Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973

By Robert Dallek | Go to book overview
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Afterword

A long biography deserves a short afterword. Besides, I see little to add to the detailed descriptions and efforts at explanation of Lyndon Johnson's behavior. It may be, as Russell Baker said, that Johnson was "a human puzzle so complicated that nobody could ever understand it." But I think my two volumes bring us closer to some explanation of what drove this outsized man. Like the climber who ascends the mountain because it is there, knowing Johnson better can simply satisfy our curiosity. But his substantial impact on all our lives has made searching out his motives all the more compelling.

It may be that future biographers will have superior methods for deciphering a man of such uncommon ambition, capacity, and energy. But whether they do or not, it is difficult to believe that they will ever fully agree on how to assess this larger-than-life figure. There were enough surprises in what he did to rule out uncontested explanations of his actions. Johnson was one of those great success stories posing the question: Did he reach such great heights and ultimately fall so far because of or despite his inner demons?

More in order are a final few words about Johnson's antipoverty crusade, Great Society, and war in Vietnam. More than thirty years after LBJ's great assault on domestic problems, it is possible to make assessments of the many programs he put in place to change race relations, ease the suffering of underprivileged Americans, and improve the national quality of life. As the text of the book makes clear, Johnson had his hits and misses. Civil rights and voting rights corrected long-standing wrongs and opened the way to the rise of a larger, more affluent black middle class. Affirmative action, however, as developments in the late 1990s make clear, proved to be a disappointing method for solving racial tensions. Likewise, Medicare, Medicaid, urban renewal, aid to education, immigration reform, and safety and consumer regulations have their defenders and detractors.

Debates about the sort of social engineering Johnson sponsored will not disappear. Nevertheless, there is at least one side of Johnson's reformism that the great majority of Americans have embraced and seem unlikely to abandon for the foreseeable future. There is a striking analogy here between Johnson and FDR. Roosevelt's New Deal

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