LYNDON B. JOHNSON: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS SERIES: THE 36TH PRESIDENT, 1963-1969
By Charles Peters
Times Books, $23, 224 pages
Whether you like him or loathe him, it is nearly impossible not to have an opinion about Lyndon B. Johnson. He was a ruthless and skilled politician, yet he was also a president whose domestic legislative achievements were equaled only by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And Charles Peters contends that LBJ’s tragic epitaph, written in the failure of that faraway war in Vietnam “came down to the fact that Johnson could not bear to lose.”
“He was wrong. Yet what he did was understandable for a man reared on the legend of the Alamo,” writes Mr. Peters, who emphasizes that Johnson was a product of what has often been dubbed the bloody battleground of Texas politics. It may also be argued that Texans tend to be a law unto themselves.
Johnson’s personal life reflected that philosophy. He was accused of infidelity to his wife, appalling personal crudeness, the ability to pounce and intimidate when he sensed weakness and a capacity for cruelty to those vulnerable to the power he wielded with such relish. Those accusations were accurate and Mr. Peters acknowledges the weaknesses and strengths of his subject without being obsessive about it.
Like his beloved state, LBJ was larger than life and frequently outrageous, but he was also by far one of the more fascinating figures for almost four decades on the American political scene. Nobody ever said he was boring. A point driven home in Mr. Peters’ slim yet perceptive biography is how much of Johnson’s political success was based on his skill at tough negotiation with friends and allies alike. It was an art he learned between the ages of 10 and 16, a fascinated witness to paternal campaigning as Sam Johnson ran for a second tour in the Texas legislature. His son became an avid observer of legislative wheeling and dealing, which he used to good effect when he came to Washington in 1931 to work as staff director for wealthy Texas congressman Richard Kleberg.
That was the beginning of Johnson’s ascension to political power and he had no hesitation about using every powerful figure with whom he could ingratiate himself. And he was always a negotiator, once arguing against the delay of his Medicare bill by urging Democratic Speaker John McCormack, “Don’t let dead cats stand on your porch.” That drive for negotiating solutions, according to this biographer, contributed to the collapse of Johnson’s policy in Vietnam when he could not negotiate with the North Vietnamese.
“Given that he had no one to negotiate with, Johnson’s only alternative was to give up. And that he could not do. … He so identified with the [Alamo] legend that he even falsely claimed one of his ancestors had died there with the other heroes. Nothing was more important to Johnson than being seen as courageous,” Mr. Powers writes. In the current political era, which is scarred by bitter partisanship, when most elections have become name-calling, childish brawls lacking any understanding of public needs, Mr. Peters’ book is a reminder of times when problems were fought out by politicians who were not crippled by ideology and ignorance.
Mr. Peters, a veteran political operative who worked for President Kennedy, and founded the Washington Monthly, is admirably qualified to tell the story of Johnson and he does so with a measure of balance that most chroniclers of the Texan rarely achieve. He notes that Johnson’s formidable strengths were weakened by personal insecurity, especially when it came to the Kennedy family. His resentment of their much vaunted social sophistication and wit ran deep, demonstrated by his bitter observation that his ancestors in Texas were teachers and lawyers and college presidents “when the Kennedys in this country were still tending bar.”
Yet the Johnson presidency was haunted by the ghost of dead Kennedys and ultimately poisoned by the Vietnam War. He had to cope with what amounted to a public canonization of the dead President Kennedy, rumors of his own involvement in an assassination conspiracy and the bitter hostility of Robert F. Kennedy.
Mr. Peters suggests that Johnson’s 1964 launching of his War on Poverty and driving through the Civil Rights Act reflected the president’s “sincere moral convictions” about civil rights. But Johnson as a pragmatist also told a confidant that while he knew the political risks of his civil rights bill, he had to produce legislation that was stronger than anything his predecessor would have achieved, had he lived. And he predicted accurately to aide Bill Moyers that the end of segregation would lead to a Republican ascendancy in the South.
Yet in the midst of Johnson’s year of political triumph the seeds of disaster were being sewn in Vietnam. Foreign policy was not one of Johnson’s strengths and as it was proved, too late, his advice on the war from strategists led by Robert McNamara, who was President Kennedy’s secretary of defense, was deeply flawed. By 1968, the nation was split on Vietnam, Johnson’s approval ratings had plunged and Sen. Eugene McCarthy was leading a presidential peace campaign through the snows of New Hampshire.
That was when Johnson “decided to take a dramatic step to demonstrate his selfless desire for peace and incidentally spare himself the humiliation of defeat in the primaries.” He announced he would not run for re-election.
Not even Johnson’s political prescience could have foreseen that almost immediately his gesture would be overwhelmed by the assassination of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and that the doors of the White House were at last opened to Richard M. Nixon.
Mr. Powers asserts that when Johnson died at his ranch in 1973, there was little grief among most Americans. “They did not love him. Most thought he was a crude politician without the wit or grace of John F. Kennedy or the passion for social justice of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King who had inspired the nation with their speeches.”
Yet Mr. Powers adds that as the years passed, history “has gradually taken a kinder view” of Johnson, taking into account his formidable domestic record and making it likely he may ultimately be ranked just below the top tier of presidents occupied by Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
In the end, observes the biographer, those who knew Johnson well admitted he was the kind of man whom you just had to accept, “warts and all.”
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.