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
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
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
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. …