A slim but penetrating biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973).
Washington Monthly founder Peters (Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing “We Want Willkie!” Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World, 2005, etc.) paints a mostly unpleasant portrait of a fiercely ambitious climber who lacked any inhibition when it came to lying, cheating, bribing and betrayal. Though he doesn’t conceal the 36th president’s ugly traits or his role in the fiasco in Vietnam, the author also stresses that, along with Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson produced the greatest reform legislation of the 20th century. The son of a Texas legislator, Johnson grew up fascinated with politics. He learned the ropes in FDR’s Washington before winning election to the House in 1937. He lost the 1941 Senate election due to his opponent’s cheating, but he learned enough to cheat his way to victory in 1948. Although an enthusiastic New Dealer, he joined the nation’s move to the right after World War II and became an equally enthusiastic Southern conservative. Accepting the obscure job of majority leader, Johnson fashioned it into a powerful office that streamlined the Senate’s moribund procedures and gave him national fame as a political wizard. Young senator John F. Kennedy rejected his staff’s opposition to choose him as running mate in 1960, believing correctly that Southern votes would determine a very close race. As president after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson displayed his genuine concern with poverty and injustice and, unlike later presidents, the political skill to do something about it. Before delivering a painful account of Johnson’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, Peters makes it clear that the 1964–65 civil-rights, voting-rights and Medicare legislation represent dazzling humanitarian achievements.
With the final volume yet to appear, Robert Caro’s magnificent biography is the standard-bearer, but Peters delivers a splendid short version.