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Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President
Robert Dallek
New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
$30.00, 396 pages, 0195159209.

Sergio Saruano
Long Beach, California

If you are a history scholar, this book is probably not for you. Robert Dallek does not go into an extensive analytical view of Johnson’s life and career, instead the book takes more of a brief narrative approach to the man who came from a poor farm in Gillespie County, Texas to become commander in chief of the United States of America. In other words, the book is more “general-reader-friendly.” It is easily comparable to some classical rags-to-riches tales. A man who started with nothing and worked his way to the top battling his inner self, which depending on your perspective, brushed a bit of tarnish on an otherwise brilliant career. The author himself states in the preface:

This relatively brief book is an abridgment of my two-volume life of Lyndon B. Johnson, published in 1991, Lone Star Rising, and in 1998, Flawed Giant. It is not a revision of those studies but an attempt to bring them within the reach of a wider audience, especially students, that has neither the time nor the inclination to read more than 1200 pages on Johnson’s life and times. [p. ix]

Those two books go into further detail, chronicling the rise and fall of such an enigmatic icon of that turbulent period in modern American history—the 1960s. I do not think it is really possible to cram Johnson’s career in Congress, Vice President, President, his instrumental part in passing Great Society laws such as Civil Rights, Voting Rights, as well as his part in Vietnam and the Cold War and other historical events into a modest 396 pages.

The book is worth reading, however; Dallek succinctly covers in brief synopses all the significant events in Johnson’s career. He describes Johnson’s parents as well as his childhood. He evokes Johnson’s days as an aimless teenager in California; eventually relenting to his parents’ pressure to go to college and becoming a teacher at a Mexican-American grade school in poverty-stricken Cotulla, Texas, where he was moved by the plight of the people (from both sides of the border). Dallek goes on to recount Johnson taking a job as secretary to Congressman Kleber in Washington D.C. in November 1931. A job that eventually led him to become a principal player in a civil war of American consciousness, where old and new ideas clashed with lasting repercussions and left many causalities, including Johnson’s place in history (LBJ being seen as a hero or a villain depending on perspective).

Dallek does not confine himself to describing Johnson’s political career. He makes a conscientious attempt to give the reader a picture of Johnson as a human being as well. However, the reader might feel that Dallek fell a little short of the mark, which is not to say that what glimpses of Johnson the man the reader does get are not effective. Again, it is extremely difficult to portray Johnson the human being and Johnson the politician in only 396 pages. The author does manage to portray Johnson as an advocate for people who were living in America but left out of the American Dream. Dallek writes:

The twenty-eight boys and girls in Lyndon’s combined class left an indelible impression on him. He remembered youngsters “mired in the slums […] lashed by prejudice [and] buried half alive in illiteracy.” The wretched condition of his students struck a sympathetic chord in Lyndon. Where the other five teachers in the school, all local women from the influential families in the town, kept their distance from the children, doing the minimum required in their jobs, Lyndon threw himself into the work with unbound energy. He would arrive before everyone else in the morning and be the last to leave in the evening. [p. 16]

This theme comes up repeatedly as a motivating factor for Johnson to seek higher office. The reader cannot help but feel that Johnson, whatever is thought of him as a politician, had a genuine desire to help people. To be able to accomplish the types of reforms he wanted, Johnson had to maneuver through the realities of Southern politics that were only a generation or two removed from the American Civil War. Dallek writes:

Doris Kearns says that Johnson “shaped a composite mental portrait of every Senator: his strengths and his weaknesses; his place in the political spectrum; his aspirations in the Senate, and perhaps beyond the Senate; how far he could be pushed in what direction, and by what means; how he liked his liquor; how he felt about his wife and his family, and, most important, how he felt about himself.” Johnson told Kearns: “When you’re dealing with all those Senators—the good ones and the crazies, the hard workers and the lazies, the smart ones and the mediocres—you’ve got to know two things right away. You’ve got to understand the beliefs and values common to all of them as politicians, the desire for fame and the thirst for honor, and then you’ve got to understand the emotion most controlling that particular Senator when he thinks about this particular issue.” [pp. 88-89]

Dallek successfully illustrates how Johnson was able to use this insight to advance his agenda. It was this insight that was instrumental in making Johnson a successful politician, and a genuine political leader. However, it also highlights the fact that such political insight is a two-edged sword and its use is not always altruistic. Furthermore, Johnson’s dogged will to get done what he wanted done in the political arena occasionally led him to cross the line of ethics.

Dallek gives the reader a glimpse of the playing fields of American politics, which unfortunately has not changed much since the 1930s. Graft and backroom deals continue to cast an ugly shadow on the machinery of American free democracy. For example, there are some familiar characters that to this day continue to make themselves known, such as the Kellogg, Brown & Root Company which is a subsidy of Vice President’s Dick Cheney’s former employer Halliburton. That company has been accused of overcharging the Pentagon for constructing a pipeline in Iraq and a myriad of other services in a 3 billion dollar no bid contract, which coincidently paid Cheney a modest 20 million dollars when he left the company as CEO to become Bush’s Vice President in 2000. According to Dallek, that company started its shenanigans in the 1930s. He writes:

According to a 1944 Internal Revenue Service report another $19,600 in phony attorney’s fees, some of them from Victoria Gravel Company, a Brown and Root subsidy, ran “from the taxpayer to the Johnson Campaign Fund.” [p. 46]

Johnson knew the game and he played it. Some would say he played it well, again it all depends on your perspective. Johnson was notorious for doing whatever it took to reach his goals. For example when he ran against Coke Stevenson for the Senate in 1948; Dallek states:

The Johnson camp, seeing itself as “fighting fire with fire,” put Johnson in the lead when the official returns came in to the state Democratic Executive Committee in Austin on September 3 and 4. The “corrected” returns on September 3 reduced Steven’s total by 205 votes and increased Johnson’s by 174, giving him a 17 vote lead.” [p. 66]

On occasions, Dallek paints unflattering pictures of Johnson’s personality, summoning up his enormous ego, for instance, and the sensitive self-esteem that would lead to some tense moments of anger and frustration. Johnson’s single-mindedness on an issue sometimes brought on acts in the heat of the moment that were somewhat less than Presidential. Dallek writes:

But Johnson found it difficult to sustain his rationality in dealing with war critics. During a private conversation with some reporter who pressed him to explain why we were in Vietnam, Johnson lost his patience. According to Arthur Goldberg, “LBJ unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ and declared, “This is why!” [p. 315]

All in all, Dallek succeeds in providing a balanced interpretation of Johnson’s better and worse moments. Those, when combined, help adjust the lens into better focus, thus giving the reader a rather clear picture of who Johnson was as a person and a politician. Again, Dallek’s book is “general” and not exhaustive. For a more thorough examination of President Johnson one should read the afore-mentioned Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant.



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