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Four Questions for Robert A. Caro

April 28, 2002|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

Question: How has your relationship to Lyndon Johnson changed over the years?

Answer: I don't think it has changed. In the first two volumes, Johnson was concerned with power. In "Master of the Senate," he earns the power, but he's the same man. Lord Acton once said, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." The older I get, the less sure I am about that. Power, whatever else it does, always reveals a character. When you are able to do whatever you want, the rest of us see who you are.

Johnson always had compassion for and a desire to help poor people. Once he had the power, he set out to pass a bill with the same savage determination he brought to everything else he wanted.

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Q: What do you feel is the singular achievement of "Master of the Senate"?

A: This book examines something seldom written about: legislative power. When we talk in America about political power, we usually mean presidential power. I wanted to show what raw legislative power looks like. And Johnson is the man to do it. He found power where no one else had ever found it, and he used it.

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Q: Can you describe a fine day of research?

A: My favorite day was when Bill Bradley took me onto the Senate floor. I sat next to the dais in the well where Johnson had stood, looking out at all this burnished mahogany, this majestic scene. A clerk called for a roll call, and the senators filled up the arcs. It was like a painter had done the background and then added the figures. That day was when I knew I'd be able to finish this book.

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Q: In 1999, Kurt Vonnegut asked if you were disappointed with America. How do you feel about that now?

A: I am disappointed. Someone said that the moral arc of the universe is law, but it bends toward justice. It is just bending so slowly. Two of the rising figures in the book--Martin Luther King Jr. and LBJ--make titanic efforts to improve the lives of black Americans. We've come a long way but not far enough.

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