Two words that changed LBJ’s life

Speech_balloonIn fables and myths, we find plenty of moments when magic words come into play. Not a magic spell — just a simple statement that unlocks hidden possibilities for somebody who really needs help.

Think of abracadabra, open sesame or valar morghulis … to name a few.

In the case of Lyndon Johnson, 36th president of the United States, two heartbreaking words produced a transformation on the Texan Democrat that was nothing short of magical. That’s what Robert Caro said last night.

I had the pleasure of listening to Caro deliver a talk at Claremont McKenna College about his research into The Passage of Power, the latest installment of his mammoth-sized, multi-volume biography “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”

There’s nothing better than having a world-class historical biographer describe his research methods: how he studied secret memos and photographs, how he tracked down interviewees, how he dug deeply into historical moments that we all thought we knew.

Take, for example, the hours after the assassination of JFK in Dallas. We all know that the Kennedys scorned Johnson. They called him “Rufus Cornpone,” Caro said, and they referred to Johnson and Lady Bird as “Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop.” Johnson stood off to the side, forgotten, while everyone waited news of Kennedy’s condition.

Then, Caro said, someone approached Johnson and uttered two words to him that made the situation clear:

“Mr. President.”

“In that instant, a change comes over him,” Caro told the audience. “A moment of transformation” in which Johnson’s stature immediately grows as he realizes what he has become.

I was struck by the magic quality of Caro’s narration of that historic moment … and I was heartened by the thought that words still possess magic.

It’s easy to forget this in the constant barrage of twitter feeds, google alerts, etc. Words are cheapened, turned into fast food, discardable. But as Caro reminded me, and as I wish to remind you, my beloved friends, words still have the power to reach into the depths of myth.

11 responses

  1. Thank you very much. You know, I’ve been aware of the Book Maven blog since I was at the L.A. Times, and it’s nice to reconnect with you, post-Times, through Call of the Siren. What a special way to start my week!

  2. You’re most welcome. I only nominate those I think are most deserving.
    Hmmm. I think you are mistaking me for another Book Maven Blog. My blog haven’t been featured in the LA Times but it’s good to know.
    But I am glad that my post somewhat brightened your week. Congratulations! 🙂

  3. Hm, I’m pretty sure I read you while I was at the Times, even though the paper never really spotlighted any blogs aside from the paper’s own. At any rate, it’s heartening to connect with other people in a positive way!

  4. Fascinating. Myth, larger than life experiences communicated through words, provides infinite resources for great orators and writers (and sometimes Hollywood). It is truth distilled, the words of the gods. Some might call the response sentimental, an unearned emotion. But when the basis for the emotion is an ancient truth, the foundation instilled in our ancestors’ genes, we cannot help but be moved. We cannot control the involuntary chill or tear. Interesting post. Thanks!

  5. I definitely agree that it’s in our genes. The entire room was poised on every word that Robert Caro said about a historical moment that we all know. Even so, it was exhilarating to hear about the hours after JFK’s death in so much detail by someone like Caro.

    Interesting that you mentioned Hollywood: I almost forgot that one kid asked if Caro would like to see his LBJ books made into movies. He said he’d never want to let his books be made into movies even though he’d make a nice bag of lucre for them. It was really admirable of him. Inspiring.

  6. Those are two words that would change anyones life. JBJ’s record as president often unfairly maligned. True he got the US more embroiled in Vietnam, but he made a hell of a lot more progress on civil rights than the Kennedy brothers every did, and was at least as sincere on the issue and in his own quiet way probably more passionate about it. (I a not saying JFK or Bobby kennedy didn’t care, of course they did but it was a time of such horrific toxic racism and they did not always fight as hard as they could, JFK was a superb president in other ways, especially on cold war & foreign policy) Great post, above, and I entirely agree with you, there is little better than listening to a superb writer (or director) describing their research and writing approaches. Had the immense pleasure of hearing William Dalrymple do something similar a couple of weeks ago here, speaking on 19th C wars in Afganistan.

  7. Good to hear from you, Arran. You heard Dalrymple speak recently? Lucky! He’s amazing on the page and in person.

    It was interesting to hear Caro talk about LBJ because he made some comments after the speech that I think tie directly into your excellent point LBJ was really powerful with civil rights, but the thing Caro asked our audience was, if he was so passionate about it, why did he let it get derailed by Vietnam?

    Caro said that he’s been reading notes from secret meetings that LBJ had to discuss Vietnam. Caro said you could tell from the notes that LBJ knew they needed to de-escalate the war, especially if he wanted to develop his domestic agenda of a Great Society. “He can see what will happen if he doesn’t do it,” Caro said, “but he does it any way.” He ended his talk on this point, and said that he’s going to try to explain what happened in the next book, which is the last installment in the series.

  8. very interesting. As we both agreed before, its a bit of a privilege to hear these writers speak on themes they’ve researched for years & know almost inside out. Dalrymple – who I heard here at the RIA (the Royal Irish Academy) was of course much the same as your Caro in that respect. As it happens I’ve just come back from another scholarly talk, in the Royal Dublin Society this time, by an antiquarian specializing in books and libraries who has just completed a book on libraries in great houses in Ireland. He took this (potentially rather dry) topic in so many directions, including social, family, religious and political history, and he really spoke so well. It was all very rewarding, I must get away from the computer and my own writing a bit more and go to more of these talks. One seldom if ever regrets it. -A.

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