In little more than five years, Lyndon Baines Johnson probably
did more to reform and repair American society than anyone else in
history. Yet, instead of being memorialized as a hero, LBJ is more
often remembered as a slimy manipulator whose good intentions were
sunk in the quagmire of a needless war.
But as LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, an outstanding new
biography by Randall B. Woods, reminds us, the career and legacy of
this extraordinarily complex Texan can hardly be summarized in a
By turns profane and big-hearted, hateful and generous, wily and
paranoid, strong and frail, LBJ faced immense pressure from within
and without. Often an outsider, ever on edge, he was one of the most
fascinating men to ever live in the White House.
This brick of a book - topping out at 1,007 pages - may be a hard
sell. Its heft and intense detail prevent it from being a page-
turner, and historians Robert Caro and Robert Dallek have already
tackled LBJ's life in masterly biographies of their own. (Mr. Caro'
s remarkable four-volume set isn't even finished.)
But the savvy Mr. Woods belongs in their company, thanks to his
ability to blend history, politics, and human nature into a coherent
and cohesive whole.
In "LBJ," Mr. Johnson comes across as an eternal seeker driven by
two sometimes-conflicting goals - gaining respect and attaining
His commitment started early. As a teacher at the age of 20, LBJ
fought for the rights of Mexican students to receive a proper
education, forcing colleagues to treat them fairly and without
prejudice. Johnson "would use the ideals that underlay the system to
defeat the flaws that threatened to corrupt it," Woods writes. "It
would become a pattern."
Indeed, Johnson eventually rammed civil rights bills through
Congress by appealing to American and even Southern values; it's a
myth that the Great Society legislation waltzed through on the
coattails of JFK's martyrdom.
But LBJ's dreams of the demise of poverty faltered as the civil
rights movement fractured and a faraway war grew larger. Through it
all, his career-long commitment to "conciliation and cooperation"
instead of conflict was severely tested.
Today, some on the left accuse LBJ of dragging the country into
an inhumane war in Vietnam, while some on the right think he failed
by tying one hand behind the military's back. Woods reminds readers
that these two competing views had already hardened into conflict
before Johnson assumed the presidency, thrusting him immediately
onto the horns of a political dilemma. …