An excellent introduction to the 36th President of the USA
Few figures in American history are as compelling and complex as Lyndon Baines Johnson, who established himself as the master of the US Senate in the 1950s and succeeded John F. Kennedy in the White House after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
Charles Peters, a keen observer of Washington politics for more than five decades, tells the story of Johnson’s presidency as the tale of an immensely talented politician driven by ambition and desire. As part of the Kennedy-Johnson administration from 1961 to 1968, Peters knew key players, including Johnson’s aides, giving him inside knowledge of the legislative wizardry that led to historic triumphs like the Voting Rights Act and the personal insecurities that led to the tragedy of Vietnam.
Peters’s experiences have given him unique insight into the poisonous rivalry between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, showing how their misunderstanding of each other exacerbated Johnson’s self-doubt and led him into the morass of Vietnam, which crippled his presidency and finally drove this larger-than-life man from the office that was his lifelong ambition.
From an early age, LBJ was exposed to politics. Growing up in a poor region of Texas, his father became a member of the Texas legislature. “As he grew older, Lyndon was fascinated by the political world in which his father dwelt.” Not only that, he found he had an aptitude for the world quickly: Peters reports that, when he accompanied his father to work, other members of the legislature saw LBJ as a “very bright and alert” observer of legislative wheeling and dealing.
Peters writes a good portrait of LBJ’s time as a teacher, illustrating the good he did at his school placement in Cotulla, Texas. Sure, he went to make money, but LBJ ended up doing a considerable amount of good, too, in a foreshadowing of the education bill that formed part of his ‘Great Society’ project.
LBJ, Washington & the Great Society
Peters is at his best when explaining and describing LBJ’s early Washington career: first as secretary to Representative Kleberg, and LBJ’s ferocious approach to networking, making many of the lasting connections and friendships that would help further his career later in life. After being fired by Kleberg, he was appointed as Texas Director of FDR’s National Youth Administration (FDR thought very highly of LBJ, and would assist the young, loyal politician on a number of occasions). In his position at the head of Texas’s NYA, Lyndon did a lot of good for the youths of the state – both white and black.
“As was often the case in his long public career, Johnson wasn’t just doing good; he was taking care of Lyndon”
His stint at the NYA led to first the House and then the Senate, where, following a strong early career and the 1954 mid-terms, he became Majority Leader. His desire to become president (and an example of his keen sense for public opinion) goes some way to explaining his break with segregationist southern colleagues and push for civil rights legislation. It was not solely on political calculations, however, that LBJ would push for more equality in American society – the portrait Peters paints is one of a man concerned for his fellow man, regardless of colour.
In keeping with Peters’s background and published material, the reader gets plenty of shrewd and intelligent commentary on the inner workings of Washington and what politicians need to do in order to continue their government careers (see the author’s excellent, if short, How Washington Works). From cultivating contacts and donors, a Congressman’s or Senator’s work never ends, and the author provides an interesting account of both the Washington of the times, as well as LBJ’s gift for negotiating the political currents and cultivation of contacts. For those who like to point out Republican ‘dodgy’ connections to such companies as KBR (a division of Halliburton), one should consider that one of Johnson’s biggest donors was Brown & Root, which would later become Kellogg, Brown & Root: KBR…
One exception to Johnson’s focus on doing only things that would further and benefit his career, was his long list of affairs – particularly that with Alice Glass, already the mistress of an important and influential backer who Johnson could not afford to alienate. LBJ is one of the presidents I didn’t know too much about before reading this – overshadowed as he is by JFK, but also because my preferred time to read about US history is pre-World War I. The extent of LBJ’s womanizing, not to mention Lady Bird’s acceptance of it (supposedly, because her father did, she thought it normal for a man with a wife to also have girlfriends), was surprising as, in this, he seems to have almost eclipsed JFK, despite his predecessor’s reputation as a most accomplished philanderer.
“For many Washington wives of the era, being at the centre of the action made it worth indulging considerable misbehaviour by the husbands.”
Peters writes about the impact LBJ’s workaholic lifestyle, coupled with his passion for heavy smoking and drinking, which led to a 1955 heart attack, cutting short his budding, early ambition for the presidency. Upon arrival at the Bethesda navy hospital, Peters reports, “the first thing he asked his doctor was if he would be able to smoke again.” When his doctor said he wouldn’t, LBJ supposedly said, “I’d rather have my pecker cut off.” Not very presidential, but in keeping with LBJ’s character. Luckily for Johnson, Eisenhower would suffer a more severe heart attack not too far in the future, which rekindled LBJ’s ambitions.
Yet another excellent element of the biography is Peters’s treatment of the difficult relations between the Kennedy and Johnson camp – especially following JFK’s assassination, and the tensions between the brash Bobby and everyone else. Peters shows how tensions were exacerbated after JFK’s assassination and Johnson’s move to the White House, with Bobby frequently snubbing LBJ, only to need him for support when the young Kennedy ran for a New York Senate seat.
Peters praises Johnson’s Great Society project, outlining in detail and well-presented narrative the legislative battles LBJ and his staff fought in order to get the Civil Rights Act and the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964, and Medicare, Immigration Act, Voting Rights Act in 1965 passed, building on passage of the flawed 1957 Civil Rights Act.
“If there was a failure of the Great Society, it was a failure to face underlying problems. Medicare, by doing nothing to reform the fee-for-service system, left in place a major contributor to the ever-escalating cost and inefficient delivery of health care. Johnson’s education bill failed to confront the issue of teacher quality, which only grew in importance as bright women found opportunity in other professions and as too many teacher-training institutions continued to resist improvement.”
Few people discussed such issues at the time, and many still don't today. The blame, Peters says, is not Johnson’s alone (he had to deal in and with the ingrained biases of the times he lived, after all), but “there can be no doubt that his Great Society, whatever its flaws, has done great good for this country.”
Vietnam & Other Foreign Adventures
Peters explains the “stark contrast between Johnson’s domestic record and the looming disaster in Vietnam” well, and asks some important questions – for example, why Johnson felt the need to escalate in Vietnam, even though it could only diminish the lustre of his considerable domestic civil rights successes? The treatment of the time is bleak: the escalation of operations and involvement in Vietnam, from “advisers” to the Tonkin resolution, to boots on the ground and Johnson’s correct prediction about “the military’s appetite for increasing number of troops” – the initial request for 3,000 troops rose to a request for 30,000 and an eventual deployment of 40,000 operating under limited parameters. As US military operations expanded to include actively attacking the Viet Cong, LBJ and his staff encountered increasing problems from those they were trying to ‘protect’; especially the ever-changing South Vietnamese leadership – as Johnson complained,
“I don’t see how you can fight a war under the direction of people whose government changes every month.”
The result was that Johnson’s team seemed to make a unanimous, if unspoken, decision to ignore – at least in part – the government of South Vietnam. This is not entirely surprising, considering how corrupt it was, and how American aid destined to help the South Vietnamese too often found its way into the pockets of the mandarins at the top.
Equally worrying to the administration, was the lack of intelligence with which they could wage a proper war. Peters characterises the response to this as “yes, we can fight in Asian rice paddies and jungles without accurate intelligence” – an arrogant assumption on the part of the US leadership. It’s interesting that the US went ahead with combat operations, even though there was plenty of warning against doing so – from General MacArthur’s warning to McGeorge Bundy’s repetition and expansion of these warnings. It seems that Robert McNamara, one key hold-over from the JFK administration, as Secretary of Defence, was the main hawk to push for war, with a hubristic approach to US capabilities.
Most of the facts and events of the Vietnam are known to history enthusiasts (and, if not, are readily available almost everywhere), so there is not much benefit to go into them again, here. There are a couple of things that this biography brought to my attention, which I had not previously been aware of (again, I must remind you that I am not as familiar with Johnson as earlier or post-Cold War presidents). Most specifically, what struck me was how accurate some of the opponents to escalation in Vietnam were. Senator Mike Mansfield, for example, warned that “escalation begets escalation”; while Under Secretary of State (1961-8) George Ball, made the following case to Johnson:
“We cannot win, Mr. President. The war will be long and protracted. The most we can hope for is a messy conclusion… then we will suffer because the world’s greatest power cannot defeat guerillas… I truly have serious doubts that an army of Westerners can successfully fight Orientals in the Asian jungle. I think a long, protracted war will disclose our weaknesses, not out strength…”
Peters also offers a quick-fire account of Johnson’s short and relatively successful intervention in the Dominican Republic; and also explains the peculiar benefit Johnson received from Israel’s 1967 pre-emptive strikes against Egypt, Jordan and Syria – all of which had been planning to attack.
Johnson seems to have not had the courage of his convictions when it came to foreign policy. He would lie, obfuscate and/or omit important information, and even make announcements at “a time of day when the audience would be at a minimum”. The image one takes away from this chapter (“8. Escalation”) is that of a “tormented” president, unsure of himself, “haunted by the possibility that each step he was taking could lead to a tragic end” (his concern for the troops he was sending to Asia was genuine, by all accounts), sure that history would look back and judge him and his presidency poorly. It doesn’t help that he ultimately chose wrong, his misguided choices about Vietnam often overshadowing his very real accomplishments in the domestic arena.
The Cultural Revolution
Peters offers an interesting take on the cultural revolution that was sweeping the nation in the 1960s, and its effect on support for the war (he starts with an amusing hypothetical of an extremely put-upon government official coming home after work). Indeed, the author reports, even such establishment hawks as Robert McNamara were not immune to the movement, as his son and daughter helped plant the seed of doubt about Vietnam, leading him to question the war more and more.
This was also the time when television played a big part in weakening support for the ongoing war efforts; the initial, revolutionary era of war reporting (taken to the next level by the rise of the “CNN Effect” and the Gulf War).
Peters makes an interesting observation at the end of the book, about Johnson’s continued support for action in Vietnam, one that should colour one’s opinion of LBJ’s decisions:
“During all but the final year of his presidency, his Vietnam policy enjoyed the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress and most of the people as reflected in public opinion polls. In other words, the country as a whole was complicit in the decisions that led to the tragedy – as were… all but one (George Ball) of the national security advisers Johnson had inherited from Kennedy.”
The Twilight Years
On March 31, 1968, in the wake of growing opposition to the war in Vietnam (from all quarters, including his own family), Johnson included the following words in an address to the nation:
“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
These words may have improved Johnson’s standing among the population, but it was quickly overshadowed by the April 4th assassination of Martin Luther King, Jnr, and subsequent race riots throughout the United States. Johnson reluctantly sent in the troops, with unloaded weapons, in a successful hope that the display of force would quell the furore. Then, on June 4th, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, leaving a stunned nation.
A muddled Democratic primary season, and a revitalised Richard Nixon spelled doom for the Democratic Party in the presidential election of 1962, despite a valiant effort from LBJ to raise Hubert Humphrey in the polls.
Out of office, Johnson slipped into depression (not unlike that he suffered after his heart attack), but found solace in running his ranch and working with Doris Kearns on his presidential memoir. He continued to support Nixon on Vietnam, much to liberal distaste.
Nearing his death, however, Johnson began to wish he had done more for civil rights in the US. At a symposium at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas (which he had personally overseen and was “immensely proud of”), he said he was “ashamed” for not having done more. Peters sees it differently, stating simply that,
“he was wrong to be ashamed. He had done more for African Americans and the cause of civil rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln… Of all our presidents, only Franklin Roosevelt can match Johnson’s legislative record.”
In all, this is a brilliant biography of America’s 36th President. With detailed and accessible accounts of the major events, policies and goals of Johnson’s life and administration, I can’t think of a better introduction for a newcomer to the subject. As someone interested in the people who make events, as much as (if not more than) the events themselves, I found Peters’s portrait of Lyndon Johnson to be fair and balanced, both sympathetic and disapproving.
The author is especially disapproving when discussing Johnson’s sometimes “disgusting” and despicable behaviour – see chapter 9, in particular, for some surprising revelations of his character and what he put his staff through. To use Joseph Califano’s words, Johnson was “caring and crude, generous and petulant, bluntly honest, and calculatingly devious.” George Reedy described him as “magnificent and inspiring” as well as “a bully, sadist, lout, and egoist.” Johnson, it seems, was a president able to inspire both love and loathing – inspiring and obnoxious, all at once. “The repeated public humiliation he heaped on those who loyally served him is hard to forgive.” But, Peters says, LBJ has to be accepted, “warts and all”, to understand the man more fully, and the decisions that shaped his life and presidency.
Peters is a great writer, and this slim volume should therefore be of interest both scholars and interested citizens alike. This biography is another excellent addition to this series, and will enhance anyone’s understanding of such a difficult and contentious presidency. Peters has done a great service to expanding the study of the Presidents, with a volume that will appeal to a wide audience, without compromising on quality or scholarship.
Highly recommended, expertly written.
Also try: Robert Dallek, Lyndon B Johnson: Portrait of a President (2005) & Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-73 (1998); Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1991); Steven Gillon, The Kennedy Assassination 24 Hours After (2009); Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy and the Feud that Defined a Decade (1998)
There are now 33 volumes published in this series, with (according to Macmillan’s website) 400,000 copies in print. The next two to be published, Jimmy Carter (by Julian E Zelizer) and Andrew Johnson (by Annette Gordon-Reed) will be published in September and November, respectively (although, the latter has been frequently delayed).