To open the thirty-fifth annual Key West Literary Seminar last night, two-time Pulitzer winner Robert Caro delivered the John Hersey Memorial Address to a standing-room only audience at the historic San Carlos Institute. His keynote “Revealing Power: When Lyndon Johnson asked, ‘What the Hell’s the Presidency for?'” went right to the heart of this year’s seminar theme. In the introduction to The Passage of Power, the most recent installment of his four-volume biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Caro writes:
“Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary; to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power, to hide also what he wants to do with that power; if men recognized the traits or realized the aims, they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.”
As we approach this month’s presidential inauguration, Caro’s voice continues to resound. For more insights—especially into LBJ’s insistence on prioritizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the life experiences that led him to believe in it—watch Caro’s full keynote here.
To advisors who tried to convince him that the Civil Rights Act was a noble but lost cause, LBJ challenged, “What the hell’s the presidency for, then?” At KWLS, Caro referred to its passage as “one of history’s greatest victories for social justice,” and LBJ as the twentieth century’s “greatest champion all people of color had in the White House.” His belief in the cause of civil rights, said Caro, was “true, deep, and passionate, but he kept those ideals secret for twenty years until he got power.”
Once again, power reveals. And Caro—as he also did in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York—uses the life of a great man to illustrate the great forces that shaped his time.