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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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Peters offers a nuanced portrait of Johnson’s shocking ascension to the presidency in the wake of JFK’s assassination – and explains how both LBJ aides and Kennedy aides became more spiteful and suspicious of one another.

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He also provides powerful, necessary correctives to the thumbnail sketches of liberal politics. Much as the Kennedys and Johnsons achieved in civil rights, they initially lagged behind the movement.

Johnson dragged his feet on major legislation during his Senate days and, in 1963, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson both skipped Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington mall.

“Indeed,” Peters writes of ruling Washington, “they had advised against holding the event, a position shared by most of white Washington, which embarrassed itself by staying home that day.”

To be sure, Johnson made up for that misstep, ramming through groundbreaking legislation that simultaneously gave African-Americans expanded rights and freedoms, freed the South to begin recognizing the economic potential seen today across the Sun Belt, and transferred political power to Republicans in most Southern states for the next 40 years.

Most painful of all, Peters delineates the insecurities and political calculations that led LBJ to deceive the nation even as he tragically escalated America’s role in Vietnam. These include the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution that expanded presidential powers to attack in Vietnam based on a false premise of provocation (1964’s version of WMD, one might say) and the Tet Offensive, a battle the US won technically but lost in every other manner.

Peters should be credited with drawing on LBJ aides such as Bill Moyers, who, after leaving the administration, went on to ponder aloud Johnson’s sanity even as he still sat in the White House. At the same time, for those of us too young to recall Johnson in office and who have a vague sense of these events, Peters does a fine job of putting them in context without getting bogged down.

He completes the portrait with consideration of Johnson’s crudity. This is a man, after all, known to defecate in front of staffers as a means of displaying how much power he wielded. Johnson often used his aide Jack Valenti’s lap as a footrest and Lady Bird’s humiliations over his open affairs were widely known.

And yet Johnson’s enigmatic loneliness in the White House stirs empathy nonetheless. Vietnam crushed Johnson and his presidency, leaving him to forgo a run for a second full term in 1968. Relieved of those anxieties and by signs of eased tensions in Vietnam, LBJ briefly thought his popularity could be rescued.

Instead, four days later, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. Riots broke out, the long, hot summer began with Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June, and America was left battered by devastation and destruction. LBJ was caught up the emotional swirl.

In 1973, at the age 64, he died of a heart attack.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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