Lyndon B. Johnson
This biography of LBJ is the latest in the well-received American Presidents Series.
In 1964 and 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson overhauled civil rights, voting rights, immigration, education funding, and health care for the elderly. Indeed, as Charles Peters points out in Lyndon B. Johnson, his slim but detailed new biography of the 36th president, Johnson cajoled, prodded, pleaded, and bullied his way into the most sweeping run of liberal legislation since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s ironic, then, that Johnson’s longtime rival, Robert Kennedy, considered LBJ to be a conservative.Skip to next paragraph
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The great dilemma of Johnson’s 1-1/2 terms in office is his dreadful foreign policy, a counterbalance heavy enough to supersede his domestic accomplishments, at least in the earliest assessments of LBJ’s presidency. More than four decades after he left the White House, Johnson’s Vietnam quagmire remains a major focal point for any reasonable analysis of his tenure.
But, as Peters writes, LBJ has come to be regarded as a better-than-average president in the longer historical perspective. He doesn’t share the rarefied status of FDR, Lincoln, and Washington, to be sure, but he seems to be a good fit in the next tier alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Peters sees plenty of similarity between Jackson and Johnson: each man could be considered crude, each came from humble origins, and both had their greatest accomplishments eclipsed at the time they were in office by grave, haunting decisions (Vietnam for Johnson and the Trail of Tears for Jackson).
It’s worth remembering the John Kenneth Galbraith comment (as Peters does) on assessing LBJ’s greatness without the onus of Vietnam: “That’s like saying Switzerland would be a flat country without the Alps.”
The Johnson biography is the latest in the well-received American Presidents Series, first edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and now presided over by Sean Wilentz. These compact volumes run a couple of hundred pages and lend insight to the careers of those who may have neglected, in LBJ’s case for example, the mammoth, multivolume biographies written by Robert Caro and Robert Dallek in recent decades.
Peters, the founder of Washington Monthly and a former worker on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, offers a fair portrait blending insider and historical perspectives.