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Why JFK’s assassination still looms large

CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS features an interview with the author of Dallas, November 22, 1963, Robert Caro, who spoke to CNN about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. This discussion aired Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 10:00am and will encore at 1:00pm ET on CNN/U.S. and on CNN International at 3:00pm ET:

Embeddable video highlights and the full show transcript are available after the jump.

Caro: How JFK’s death helped LBJ

Caro on JFK’s lasting legacy

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST:  The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, after all of the commissions, books, movies, conspiracy theories, studies, TV shows, and investigations, is it possible to have a unique take on the day and its aftermath?   I would argue that my next guest does.  Robert Caro is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, biographer, and historian.  He has a new eBook on the topic. It’s called “Dallas, November 22, 1963.” We have links to it on our Web site. Welcome back to the show.

ROBERT CARO, AUTHOR, “DALLAS, NOVEMBER 22, 1963”:  Great to be back.

ZAKARIA:  So when you’ve looked at this, and you looked at it for your great, great biography of Lyndon Johnson, what I’m struck by is you begin a section of the book by saying, it was going to be a Kennedy day.

CARO:  Yes.

ZAKARIA:  Meaning?

CARO:  The Kennedys had this tradition, whenever there was a big event, the sun came out.  So in the morning Kennedy is in Fort Worth, it’s raining.  As the plane is flying to Dallas, the sun comes out, and Larry O’Brien, one of his aides, says, Kennedy weather.

ZAKARIA:  And what was the Kennedy presidency looking like at that moment?

CARO:  Well, it depends on what angle you were looking at it. His popularity for the ’64 election was high.  But his — all his legislation was stalled in Congress.  Civil rights was boiling up in the South.  It needed a legislative release.  It needed to pass a bill. His bill was going nowhere. It was bottled up, the southern Democrats who controlled Congress, it was going nowhere. He needed a tax — it was important, a tax cut bill, because unemployment was rising toward a totally unacceptable 5 percent.  And tax rates had to come down.  Everyone agreed.  Congress wouldn’t let that bill through.  All his major legislation was stalled.  So at that moment you say his presidency had two sides.  At the same his personal glamour and popularity, and Jackie’s, was making him more and more popular.

ZAKARIA:  But he hadn’t really — I mean, he had the Bay of Pigs.  Had he had anything significant that he had accomplished?  The Cuban Missile Crisis would have been the one thing where he triumphed in a very complicated test of will.

CARO:  Yes.  But the Cuban Missile Crisis, no matter how much attention you paid to it, it’s not enough.  I mean, we were on the verge of nuclear war with Russia.  When you listen to the tapes of the XCom, his executive committee, you sometimes feel like almost everybody in that room was arguing for an invasion or a bombing strike. And every time things got heated you see he says something like, gentlemen, let’s take a break, let’s have dinner, then we’ll come back and talk.  So he’s pulling — it’s like I wrote…

ZAKARIA:  He’s pulling them back.

CARO:  He’s pulling them back.  You know, he said he’s going to stop this — any destroyer that — excuse me, any Soviet warship that passes the quarantine line, we’re going to board, which would have been an act coming very close to war. A Russian ship does cross the line.  You know what he says?  Let’s give them one more day.  It’s like he was saying, let’s give peace one more day.  He had just finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Guns of August.”  You know what he says to Ted Sorenson?  He says, if I…

ZAKARIA:  Tell what that book — that book is a book about the beginning of World War I.

CARO:  It’s about how a world war — how the nations stumbled into World War I by just one little escalation after another, unintended. He said, if I make a mistake here, you know what the title of the book about this, the Cuban Missile Crisis, is going to be?  “The Missiles of October.” He knew the verge — he knew the world was on the verge of nuclear war. And he had to find – give Khrushchev enough time to accept the plan for peace.  And, you know, when Khrushchev accepted, and no one writes this, Fareed, the letter that he sends to Kennedy, saying, we should not both be pulling tighter the knot of war, he signs it in a very unusual way, “with respect, Khrushchev.”

ZAKARIA:  When we come back, I’m going to ask Bob Caro something I don’t know if people have asked him before, which is what he thinks of all the conspiracy theories, when we come back.

ZAKARIA:  And we are back with Robert Caro, the great American historian, biographer of Lyndon Johnson, talking about John F. Kennedy and the assassination. So you know there are people who look at where Johnson was, dead in the water.  A “Life” magazine article was about to come out.  You describe, you know, which was an investigative, uh, story, uh, that would have further undermined him. People look at all that and say, boy, this assassination really not — not only made Johnson president, but saved him from what might have been a complete collapse.  I mean it — is it possible that had the assassination not happened, Johnson would have been so humiliated, he would have had to resign?

CARO:  Well, Johnson — to answer that part of your question — uh, Johnson himself felt that whether he had a second term or not, he was finished.  That’s the word he used, “I’m finished.” And you know how we know that he really felt that way? He told several of his key aides, who, if he had further ambitions, he would have wanted to keep with him.  He said, “I’m done.” One of them was asking him, can I go to work for somebody else? He says go with him, I’m finished. So you say that Johnson really felt, uh, that, felt that he — that his career might be over.  On the other hand, nothing that I ever found… I’ve been doing research on Lyndon Johnson for a lot of years.  And I have to say that nothing that I found in writing or any interviews, led me to believe that whatever the story of the assassination really is, that Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.  I never found anything that led me to believe that.

ZAKARIA:  What do you think explains both the conspiracy theories and the sense of why has this assassination loom so large in American imagination?

CARO:  Well, you know, it’s almost like myth, Homeric myth – young, handsome, the athlete, you know, dying young, at the height of his glory, you know? You say, uh, beautiful — a beautiful man, really, uh, charming, handsome, idealistic.  Murder, blood, violence, horror.  You know, it’s — you say here has this crack of this gunshot.  And in this — in an instant, there — this man is lying across his wife’s, uh, lap, basically, in the back seat of a car with his head blown apart, blood all over her, you know. You say, uh, for that reason alone, it has all the qualities of a mythic drama on — in the highest terms. Then you also say, you know, there is the whole thing that happened that — you may be too young to remember.

The four days of television that were every — you know, all the networks, there’s only one broadcast.  The — so there’s a pool broadcast. The Nielsen — the Nielsen ratings showed that for those four days, the television set in the average American home was on for 31.6 hours.  That’s eight hours a day that every — virtually — that America is watching the same words said by the same people.  And you say, I wrote in my book, you know, the funeral procession, you — we think of the triumphs of Rome, the triumphal processions of Rome.  This is the closest that a republic ever came to it. A procession marching up, uh, to the Capitol, with the great dome of the Capitol, columns atop columns in the sky, marching toward it first, you have the generals, the joint chiefs of staff, the priests in their flowing robes.  And then you have the matched gray horses, the caisson.  Behind it, you know, a sailor, a single sailor holding a flag.   Of course, because Kennedy had been a naval hero, a navy lieutenant.  That’s the president’s personal flag, the great black horse prancing there. You say where has it — you just said forget politics, forget tragedy, this is a drama such as you have very few elena — you have very few comparisons to this in all of history.  And drumming it into history and drumming it into the American people is television.  Everybody is watching it.  The nation is united in a way, united and watching this in a way it — you say, when did this ever happen?

ZAKARIA:  And it feels to me that it’s also about where America was in 1963.

CARO:  Yes.

ZAKARIA:  America was literally on top of the world.  It was — it accounted for 35 percent of global GDP.  It had not had a major stumble.  I mean, and if you think about the ’40s and ’50s, it had rebuilt Europe.  It had rebuilt Japan.

CARO:  Sure.

ZAKARIA:  It was starting things like the Peace Corps.  And — and — and I think, you know, in a sense, what comes after is Vietnam, is the civil rights struggles, is the violence in almost every major American city. So it — in a strange sense, it is this great divide, where people can look back and say, you know, metaphorically, in a sense, if Kennedy had lived, maybe America would have had a different trajectory.

CARO:  Well, the great divide that you just said, that’s a great phrase.  I have a — a little — I’ll give you another word, watershed. You know, the real meaning of a watershed is the top of a mountain divide. On one side, the waters run one way, on the other side, the waters run another way. America was a different place on November 21, 1963 than it was five years later, when my man, Lyndon Johnson, left the presidency.  At — as we just said, the Kennedy funeral procession is the height of the majesty of the republic in Washington. Five years later, when you stepped out the front door of the White House, you could see the fires burning the — from the looters just a few blocks away. You know, you talked — you talked to Johnson’s White House aides. You say, what can you remember? He says, I remember walking to work and there were armed troops in jeeps on every corner.  And…

ZAKARIA:  Protesters everywhere.

CARO:  And protesters everywhere.


CARO:  And people outside the White House — I mean imagine the poignancy of a president living with his family, his wife and two daughters in the White House.  And in parts of the White House, you could hear — because Pennsylvania Avenue was not then closed off.  The protesters could come right up to the fence.  Inside the White House, you could hear them chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” I mean, you say what you’ve said is exactly right, the Kennedy assassination, when you look back on the 20th century, is the great divide in American history.

ZAKARIA:  Robert Caro, a pleasure, as always. CNN has a great new documentary from executive producer, Tom Hanks, on the subject of that dark day in November 50 years ago.  It’s called “The Assassination of President Kennedy.” And it airs for North American viewers tonight at 9:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Eastern.