Robert Caro on LBJ, the CRA, and Robert Moses

It is rare to be treated to such an insightful and powerful lecture as was recently given at Rockefeller University by Robert Caro. Caro came to prominence following the publication of The Power Broker, and he has spent the subsequent 40 odd years of his life devoted to the story of Lyndon Johnson. Caro’s Insight Lecture drew from material he had collected for the publication of his most recent book on Johnson, The Passage of Power. He focused on how Johnson was able, almost immediately after ascending to the Presidency, to raise enough support to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 despite what seemed like long odds of even getting the bill to the Senate floor. To hear Caro unfold the story is a thrill; theres probably few better ways to learn of the internal machinations of national politics than from Caro. I was delighted to hear his talk and was able to attend an extended Q&A after the lecture. I wanted to share a couple of the nuggets of wisdom from the evening.

On The Exercise of Power:

“My goal in writing a biography is not to write about those men per se, but to write a story of political power. In the case of Robert Moses it was a story of urban power and in the case of Lyndon Johnson it is a story of national political power.”

  • Robert Caro paraphrased

One of the overarching themes of Caro’s talk and his discussion relate to the often cringeworthy means that Moses and Johnson employed to achieve their ends. In Johnson’s case, Caro alleges that he essentially bought 60 republican votes on the Civil Rights Act with a large NASA contract to Purdue University. As for Moses, the insurance contracts for the Triborough Authority were always awarded in direct proportion to the number of votes controlled by insurance-broker/legislators in the State Assembly.

Some of these details came out in response to a question from the audience about the use of pork and Caro’s response was understated: “People want things….” leaving us to fill in the “and powerful men can deliver.” The idea that all politics is quid-pro-quo and that a leader can leverage pork for political gain is not new, but it remains a horror to those of us who belive in transparency and in honest government. I’m reminded of Caro’s tale of young Robert Moses as a good government advocate lobbying against Tammany Hall until he is taken under the wing of Alfred Smith who is quoted as remarking of a diligent law student:

“There is man learning how to take a bribe and call it a fee.”

One remark made by Caro that I was unaware of related to longtime dysfunction of our national legislative bodies. According to Caro, the Senate prior to Lyndon Johnson going back to the Senate of the 1870s was essentially dysfunctional and that for the several years Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader, bills were able to be passed; in his absence, the Senate returned to their do-nothing origins. I remember seeing some data contrary to this (chart of bills passed by year where our current Congress is the MOST do-nothing of Congresses) but it is this assertion that lies at the center of Caro’s obsession of Johnson’s skill as a legislative mastermind, and this skill requires not only immense people skills and long-ball strategy but the ability to enforce disciple and reward votes.

LBJ vs. Kennedys :

Quite a bit of the latest LBJ book concerns the relationship of LBJ to the Kennedy family. A lot of this is known but heres the overview:

  • LBJ was excluded from many/most of the major political decisions including the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • LBJ was painfully aware of his lack of education and status in polite society, reinforced by the Kennedy’s seating him at the “Loser’s Table” at the social events the Kennedy’s hosted.
  • LBJ’s childhood was one of want. He would often say “The ham and egg was ten cents and the egg was five cents. I always wanted the ham and egg but always ordered the egg.” When LBJ’s father lost the family farm and became an object of ridicule, LBJ would go work as a day laborer on other farms doing back-breaking work including picking cotton. A little different from the Kennedys.
  • The stark contrast in background made LBJ an outsider among the “Best and the Brightest” and fueled Johnson’s immense insecurities.

As a corollary to growing up in hard-scrable Texas, Caro stipulates that this background was what allowed Johnson to feel strongly about the plight of poor people, especially poor people of color. He speculates that Johnson’s assertion that “If I ever get a chance i will help these people” was probably his true feelings despite voting straight-South (including stands against anti-lynching bills) his entire career. When he finally achieved enough power, however, he put his full political weight behind on passing the Civil Rights Ammendment.

Robert Moses, Contracts and the Rockefeller Brothers

(Note: details on the following are a bit murky) A question was asked in the Q&A about Robert Moses' relationship with the Rockefellers. Caro briefly reviewed the source of Moses' power and you can tell that I didn’t fully understand how the power was obtained in the first place because I had a bit of trouble following it this time around as well. Apparently, the bonds that funded the Triborough Authority were tied to the legislation authorizing the Authority. In some way (the details of which I don’t understand) the Triborough Authority (and Moses) maintained political independence by using the Constitutional protections on the bond-contract to avoid any changes to Authority that could normally be enacted by standard legislation. I believe the way it works is that a Governor could absolve the Triborough Authority by repaying the bond holders and refinancing the Authority. However, the Trustees of the bondholders could sue to block the action of the Governor as violating the Constitutional sanctity of the bond contract. And apparently there were several governors who may have tried to have Moses removed but the Trustee always sued on behalf of the bondholders and Moses way able to retain political power.

When asked about the Rockefellers, Caro said that Moses had missed only one possibility that would allow a Governor to remove him: that in the event of being fired, the Trustee of the bondholders would not sue the Governor. When Nelson Rockefeller wanted Moses out, he was able to do so because his brother, David Rockefeller, was the head of the Chase Manahattan bank and the Trustee of the Triborough Authority’s bonds. David Rockefeller did not challenge his brother. When listening to Caro describe how Moses was only brought down by failing to foresee the tremendously unlikely scenario that put the only two people with the right connections in the right place at the same time, it was not hard to detect a glint of admiration for Moses' political genius.

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