GUNS OR BUTTER: Lyndon Johnson's Presidency by Irving Bernstein

GUNS OR BUTTER: Lyndon Johnson's Presidency

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A careful, densely detailed account of a troubled administration. Bernstein follows his Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier (1991) with a long treatment of Kennedy's successor, a tormented man who had served as ""an extremely unhappy Vice President."" Shunning the psychobiographical approach of many recent studies, Bernstein instead focuses on the complex political maneuverings that Johnson--who was famously good at complicated politicking--used to so much advantage to get his programs through Congress. He notes that Johnson was not embarrassed to change positions with shifts in the political winds, as when he abandoned an ambivalent, please-everyone position on civil rights to sponsor the most thoroughgoing civil-rights legislation in recent American history, arguing that ""a huge injustice has been perpetrated for hundreds of years on every black man, woman, and child in the United States."" Bernstein emphasizes Johnson's ability to build coalitions of unlikely allies--conservative Dixiecrats, say, and left-leaning northerners like R. Sargent Shriver--and to arrive at consensus to further the ambitious goals of the Great Society. Bernstein notes Johnson's failings as much as his successes, notably in environmental issues, to which Johnson often seemed indifferent, and, of course, in his conduct of the Vietnam War. (Strangely, that war figures little in Bernstein's account, which favors domestic over international matters.) His passing remarks are often as revealing as his larger analyses: For example, when Johnson learned that Interior Secretary Stewart Udall had named Washington's new federally owned stadium after LBJ's old rival Robert Kennedy, the president killed an order for a new million-acre national park in southern Arizona, Udall's former congressional district. Such small moments add much to the larger picture that Bernstein so skillfully paints. The author's mastery of historical materials is evident on every page of this useful and welcome book.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.