In little more than five years, Lyndon Baines Johnson probably did more to reform and repair American society than anyone else in history. Yet, instead of being memorialized as a hero, LBJ is more often remembered as a slimy manipulator whose good intentions were sunk in the quagmire of a needless war.
But as LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, an outstanding new biography by Randall B. Woods, reminds us, the career and legacy of this extraordinarily complex Texan can hardly be summarized in a sentence.
By turns profane and big-hearted, hateful and generous, wily and paranoid, strong and frail, LBJ faced immense pressure from within and without. Often an outsider, ever on edge, he was one of the most fascinating men to ever live in the White House.
This brick of a book – topping out at 1,007 pages – may be a hard sell. Its heft and intense detail prevent it from being a page-turner, and historians Robert Caro and Robert Dallek have already tackled LBJ's life in masterly biographies of their own. (Mr. Caro' s remarkable four-volume set isn't even finished.)
But the savvy Mr. Woods belongs in their company, thanks to his ability to blend history, politics, and human nature into a coherent and cohesive whole.
In "LBJ," Mr. Johnson comes across as an eternal seeker driven by two sometimes-conflicting goals – gaining respect and attaining social justice.
His commitment started early. As a teacher at the age of 20, LBJ fought for the rights of Mexican students to receive a proper education, forcing colleagues to treat them fairly and without prejudice. Johnson "would use the ideals that underlay the system to defeat the flaws that threatened to corrupt it," Woods writes. "It would become a pattern."
Indeed, Johnson eventually rammed civil rights bills through Congress by appealing to American and even Southern values; it's a myth that the Great Society legislation waltzed through on the coattails of JFK's martyrdom.
But LBJ's dreams of the demise of poverty faltered as the civil rights movement fractured and a faraway war grew larger. Through it all, his career-long commitment to "conciliation and cooperation" instead of conflict was severely tested.
Today, some on the left accuse LBJ of dragging the country into an inhumane war in Vietnam, while some on the right think he failed by tying one hand behind the military's back. Woods reminds readers that these two competing views had already hardened into conflict before Johnson assumed the presidency, thrusting him immediately onto the horns of a political dilemma.
Moving more decisively toward peace risked raising charges that the president was soft on Communism, but, at the same time, an enlarged war could have spelled nuclear catastrophe. And in 1966, polls actually suggested that the public wanted him to be more aggressive, not less.
Meanwhile, LBJ's own humanitarian impulses boosted his cold war instincts. He tied the Great Society and Vietnam together, truly hoping to help the South Vietnamese gain better lives; his commitment to the "common men and women of America" extended to the world, with disastrous results.
LBJ isn't the only fascinating character in this biography. His wife "Lady Bird," who's still alive today, is a major player as well. As Woods movingly describes, throughout their life together she remained head-over-heels in love with her husband, even as he found physical intimacy elsewhere. Yet she repeatedly soothes him and restores his confidence, especially when he wants to quit.
Elsewhere in the book, there's an angry and bitter Robert Kennedy, part of a snooty elite that saw LBJ as a "hayseed, a rube with coarse language and coarser looks"; an ever-intimidated Vice President Hubert Humphrey; and a craven candidate Richard Nixon, whose camp tries to keep the war boiling until after the 1968 election.
But no one in the book comes alive as vividly as does LBJ himself, a natural charmer who could also be the most unlikable of men. Throughout this biography are found ugly examples of the dark side of LBJ. He is seen humiliating Lady Bird, screaming at aides, and intimidating anyone who lacks his iron will.
At the same time, this is a man who's often full of kindness and carefree bravado, once inviting a random Pakistani camel driver to visit New York City and stay at the Waldorf Astoria, setting off a diplomatic scramble.
Ultimately, "LBJ" leaves us with a fuller picture of this "accidental president" and a greater appreciation of him as a noble failure or – perhaps more accurately – a great man with some king-size flaws.
Even in the grim days following his presidency when many wanted to simply forget him, there were those who knew that LBJ deserved to be remembered. "Ma'am, you don't have to tell me he loved me," an elderly black man told one of Johnson's daughters at his funeral. "He showed he loved me."
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif.