Civil Rights and Foreign Wrongs of LBJ's Rocky Reign; BOOK REVIEWS

Article excerpt

HEY! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?

If you were around in the 1960s then that cruel student chant will still be echoing in your head.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the man we loved to hate, the president who escalated the Vietnam War and became the target for demonstrations all over the world.

Yet he was also the man who pushed through the most significant civil rights legislation of any president and at great personal cost to himself in his own southern power base.

He introduced legislation for improved medical care, he was behind environmental protection laws and backing for the arts. He had a vision of The Great Society and he meant to achieve it by some of the most remarkable social engineering since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the hungry '30s.

So how could one of the great liberals of the century also be remembered as the monster who allegedly made war when nobody wanted it?

Untangling the strange contradictions of LBJ is the mammoth task faced by Robert Dallek in Flawed Giant (Oxford).

LBJ was vice-president when an assassin killed John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Johnson was ready to take his place and won a subsequent election. Nobody could doubt that he was a man with a programme and a determination to see it fulfilled.

He was overbearing, big, abusive, crude, paranoid and not averse to humiliating people.

He was even briefly infamous in this country for pictures showing him picking up his dogs by the ears.

In what appears to be a great American tradition, he was also a womaniser and had affairs with women known as "The Chili Queen" and "The Dairy Queen".

His wife Lady Bird turned a blind eye in the way that political wives always have and still do.

But Johnson's drive to end segregation in the south was hugely significant and his war on poverty had a lasting effect. …