Lyndon Johnson: Insights into a Complex Man ; Generous Yet Hateful, Big-Hearted Yet Profane, Lyndon Johnson Was among the Most Fascinating and Confounding of US Presidents

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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 sentence.

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 social justice.

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. …


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