Saturday, August 14, 2010


A review of Irwin and Debi Unger’s LBJ: A Life (1999)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Irwin and Debi Usher wrote this book about our thirty-sixth president. They tell the tale of a man who would spend a life in politics fighting for the poor and underprivileged, yet would involve the nation is one of the bloodiest and stupidest wars in its history. The late Tim Russert once described him as the victor of a thousand battles who was ultimately beaten in the end. The story of Lyndon B. Johnson is one of tragedy and triumph.

Johnson was born in 1908, the year William H. Taft was elected president, his grandfather and father; both named Sam Johnson, were fighters for the common people. The Ushers tell a story of a Lyndon Johnson who followed his father's career in the state legislature very closely, watching him do politics and fight for benefits for the common people. In some ways, the reason why Johnson would go off to Washington so early in his career, is he had already experienced a career in Austin by being so close to his father.

(Campaign poster for young Lyndon Johnson)

Johnson would first go to the U.S. Congress as a congressional aide before winning his own seat in 1936. Johnson was a very eager young new dealer, the tall skinny Congressman from Texas was on very good terms with the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR would refer to Johnson as 'his boy' in Texas. His time in Congress was interrupted by World War II. LBJ would serve as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy.

(President Roosevelt was an important patron for young Congressman Johnson)

(Johnson family, all LBJs)

In 1948 he would fulfill a prophecy his grandfather made when he was born, that he would be a U.S. Senator. Johnson would take to the Senate like a fish to water. In only two years, he convinced his colleagues in the Democratic caucus, after the massive defeat in the 1952 presidential election that saw the Democrats lose of the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time in twenty years, to make him the new minority leader. Two years later, he had the Democrats back in the majority and for the first (and only) time in the history of the U.S. Senate the body had a ruler. Johnson would be the master of the Senate, whatever came out of that body during the next six years had to have Johnson's approval, and if it did not it was dead on arrival.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a little accomplished senator from the state of Massachusetts, shocked the world by winning the presidential nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. Johnson would end up joining the ticket, to the horror of Bobby Kennedy, and was probably the most important pick a presidential candidate had ever made in regards to a running mate and was crucial to Kennedy's narrow victory over Richard Nixon.

“When it came to Congress he felt like a powerless outsider among the people he had once so successfully dominated. And he could barely bring himself to help Kennedy in the legislative area, where his services would have been most appreciated. 'Johnson pulled back...after that caucus,' related a Kennedy aide. 'He hadn't expected it, and it made him reluctant to approach senators.' At the weekly White House breakfast meetings for legislative leaders, Johnson was uncharacteristically silent. He looked tired and tense, giving his opinion only when specifically asked by Kennedy to offer one, usually mumbling his answers.” p.261

(Johnson was unhappy under President Kennedy)

Johnson was miserable as vice president; he was not a Kennedy insider and was not close to those who were. He was no longer allowed in the Senate caucus and was at times utterly miserable. Johnson and President Kennedy got along enough but Johnson was at a career low. In Dallas, on November 22, 1963, while campaigning, the President of the United States was assassinated in front the nation on live television. On Air Force One, Johnson was sworn in as the new president. Assuming the role of mourner-in-chief, Johnson led a grieving nation. With the martyr ghost of JFK at his side Johnson would get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. The Republicans would nominate the extreme Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Johnson would slaughter him in the biggest landslide elections in our nation's history.

(Sworn in on Air Force One)

“There were still pestiferous amendments to get out the way, 115 in all. All told there were 106 Senate roll-call votes on the bill. It was clear that the real battle was over, however, when at one point, Richard Russell was speaking and Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy cut him off, telling him his time was up. Dick Russell had never been treated so rudely before. As Russell took his seat, he had tears in his eyes. Finally, Dirksen came up with a 'revised' bill, one that almost a duplicate of the strong measure the House had passed in February. The one proviso that diluted the bill somewhat was the 'Mrs. Murphy's clause,' exempting from nondiscrimination provisions boardinghouses with no more than five rooms to rent. Nine days after cloture was invoked, the Dirksen bill passed the Senate, 73 to 27. On July 2 Johnson signed into law the most comprehensive civil rights act in the nation's history.” p.311

(Johnson as President)

Johnson would unveil his 'Great Society' programs in a revival of New Deal polices that would see the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Johnson's programs would become as important as Roosevelt's New Deal reforms in the 1930s. However as the war in Vietnam escalated, Johnson sent more and more troops in, feeling that doing anything else was appeasement. Facing a hostile right and an increasingly dissatisfied left—that had very little appreciation for what had been accomplished but was really concerned about what had not. Race riots that were occurring that became worse after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that June killed the hopes of the Democratic Party in the election of 1968.

“In truth, his advisers' views did not entirely conflict with Johnson's own inclinations. The president's understanding of twentieth-century history, especially the abysmal appeasement chapter of Munich, would not allow him to surrender part of the Free World to Communist subversion without a fight. Shortly after the Ann Arbor speech, Johnson discussed American policy in Southeast Asia at a news conference. In Vietnam, he said, he would be guided by four principals: One, 'American keeps her word.' Two, 'The issue is the future of Southeast Asia as a whole.' Three, 'Our purpose is peace.' Four, 'This is not a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity.'” p.319

(The President and First Lady)

Johnson having already declined to run for another full term sat back and watched his vice president, Hubert Humphrey; lose the presidency to Richard M. Nixon. On January 20, 1969, Johnson was replaced as president by the man who he had replaced as vice president eight years earlier. Johnson entered his post-presidency extremely unpopular; he went back to Texas to work on his ranch. He watched the party he loved make the serious mistake of nominating George McGovern, who was beaten nearly as badly in 1972 as Goldwater was in 1964.

(The death of Robert Kennedy made Nixon's win that much easier)

Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973 had he served another term as president then he would have lived only two days after the term ended. I highly recommend this book about President Johnson; the Ungers do an incredible job telling the story of a complicated president.

{Videos taken from YouTube were produced by the University of Virginia}

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