Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America

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Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America. By Kevin J. Fernlund. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, c. 2009. Pp. xii, 175. $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8061-4077-3.)

Kevin J. Fernlund's slender volume on Lyndon Baines Johnson is part homage to the American West, part sweeping historical narrative, and part evaluation of Johnson's life and the politics that informed his public career. The most illuminating segments of the book are Fernlund's descriptions of the Pedernales River in the Texas hill country where Johnson grew up and discovered his love of politics and public service. The discussion of Johnson's childhood amid the scrappy poverty of depression-era Texas is the strongest section. It is unfortunate that Fernlund did not dedicate the same effort and insight he displays toward Johnson's early roots in the West to his discussion of his presidency and the policy choices that undermined it.

There are far too many "what ifs" and "would haves" in this book. To take just one example, Fernlund writes that Johnson "did blunder in not replacing key [President John E] Kennedy men, such as Robert McNamara, with his own. Johnson could have given the country continuity without keeping on Kennedy's people" (p. 101). But Fernlund fails to explain how Johnson would have dealt with the political backlash that might have ensued had he begun firing members of Kennedy's cabinet, which points to one of the key weaknesses of the book: Fernlund's tendency to cast ahistorical judgments on his subject matter without really exploring the other side of the story that might undermine his many assertions that are impossible to prove or disprove. He repeatedly points out mistakes and blunders that he believes Johnson committed but does not give us the political context in which Johnson was operating that led him to make those decisions in the first place. Nor does Fernlund acknowledge the exculpatory evidence that might interfere with his weak assertions. …