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5.0 out of 5 stars A President in Turbulent Times, March 1, 2012
This review is from: Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency (Hardcover)
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Lyndon Johnson (1908 -- 1973) served from 1963 -- 1969 as the 36th President of the United States. His presidency was tumultuous from the outset, as Johnson assumed the office upon the assassination of President Kennedy and left it with the United States in disarray over the War in Vietnam. Johnson left an indelible mark upon the "baby boomer" generation, including myself, as his presidency coincided with that generation's high school and college years and period of potential military service. I have always found it difficult to read about Johnson's presidency without evoking a host of memories of these years.

Mark Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Persidential Library Museum in Austin, Texas revisits the Johnson years in his new book, "Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency". The book is neither a conventional biography nor a history. Instead it draws upon brief quotations, oral histories, remembrances, and other material from LBJ himself and from people who knew him well. Updegrove draws upon appoximately 100 people, including Johnson's family, his wife Lady Bird and their daughters, his personal friends, his many political allies and opponents, and the Kennedys. Through these many different voices, a portrait gradually emerges of Johnson and his era.

Updegrove organizes his book into twelve chapters, many of which are subdivided. The book begins with a variety of broad characterizations of Johnson as "a man who remains a mystery" and an enigma 40 years after his death. Bill Moyers, at the time a special assistant to the president and White House press secretary sets the tone of the Johnson enigma: "why did a man as flawed as any human vessel that was ever made rouse a nation to reach beyond itself in such a time"? The early chapters of the book offer broad overviews of Johnson's character and his early life before proceeding to Johnson's assumption of the presidency, his ambitious domestic agenda, his election to the presidency in his own right in 1964, the War in Vietnam, domestic turmoil, the decision not the seek the presidency in 1968, and the period of transition to the Nixon presidency.

Besides the quotations, Updegrove offers his own lengthy introductory material together with frequent background information, comments, and editorializing. It is important in reading this book to stay attuned to the shift in voices between the author and his sources.

For those who have read about Johnson or his presidency, the book begins slowly and covers well-trodden ground. But it soon picks up force and has a large, poignant cumulative impact. Updegrove presents a picture of Johnson as a tough, shrewed, and bullying individual, a deal-maker from his many years of service in the Congress. But besides the "indomitable will" of the title, Johnson appears as filled with a degree of self-doubt and hesitation. He had substantial doubt about Vietnam, was filled with remorse over the deaths and the internal divisions in the United States, and almost decided against running for president in 1964, to give only some examples. Johnson graduated from the Southwest Texas State Teachers College and always felt defensive in a Washington D.C. dominated by graduates of prestigious Eastern colleges. Although Johnson was higly intelligent and an excellent psychological judge of people, he apparently never read a book or any literature beyond the multitudinous working materials necessary to do his job. The combination of psychological acuity and little reading suggests to me a good deal about Johnson's presidential vision, its achievements and its limitations.

Johnson was a president of great energy and persuasive force. He endeavored to create a "Great Society" with legislation which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, medicare, a war on poverty, and much else. He came undone over Vietnam. The discussion of Vietnam in this book is painful to read. Johnson and his advisors genuinely believed they were doing the right thing and acting with the interests of the United States at heart. There is still room in our country for healing and for the unity that Johnson sought from the beginning of his presidency and that eluded him largely because of Vietnam.

I became emotionally involved with this book far beyond anything in its text. The book either changed my perspective on Johnson or helped me see that my perspective on him had changed slowly over the years. I came away with the book with a great deal of sympathy and respect for Johnson and for what he was trying to do. I probably would not have followed him still. But I read Updegrove's book thinking of the need for a united and purposeful and self-confident America, a condition that still eludes us.

Robin Friedman
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 16, 2012 5:27:38 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 16, 2012 5:31:32 AM PDT
Robin; It's clear this book well presents one of the central figures of 20th Century America. But is this what someone should read to understand Johnson and a bit of that era? Halberstam gave us a great personal profile of Johnson in "The Best and the Brightest" and a stinging indictment of his foreign policy Then there are Goodwin's biography and of course Caro's books. Is there really new ground here?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 17, 2012 7:40:05 AM PDT
Thanks for the comment. I haven't read much of the standard literature on Johnson but I have read some. I doubt that there is anything surprising in this book, but the transcripts of his phone conversations are new and interesting. Not a scholarly study exactly. But the way the book was put together, after the introductory sections, made me think about Johnson differently. So the book worked well for me. Regards. Robin

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2012 11:01:32 PM PDT
Read these books:

1) Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson

2) LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination

3) Google "LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK."

There is a LOT more about Lyndon Johnson that needs to be told.
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Robin Friedman
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