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Lyndon B. Johnson

This biography of LBJ is the latest in the well-received American Presidents Series.

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Johnson’s boyhood, in retrospect, was the perfect training ground for a future liberal legislator who believed in using government to lift up the poor and disenfranchised. Those motives, of course, never precluded personal gain and the accumulation of more and more political power.

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Sam Johnson was a rural farmer and former legislator whose Austin connections allowed young Lyndon to run around the halls of the state capitol, collecting gossip and political acumen. LBJ’s mother graduated from Baylor University and was known to be stern, domineering, and snobby. From his father, Lyndon inherited alcoholism and a loathing of racial prejudice; from his mother, among other things, he learned to freeze out anyone who disappointed him in the least.

By the time he reached college at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, Johnson had figured out flattery would get him everywhere. Soon enough, it did.

Johnson worked for the college president and never failed to dish out extensive, and excessive, praise. Soon enough, he had become an indispensable aide.
After a brief stint teaching in Houston following graduation, a friend of Johnson’s father won a congressional seat and tapped LBJ as his staff director. It was 1931. Other than a two-year hiatus, Johnson would keep his feet planted in Washington for the next 37 years.

By 1937, Johnson would be a first-time congressman from Texas. Here again, flattery served him well, leading to fruitful endorsements and political favors from FDR and renowned legislator Sam Rayburn. Later, he would prove just as charming and obsequious (and indispensable) to Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, another legislative power broker.

Johnson had married the woman who came to be known as Lady Bird in 1934, but his eye never stopped wandering. Throughout his life, LBJ’s extramarital affairs were anything but discrete. Lady Bird endured his behavior, with only occasional reprimands.

His political patronage could be equally questionable. To cite only the most blatant example, Johnson built his political career in large part on the support (financial and otherwise) of Texas-based Brown Root, predecessor to Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. Then, as now, the company ranked among the largest federal contractors.

Johnson leaned on Brown Root more and more as his career progressed. That explains why the construction company became, as Peters writes, “a major beneficiary of Johnson programs until the end of his political career, including Vietnam, where the firm was the leading contractor in constructing US bases.” Try and imagine, if possible, a Texas president ramping up an ill-advised war where the only clear winner is a home state contractor.

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