Lyndon B. Johnson

Article excerpt

This biography of LBJ is the latest in the well-received American Presidents Series.

In 1964 and 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson overhauled civil

rights, voting rights, immigration, education funding, and health

care for the elderly. Indeed, as Charles Peters points out in Lyndon

B. Johnson, his slim but detailed new biography of the 36th

president, Johnson cajoled, prodded, pleaded, and bullied his way

into the most sweeping run of liberal legislation since Franklin

Delano Roosevelt. It's ironic, then, that Johnson's longtime

rival, Robert Kennedy, considered LBJ to be a conservative.

The great dilemma of Johnson's 1-1/2 terms in office is his

dreadful foreign policy, a counterbalance heavy enough to supersede

his domestic accomplishments, at least in the earliest assessments of

LBJ's presidency. More than four decades after he left the White

House, Johnson's Vietnam quagmire remains a major focal point for

any reasonable analysis of his tenure.

But, as Peters writes, LBJ has come to be regarded as a

better-than-average president in the longer historical perspective.

He doesn't share the rarefied status of FDR, Lincoln, and

Washington, to be sure, but he seems to be a good fit in the next

tier alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew

Jackson. Peters sees plenty of similarity between Jackson and

Johnson: each man could be considered crude, each came from humble

origins, and both had their greatest accomplishments eclipsed at the

time they were in office by grave, haunting decisions (Vietnam for

Johnson and the Trail of Tears for Jackson).

It's worth remembering the John Kenneth Galbraith comment (as

Peters does) on assessing LBJ's greatness without the onus of

Vietnam: "That's like saying Switzerland would be a flat country

without the Alps."

The Johnson biography is the latest in the well-received American

Presidents Series, first edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger

Jr., and now presided over by Sean Wilentz. These compact volumes run

a couple of hundred pages and lend insight to the careers of those

who may have neglected, in LBJ's case for example, the mammoth,

multivolume biographies written by Robert Caro and Robert Dallek in

recent decades.

Peters, the founder of Washington Monthly and a former worker on

John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, offers a fair portrait

blending insider and historical perspectives.

Johnson's boyhood, in retrospect, was the perfect training ground

for a future liberal legislator who believed in using government to

lift up the poor and disenfranchised. Those motives, of course, never

precluded personal gain and the accumulation of more and more

political power.

Sam Johnson was a rural farmer and former legislator whose Austin

connections allowed young Lyndon to run around the halls of the state

capitol, collecting gossip and political acumen. LBJ's mother

graduated from Baylor University and was known to be stern,

domineering, and snobby. From his father, Lyndon inherited alcoholism

and a loathing of racial prejudice; from his mother, among other

things, he learned to freeze out anyone who disappointed him in the

least.

By the time he reached college at Southwest Texas State Teachers

College in San Marcos, Johnson had figured out flattery would get him

everywhere. Soon enough, it did.

Johnson worked for the college president and never failed to dish

out extensive, and excessive, praise. Soon enough, he had become an

indispensable aide.After a brief stint teaching in Houston following

graduation, a friend of Johnson's father won a congressional seat

and tapped LBJ as his staff director. …