Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President

Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President

Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President

Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President


Robert Dallek's brilliant two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson has received an avalanche of praise. Michael Beschloss, in The Los Angeles Times, said that it "succeeds brilliantly." The New York Times called it "rock solid" and The Washington Post hailed it as "invaluable." And Sidney Blumenthal in The Boston Globe wrote that it was "dense with astonishing incidents." Now Dallek has condensed his two-volume masterpiece into what is surely the finest one-volume biography of Johnson available. Based on years of research in over 450 manuscript collections and oral histories, as well as numerous personal interviews, this biography follows Johnson, the "human dynamo," from the Texas hill country to the White House. We see LBJ, in the House and the Senate, whirl his way through sixteen- and eighteen-hour days, talking, urging, demanding, reaching for influence and power, in an uncommonly successful congressional career. Then, in the White House, we see Johnson as the visionary leader who worked his will on Congress like no president before or since, enacting a range of crucial legislation, from Medicare and environmental protection to the most significant advances in civil rights for black Americans ever achieved. And we see the depth of Johnson's private anguish as he became increasingly ensnared in Vietnam. In these pages Johnson emerges as a man of towering intensity and anguished insecurity, of grandiose ambition and grave self-doubt, a man who was brilliant, crude, intimidating, compassionate, overbearing, driven: "A tornado in pants." Gracefully written and delicately balanced, this singular biography reveals both the greatness and the tangled complexities of one of the most extravagant characters ever to step onto the presidential stage.


This relatively brief book is an abridgment of my two-volume life of Lyndon B. Johnson, published in 1991, Lone Star Rising, and in 1998, Flawed Giant. It is not a revision of those studies but an attempt to bring them within the reach of a wider audience, especially students, that has neither the time nor the inclination to read more than 1,200 pages on Johnson's life and times.

While preparing this condensed history, I had an opportunity to think anew about this extraordinary man and reconsider his impact on the national well-being. Controversies about Johnson's presidency, which remained relatively intense when I published the first volume twenty years after he had left office, have now, fifteen years later, subsided. Arguments over principal Great Society programs such as civil rights, MedicareMedicaid, and federal aid to education have all but disappeared. Debate remains over how best to manage racial equality of treatment, to fund health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor, and to use federal monies to improve instruction and learning in the schools. But only a very small number of die-hard critics would suggest abolishing these social reforms.

Likewise, Johnson's great foreign policy failure, Vietnam, has become more an object of historical curiosity and an analog for what not to do in an overseas conflict than an ongoing source of angry debate. The defeat of Soviet communism and a search for foreign policies that can effectively meet the challenges of a post–Cold War world—above all the threat of Islamic terrorism since September 11, 2001—have eclipsed lingering resentments toward Johnson's unsuccessful fight to preserve South Vietnam from a Communist takeover.

The ebbing of the controversies might have pushed Johnson to the back of our historical consciousness. But to the contrary, he remains a largerthan-life figure whose political career continues to have current significance. His conscious effort to bring the South into the mainstream of the . . .

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