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

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

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

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


Lone Star Rising, the first volume in Robert Dallek's biography of LBJ, was hailed as "a triumphant portrait of Lyndon Johnson as rich and oversized and complex as the nation that shaped him." Now, in the final volume, Dallek takes us through Johnson's tumultuous years in the White House, his unprecedented accomplishments there, and the tragic war that would be his downfall. In these pages Johnson emerges as a character of almost Shakespearean dimensions, a man riddled with contradictions, 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." Drawing on hundreds of newly released tapes and extensive interviews with those closest to LBJ--including fresh insights from Ladybird and his press secretary Bill Moyers--Dallek takes us behind the scenes to give us a portrait of Johnson that is at once even-handed and completely engrossing. 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, environmental protection, and the establishment of the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities to the most significant advances in civil rights for black Americans ever achieved. And we see for the first time the depth of Johnson's private anguish as he became increasingly ensnared in Vietnam, a war he did not want to expand and which destroyed his hopes for The Great Society and a second term. Exhaustively researched and gracefully written, Flawed Giant reveals both the greatness and the tangled complexities of one of the most extravagant characters ever to step onto the presidential stage.


Like Lyndon Johnson's contemporaries, historians disagree about his presidential standing. A 1996 assessment of his White House record by thirty-two scholars was notable for its differences: fifteen historians saw him as a near great President; twelve thought him only average; and five described him as either below average or a failure.

I wish this second volume on LBJ's life, which principally focuses on his presidency, more clearly defined his place in history. But it doesn't. His contradictions--flaws and virtues, successes and failures--are on full display and will both enhance and detract from his historical reputation.

More important than the book's impact on Johnson's presidential ranking is its contribution to our understanding of the man and his actions. Presidential standing, especially of recent Presidents, is subject to constant change; explanation has a more enduring influence.

As in his pre-presidential career, Johnson was an outsized character who did his utmost to hide his intentions. Believing that understanding was power and that uncertainty about his views shielded him from opposition, he worked to baffle his contemporaries. He remembered FDR's comment to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.: "You are my right hand, but I always keep my left hand under the table."

Unpredictability was a political weapon. Occasionally, when reporters got advanced word on a presidential appointment, Johnson would name someone else to throw the press off-balance. Trip itineraries were kept from journalists until the last possible minute and changes along the way were commonplace. Task force reports describing domestic problems and remedies were "state secrets"; premature revelations of presidential intentions were "impediments" to the Great Society.

Outlandish comments and behavior were other parts of Johnson's political calculations. Urinating in a sink, inviting people into the bathroom, showing off a scar, exposing his private parts--after a while nothing surprises the biographer. For Johnson, they were meant to shock and confuse and leave him in control.

Johnson was an actor, a role player who in turn could be courtly . . .

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