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Lyndon B. Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 36th President, 1963-1969 Hardcover – June 8, 2010
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Top Customer Reviews
Charles Peters offers a portrayal of Johnson, in all his complexity, in his recent short biography in the American Presidents Series edited by the late Arthur Schelsinger Jr. and by Sean Willentz. The books in this series give valuable short introductions and assessments to each of our presidents. Several of the volumes, including this biography of Johnson, are not mere summaries but rather offer and informed and challenging perspective in their own right. A political insider. Peters edited the "Washington Monthly" for 32 years, and he has written a book about "How Washington Really Works" and a book about the Republican nomination of Wendell Wilkie for president in 1940.
Peters gives much space to Johnson's life before he became president. The background he offers is essential to understanding the man. Born to poverty in rural Texas, Johnson struggled to afford and to graduate from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. His ambition and domineering personality showed as a young man, and Johnson early proved adept in learning to network. In 1931, Johnson became a staff assistant to Representative Richard Kleberg and, with a short two-year interlude, he would remain in Washington, D.C. until the conclusion of his presidency.
After an intense courtship, Johnson married the well to do Lady Bird Taylor. During their long marriage, he was frequently unfaithful to her. Many of his affairs were known to Washington insiders if not to the larger public. Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, was narrowly defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1941, and in turn won a disputed and highly controversial election to the Senate in 1948. During his early teunure in Washington, Johnson ingratiated himself with powerful and important individuals including President Roosevelt and Sam Rayburn.
With his legislative skills, Johnson rose quickly, becoming Senate majority whip in
1951, and majority leader in 1955. In 1955, likely as a result of stress, smoking, and heavy drinking, he suffered a major heart attack. Johnson unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1956. In 1957, he was instrumental in securing the passage of the first major Civil Rights legislation in 100 years. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1960, and accepted the Vice-presidential nomination offered by a reluctant John Kennedy in order to secure Southern support for the ticket. The southerner Johnson and the patrician Kennedys never got along well. Johnson became president when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and in 1964 was elected to the presidency in his own right in a landslide against Barry Goldwater.
Johnson's domineering personality, shrewdness, and knowledge of the legislative process helped him secure an ambitious domestic program upon Kennedy's death. Johnson also had a commitment to Civil Rights which was probably more deeply felt than his predecessor's. He secured the enactment of landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964 and voting rights legislation in 1965. In 1965, Johnson secured the passage of Medicare as well as of a sweeping Immigration Reform Bill the consequences of which remain with the United States today. Johnson also initiated a series of programs known as the War on Poverty with at best mixed results. His domestic vision was known as the "Great Society".
Johnson will forever be remembered for escalating the War in Vietnam. Peters' book focuses on how this escalation came about. He argues that Johnson felt pressured by many politicians he viewed as hawkish, including Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy had, apparently unknown to Johnson, offered a softer line some three years earlier in the Cuban Missle Crisis. Against some doubts on his part, Johnson emeshed himself in Vietnam by sending ground troops. Oddly enough, most of his critics challenged his use of air raids and did not place enough emphasis on the ground war. With the tragedy of the Vietnam war, came the student protests, rioting, the year 1968, and massive changes that remain with the United States, for good and bad. Much of subsequent United States history, unhappily, can be viewed as a reaction to both the War in Vietnam and to the unrest which followed it, culminating in 1968 with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Johnson declined to run for the presidency in 1968. Richard Nixon eked out a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey.
Peters emphasiszes both Johnson's virtues and skills together with his weak points -- his bullying, philandering, crudeness, and, sometimes, tendency to deceive. It is the mark of many other changes in American life that Johnson engaged, with the knowledge of the media, in sexual and other forms of conduct (forcing male staff to swim nude with him so that Johnson could belittle the size of their members) that would not be tolerated in a president today. In his assessment of Johnson, Peters writes that "it seems likely that history will rank Johnson in the group of presidents just below the top tier of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt." ( p. 159) Given his account of Johnson's presidency and character, Peters' estimate seems to me far too generous.
Peters has written an excellent short account of an important American president. Many Americans, including me, are old enough to remember Johnson. His presidency still remains relatively recent and highly charged. Its consequences still remain with the United States.
Each reader must determine if the tradeoff is worth it.
At that, this is an interesting addition to the series. The author takes a rather sharp-eyed view of Johnson, discussing both his strengths and his more problematic elements. It attempts to make sense of his life and is honest in its view of Johnson. The volume discusses Johnson's womanizing, his hardball politics (including a key disputed election), his deviousness, his sometimes excessively hard as nails relationship with his staff. The book also notes the impressive litany of legislative successes--whether in his role as Senate Majority Leader or as President. Indeed, his legacy is quite impressive. But the book also notes the issue that dogged him and ended his presidency--Vietnam.
All in all, a useful work, despite its brevity.
Despite the book's paucity, Peters is able to give the reader both the big and small pictures. Johnson's drive to bring about the Great Society is explained, as well as a detailed account of how Johnson was dragged into the Vietnam quagmire, and how he waded in deeper and deeper even as it became more and more apparent that this was a fight he couldn't win.
Peters also explores the unseemly side of Johnson, including his extra-marital dalliances and his belittling and humiliating treatment of his staff. A skilled writer, Peters is able to broach those subjects without succumbing to sensationalism or a trashy tabloid journalism style.
I recommend this book as a wonderful account of the life of a complicated man, showing warts and all, but leaving the reader with a new appreciation for Johnson's goals and ambitions and for all that he was able to accomplish, especially in the field of civil rights. If you've wondered why many historians include Johnson in the list of great presidents, this book will help you to understand why. If Lyndon Johnson does not strike you an an interesting president before you read that book, you opinion will be significantly changed by this delightful biography.