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Robert Caro has a new book: Excerpts from AP interview

April 3, 2019

NEW YORK (AP) — Highlights from a recent Associated Press interview with historian Robert Caro, whose new book, “Working,” is just coming out. He is also working on his fifth and presumed final book about Lyndon Johnson.

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On the enduring influence of his old Newsday editor Alan Hathway, who urged him to “Turn every page”:

“I can’t remember how many times with that Johnson book and that incredible mass of stuff at the Johnson Library, I felt like giving up — not giving up the book, just saying, ‘I’ve done enough.’ I would hear Alan saying to me, ‘Turn every page.’ I hear him saying, ‘Never assume a damned thing.’ I have that in mind all the time.”

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On interviewing LBJ press secretary George Christian:

“George Christian wouldn’t talk to me. I wrote him 20 years of letters. Then I heard that he had lung cancer, and then I heard he had treatment and got better. Then I heard it came back and he’s decided not to have a round of chemotherapy. The phone rings and it’s him. He said, ‘It’s time for me to talk to you.’ It was very poignant. The first interview he had an oxygen tank in the corner of his office and he had a mask on his desk. I think for the first interview he used it very infrequently. The second interview, he had to keep using it. The third interview, he’s going along and after an hour or so, he says, ‘I guess that’s enough, Bob. You’ll have to get the rest from somebody else.’”

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On the late Walt Rostow, a national security aide to Johnson who helped select bombing targets during World War II:

“He was always trying to convince me of the efficacy of bombing. I’m not kidding. He and his wife were really trying to cultivate me, so they had a number of dinner parties (in Texas) in my honor. They had this grand house with this terrace and big balcony. We’re at one of these big cocktail parties, and I realize I hadn’t seen Ina (Caro’s wife) in quite a while. And all of a sudden I see Rostow at the end of this balcony, against this railing, kind of silhouetted. And he’s talking and talking away to her. I can’t imagine what this conversation is about. So I sort of walk over and I hear something like, ‘You see in Hamburg we drew concentric circles around the railroad.’ He spent a lot of time basically trying to convince me that if only he had been allowed to pursue the (Vietnam) war the way he wanted, everything would be fine.”

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On his next Johnson book and Vietnam:

“The big question I’m trying to answer is, ‘How did we get into this?’ How does a great nation find itself embarked on a war — we had almost 600,000 men there — that was also such a horrible mistake. How did it happen? Then, of course, I want to show the effect of war. I want to show what it was like to fight in the jungle. I want to show the effect of the bombing. A lot of the targets were picked personally by Lyndon Johnson.”