc.. i wasn't having any luck finding out, finding where the relevant records were from the county clerk's office and i was on the telephone. they said in the exasperation you don't look for the name of the present he looks for the name of the president secretary. of course that's where i looked and that's where i found what i needed. now it's years later and i'm writing a biography of robert moses and i'm writing the part
where he still relatively young man in the s. is great ring for a sandbar op the south shore of long island called jones beach and he envisions it to be a great public park. he envisioned it when he was a young man. he had a summer home in babylon with his wife and two kids and he had a little what he called a putt-putt rowboat andin every morning his wife would give him a couple of sandwiches and eat take it out all day. he found himself attracted by the sandbar across the bay. there reads were so thick he couldn't get near the sandbar and he'd roll up his pants and go through the weeds. when he stepped out on that
deserted sandbar he realized he was standing on 40 miles of the cleanest whitest sandy ever seen and he wanted to build a beach there. he couldn't do it because as i recall the republican didn't want city people coming in there so they block some and then suddenly in 1928 the machine switched and their legislators supported them and the great bathing beach was created. why have they switched? what had gotten them to switch? at that time i was talking to whoever was left of the old farmers who remembered 1928 and they said the reason was that mosess had told -- had given the machine politicians. he was going to build a park -- a parkway meadowbrook parkway to
jones beach to what was then a very deserted part of long island. the land wasn't worth much. of course were for the exits to this parkway were that land was going to become immensely valuable. he told them where the exits are going to be so they could make money.ha i had to prove that that's what i was told that i couldn't write it unless i documented it so i had to find out again who bought the land who sold it and how much. i used the same methods that i had used as a reporter. this was very important for not only for everything, for the story of robert moses because i knew he started out as this
idealist and a key part of his idealism was that he would never deal with politicians. he would never give them inside information. he had turned to something very different and now it seemed this was the place that he had turned so i really needed to be able to prove this and of course when i did i can't remember the details. i looked in the county clerk's office under the names and the secretary of not the president. the secretary of the newly formed corporation in which a number of politicians were stockholders and found the proof that i needed. so was the proof in the key to the great transformation of ended away it would transform the whole landscape that we have lived inve ever sense.
so that discovery turned out to be more precise. the more precise dedicated to discovering how to find the records was the key toex the bok and the key to the discovery was bob green's exasperated remark to a young reporter and that was me that day in the newspaper sittinger room. it was the key tot a worker's history. the key came out of journalism, right out of the baton rouge city paper. there are so many ways that i learned as a journalist helps me and the key to my being a historian. as i look back over my life thig bars the resource is concerned to writing of course is a very different story. as far as the research is concerned i've been doing the same thing all my life. the only difference is that for the first few years i was doing it to write newspaper articles and for the last 50 years i've been doing it to write looks.
of all the similarities between the two are fashions that it was the incident that gave rise to the title this exhibition, turn every page. i've told the story before. this is the day to tell it again. when i wentiv to work at newsdai was the first person to be hired in the news sitting room from an ivy league college. that was because the managing editor of was this very old newspaperman who came right out of the hearst papers in chicago in the 1920s. he was a big burly guy with the kind of stomach that looked big but it wasn't soft at all. he used to wear black shirts with yellow ties aaron brown shirts with white ties. his head, he had no hair except
the mustache around the back of his head. he was always read because he always started drinking early in the morning. you never really knew if allen went to college or not. he said he had. we were never really sure of that. certain graduates of prestigious universities and no one had ever hired. i was tired when allen was on vacation. [laughter] it was sort of a to him and when he came back he wouldn't talk to me. my desk was here in this office was there and he went past it and i'd say hello mr. hathaway, good morning mr. hathaway and he'd never say a word back. professionally i didn't have to deal with that very much because i was the low end of the totem poll doing obituaries and working nights. i also worked saturdays.
in the news they didn't publish on sundays w so saturday afternn there was only one person in the sitting room and that was me and the news had been crusading against the federal aviation agency. there was an airport called mitchell field 1246 acres. they. noqu longer air force no longer needed it as a vase and therefore it would be turned over to the county and the question was, what was the county going to do with it? the federal aviation agency wanted to turn it into a private airport so that the executives of the corporations could fly in and out on their private planes. newsday wanted it to be used for a community college. i wasn'tl involved in this. one saturday when i was there in the middle of the afternoon the
phone rang at the city desk. i picked it up and it was an official from the federal aviation agency say that he really liked what we had been doing and he knew the very files we wanted to look at to prove our point. if i came down to idyllwild airport and president kennedy had been killed via the net i came down that afternoon he'd show n me the isles and let me look at w them. it happened to be the day of the newsday picnic so everyone was on the eject fire island. it tours there were no cell phones than so i tried to call one editor after another. i couldn't get them and i finally got one editor who said well you will have to go down and look at the files yourself. that was the first time i've had ever looked through the files
and there is no one sentence that proved the point that you could put together enough from conversation in the minutes of gomer stations in letters and all to prove that at least it was right. we were basically turning the last big hunk of land in nassau county over to them. so i wasn't going to write the story. i left them a long memo and left. we were still living on long island and allen hathaway secretary calls and says allen wants to see you right away. so i said well we are in new jersey and she said allen wants to see you immediately. so i told her you see iowa's
right not to move. i was about to be fired. all the way into newsday i kept thinking how is it dignified way to talk about the reason that i was fired. when i get to the office allen had an office in the corner that was glass-enclosed and he waves me over there and as i walk i see this big redhead of his bent over he's reading something and as i get closer i see that what he is reading is my memo. so i get to the door and he doesn't look up and i say mr. hathaway and he waves me to a chair and keeps reading. after a while he looks up and says to me, i didn't know someone from princeton could do this. from now on you do investigative
work. in moments like this i said that isa don't know anything about investigative reporting. allen looks up at me and i still remember for what was a very long time and says just remember to turn every page. never assume anything. turn every page. so i will tell you one story about him on a lot i could about allen's advice. well not so much advice as much as in order to turn every page and help me throughout my life to they had 44 million documents and you were going to turn every one of those pages that you
could narrow it down. i was was writing about lyndon johnson and congress and i think theret were only 267 boxes and maybe 200,000 pages that dealt with that. you can read all those pages that you could narrow it down to a couple of areas and one was a particular month that seemed to me was the key to how lyndon johnson began to a mask political power. he could tell exactly when this change happen. he was a congressman and the letters that were filed that he is writing to all the congressmen are the letters of a junior to senior. that was a trip to the single month of october 1940. at the end of a sober 1940 and for the entire rest of his career in the house of representatives the letters had a different tone the other way. it wasap the committee chairmano
senior congressman writing to this junior congressman can i have a few moments of your time. so what it happened and what changed in that moment? i was doing a lot of interviewing and i was told what happened really was that he made himself the source of political money and campaign contributions from the texas oil industry and the texas contractors. that was important. they told me he got it from george and herman brown who are the two principles of the great texas contracting and political -- politically well connected firm. i've been trying to talk to george brown for some years. he wouldn't talk to me at all.
his secretary would a say he's busy and he'd never called back and i wrote them letters. he never would respond. i needed to talk to him if i want to try to understand what happened in this month. one day i had an inspiration. herman brown the younger brother had died. george idolized his older brother and what he had done his trying to build things around texas with his brother's name on it. it was the herman brown laboratory at rice university etc. so one time on this hill country town, it's a little town out of the western set with wooden buildings around the square. on that square there was a two-story building in on it said herman brown memorial library.
i knew a lobbyist for george brown to tried to get in to talk to me before. i called him and i had an inspiration right at that moment to say to george brown to get them to talk to me that went into a phonebooth right on that square and put in a call and i said i'd like to talk to mr. brown one more time said no bob i'm not going to do that or that acetaminophen i said posh all you have to do is say one sentence to him. tell him the amount -- no matter how many buildings he built the names at the herman brown no one is going to know who herman ngbrown was unless he's in the book. so posh made the call and at about 6:00 the next morning the phone rings and it's george brown himself inviting me to lunch. he tells me in fact what
happened is lyndon johnson had the money and he had raised the money,y, $30,000. that was a lot of money in those days in 1940 and that in fact gave him the influence in congress that he needed. i got the story except i couldn't use it unless i had some sort of documentation. i had been told over and over again that i never did any sort of documentation about lyndon johnson's roles because he said to me before over and over again linda never wrote anything down. i thought george brown was a businessman. he wrote things down. i started to look for george brown records and is records
were in a lot of different files. the johnson library would ngrequest files and he brings te files up to the desk and read boxes. each box is about 800 pages and one of the archivists the one who's been helping me the most over the years is cody who's been nice enough to come. you look at these boxes each crammed with papers and you really -- her heart sinks about how long it's going to take to look through these pages. whether consciously or not i'm in the habit of turning every page. i remember finding what they needed in some file and turning page after page in letter after letter that had no significance and all of a sudden there was a
yellowed western union telegraph form and on it was signed by george brown dated a cover 19th, 1940. it said linden you were supposed to have the text by friday and on the bottom one of johnson's secretaries had written a reply, all the folks you talked to haven't been heard from. i'm not acknowledging their letters so be sure to let these fellows know their checks have been received. that was part of it. who were these fellows? who were the people that had given the $30,000? let me tell you there are moments when you felt it was beyond you to -- i found the answer in the file one of several.
to this day i can see the files. they were file folders and there was a secretary 30 years before. they were sticking out of not directions. in their their work knowledge midst from six texas oilman and contractors who had given the money to lyndon johnson. i thank allen in my mind so that's how he got the money. how he had he handed it out? how did he use that money to create political power? this is a man who never wrote anything down. i learned that he had taken up an office suite for the month of october in an office building in washington called the muncy building out of which this
little nascent democratic campaign committee would work and in that office building with him was a secretary named walter jenkins. about walter jenkins they said he wrote everything down and i'm looking through the papers there and there are four pages clipped together withns a paperclip. there were three typed columns. the left-hand column is the name of the congressman and the district he represents. in the center is what he needs the money for, the amounts are so small. lenten $1500 i can buy another round of ads. lenten private dollars for poll watchers who tried to steal the election and in the right-hand column the third typed column is the amount of money the congressman asked for, a small
amount. 1500, $2000, 500 sometimes. in the left-hand margin in lyndon johnson's handwriting was what he decided to do with each request. sometimes if he was going to get the full amount, okay. if he was going to give part of the amount, okay 500 or okay 1000. sometimes he wrote none. he wasn't going to honor it trades sometimes he wrote, nine, out. .. >> and you didn't have any
but he does like a young lyndon johnson. he thought he was brash, pushy, courtly southern gentleman and bird was a >> reader would be held in winchester in virginia that is the 2 miles from washington and the funeral there was a heavy rainstorm. johnson persuades and from washington state and says we have to go to the funeral avon the republicans of course and
then when he got back to say we were the only senators they are. you are standing on one side of the grave and henry —- harry byrd was on the other and then lowering the coffin he turned his face up and looked at us and he looked me a long time and said i do not that meant but i that that look was a very important look. it was in a lot of ways when lyndon johnson needed something of which harry byrd was the chairman ofas the senate finance committee he almost always sees together in the book i'm writing now and then to have jurisdictional medicare. and harry byrd by this time, in
1938 or 39 from the funeral now it's 1965. and then to pass medicare. and then when medicare went to the finance committee and never seem to come out. and then to have scheduled so many witnesses and then to have witnesses coming backk again. but lyndon leads him to where the bill in 1965 which was still in the house of representatives and comes over to the senate and will go over to the finance committee. what johnson needs henry byrd to agree to is not to delay the hearing. so he tricked him so harry byrd is old.
he is not the politician that he once was. but he's always liked lyndon johnson. so he asked them to come down to the white house and he doesn't tell harry byrd that the television cameras will be there. and he turns of the cameras running and he turns to harry byrd and says, this is my version although it's not exactly right. so is there any reason you can't the hearingre right away? and harry byrd says not that i know of. so we have the hearings right away? and they will be expeditious
hearings? and harry byrd says yes in front of the television cameras. because he is so fond of lyndon johnson. and then to say if i have known i would be on television i would have want to better suit. >> and johnson's relations with harry byrd are summed up the very next year. and lyndon johnson goes to the funeral and as harry byrd's car after the funeral is driving away not president of the united states, lyndon johnson leans over and kisses the old man's hand. so we are talking about a politician who was not afraid to do anythingo that was
necessary to get somebody on his side. think history would be interested in. and at the archives of the lyndon johnson library. and one piece of material that is they are. on the second floor of this building a manuscript written not by me and lyndon johnson's life if the 1948 election. now in the senate and house of representatives for 11 years. he's really not getting anywhere in the house is just too slow for his ambition. he decides to run for president although the guys he
is running against will be the most popular governor in the history of i texas. and at the end, this is the election and the aides call it the all or nothing election. and then to be out of politics and at the end of the election he is 30000 votes behind. but he starts feeling votes and then he starts in san antonio but still several hundred votes behind. but then six days after the election, they find a box that has ballots. 200 to ballots and 200 and our
past, lyndon johnson and he wins the election by 87 votes one week later. so he was the enforcer for a guy named george parr he was a big guy a tough and burly guy he always had a revolver with the handle that would go all the way down to his knee and he was the precinct child stay put in to make sure things right. so i hearing is actually held and he is put on the stand he denies anybody stuffed anything into the ballot box. but as it is about to start
and then he is the office of the supreme court justice hugo black and what it says, basically is the hearing is now called off and now there is never another hearing. so this is a key element of johnson's life. he goes on to the senate and then to become president but if they lost the election and then probably no further political activity talking about going to his wife's radio and television stations. so they were already seven biographies of living on —- lyndon johnson had been written. of course they all went into the election that there were several hundred articles of
the 87 vote election he was nicknamed but then what he had never stolen anything and he had never stolen any votes. no one will ever know if the election is stole i wrote that over and over again. no one will ever know if the election was stolen. that i would never write a book and that no one will ever know and less in fact i've done everything possible. because everything else
pointed to it being stolen but on the stand the precinct judge had testified that it wasn't. so i went back down to the valley along the border. then then he said no. he is not dead he went back to mexico. it turns out he murdered a man and then fled down to some town in mexico moving from m town to town. people ask me why it takes to write the book. [laughter] let me tell you that finally a mexican gentleman who has tried not to be found takes a
lot of time. finally i found and in fact he moved back to texas and was living in a trailer. and then he said he didn't want to talk to me i didn't get a chance so i flew to houston and went out to his house he is a tall burly guy. he is a told me on. so i knock on the door expecting to be looking up at the sky but instead the door is opened by a very frail old man. and i said to him. my name is bob carol and i'm writing a book on lyndon johnson and he said you want to know about box 13. and we went inside.
without saying anything you know, i have written it all down. in there is an old-fashioned trunk it's a big chunk in the corner and he opens it up and he takes out a manuscript of 97 typed and handwritten pages and on the title page it says box 13. and i start reading it and it contains the sentences, highlight understand and then it details exactly how the 200 votes were put in there. so i say can i copy this? he said there is a copy machine at the 711. [laughter] so we went to they nearest 711.
and it is in the exhibition. it up on the second floor. and then to see it yourself. and then things to the new oryork historical society to be able to read it for themselves. there is a lot of stuff in my papers that many historians will want to read. more than a few percent. that there are so many interviews so many notes that
i think will have one —- help to cast some light on our country's history is. so many interviews, hundreds ofy interviews, 522 with those who can never be interviewed. and then on the center i tried to find anybody who could help me understand the 19 fifties. and then write down to the ocloakroom. and a very small percentage actually made it into the book. what was politics like when america was still rural for the first 125 years of its
existence? what was politics like? what was it like to campaign? that was fascinating to me. there is a chapter my first volume called the first campaign. it is about a rule campaign. how lyndon johnson ran a campaign as an arizona candidate going from little town to little town. from farm to a farm. running for congress. very little of that made it into the book. so we're in a time right now where when the truth is more important today than ever before, and therefore with the basis of truth is more important than they have ever been before. and that of current events and
listen to you all day. and now with some audience questions. you didn't give us some clues but the audience really wants to know what is it like to write about lyndon johnson? >> and then with that powerbroker with that biography but then then to do something from the 19 forties but what i realized that the
powerbrokerr and it wasn't just a life but how they and not only how it was taught in textbooks and what they really wanted to do with national political power. with lyndon johnson. but i never that the publisher will let me get out of the contract so i started to write and i really hated doing it. [laughter] one day i get a call from my publisher.
>> . >> or maybe when to come home and there are some more facts. i don't watch the 24 hour news cycle. >> you sleep at night? [laughter] >> this is getting more and more personal. [laughter] i don't sleep all that much. i've never slept that much. it is interesting. bill clinton talks about we spend part of the time talking about how little we both sleep. [laughter] i don't sleep a lot.
>> while you're up thinking. >> i didn't say it was up thinking. i said i was up trying to go back to sleep.. [laughter] >> while you are up, have you formed an opinion about what would have become vietnam if jfk lived? >> that's a great question. i never try to talk about something i haven't finished writing at so can i take a pass on that?
>> i'm trying to find the best last question. ddu the something out? we will ask the question to protect a source. is there anything you would now want to add back? it covers a lot of decades. i think the answer is probably no. i tell people when i start i try to say something obviously i am doing this for a book so we both know i will write it.
and then current things. but sometimes with the people back then in the eighties or nineties writing about in the 2020. it doesn't come up that much. >> okay. that is good. >> i may be overlooking something that at the top of my head i cannot. >> what advice would you give students in the writing and thinking process? >> aside from turning every page? [laughter] [applause] >> thank you again.