Q & A with Robert Caro, author, ‘The Passage of Power’

The latest volume of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson is getting an avalanche of publicity and rave reviews, including one by former President Clinton in the New York Times Book Review, which is probably why Robert Caro insists he has no regrets about spending 38 years on a single subject.

Caro says his four books about Johnson — the latest, The Passage of Power, a 605-page tome that chronicles LBJ’s time as vice president and sudden accession to the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination — are not about a person, but about political power.

“People say it’s one subject, but I don’t regard these books being about a man,” the 76-year-old Caro told The Hill during a two-day book-promotion visit to Washington. “I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of a great man. What I’m interested in is political power — how it really works.”

 Following are excerpts of Caro’s interview:

Q: What’s it like to have a former president review your book about one of his predecessors?

It was fantastic. Although it sounds disingenuous, I don’t care that much about reviews. But I did care about this one because I felt [Clinton] knew the problems that I was talking about and …his opinion was something I should listen to.  

Q: We now have two former senators as president and vice president. How do you feel about the way they have used their power?

I’m not quite sure how to answer that. I have a higher opinion about President Obama’s accomplishments than a lot of people do. I felt he inherited quite a mess that we can hardly remember because he took care of it. As for dealing with Congress, I’m not writing about Obama.

Q: Are there any questions about Johnson that you haven’t been able to answer?

Well, the big question in the next book is, how did Vietnam happen to this very smart man? I’ve spent probably more than a year in the Johnson Library going through the minutes of the various meetings where the Vietnam decisions were made, and I’m not satisfied myself that I quite get it — I mean I have to think about it more.

Q: The final volume is going to have to deal, as you indicated, with Vietnam. Do you think Vietnam damaged his legacy and reputation?

The next volume is going to be much darker. His presidency is not a presidency of triumph. Yet the things he tried to do on the domestic front are worthy of being remembered more vividly than they are today.

Q: If you live long enough to write another book, what will it be?

That’s the one question I’ll take a pass on. It’s a biography, but I’m superstitious. I feel if I say who it is, I won’t get to it.