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