Author's `Giant' Task

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Local historian Robert Dallek has written about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Flawed Giant," the second of his two volumes about Lyndon B. Johnson, came out in April. His next project is on John F. Kennedy.

So Mr. Dallek is used to hearing the question, "Does adultery matter?"

"Well, my wife thinks so," is his standard reply.

The question recently was raised to Mr. Dallek at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas - with LBJ's 85-year-old widow, Lady Bird, seated next to him.

"Afterward, at the dinner, Mrs. Johnson leaned over and said, `Well, professor, I sure did like your wife's answer,' " Mr. Dallek says. "What it speaks to is how stunned she was by his womanizing."

Still, the public seems to thrive on such titillating information. That makes the historian's task all the more complicated for Mr. Dallek, who lives in Northwest but teaches history at Boston University.

He also has written about Ronald Reagan as well as composed an overview of the presidency titled "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents."

"In the 20th century, particularly the post-World War II era, [the presidency] has become the center of American political life," he says. "This is where the power has been. It's shifted about in recent years: There has been a succession of one-term presidents who found it very difficult to assert themselves effectively.

"That's a kind of inevitable reaction against the imperial presidency."

LBJ apparently is the ultimate symbol of that view of the White House. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Califano and Robert Caro have all taken varied cracks at LBJ.

With his first volume, 1991's "Lone Star Rising," and his 628-page "Flawed Giant," Mr. Dallek wanted to provide a more balanced view of LBJ's blemishes and ideals.

"Dallek is reflective, one of the most balanced historians," says University of Texas professor Paul Henggler, who wrote "Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Mystique."

"Starting with `Lone Star Rising,' it's about time that we have started to understand the political environment in which Lyndon Johnson was operating and his unique set of challenges," Mr. Henggler adds.

Because a modern politico is so fresh in people's minds, a biographer can affect his place in history - at least for a while, Mr. Dallek says.

"Presidential ratings are sort of like a fever chart or Wall Street," he says, starting to giggle. "But you know, after a certain period of time, presidential images do get fixed in place."

He starts to chuckle. "After all, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur are not going to make a comeback!"

More recent presidents, from Harry S. Truman on, he says, will "bounce around" in their standings. LBJ placed No. 7 out of the 17 presidents of this century in the April 13 issue of Time magazine. (Mr. Dallek was among nine historians polled.)

"He's actually come back up," Mr. Dallek says. "I think his upward movement has to do with the feeling in this country that we don't have strong leadership. . . . And whatever his flaws - and they were abundant - he's remembered as a strong leader."

The polls, Mr. Dallek adds, are mercurial anyway.

"Ten years from now, let's say liberalism is back in the saddle." He pauses. "I'm not saying it will happen, but it could," he continues, almost defensively. "Then Johnson will have a kind of revival."

He adds that Great Society programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, immigration reform and Head Start and other federal initiatives to improve education aren't going away anytime soon. …