A deputy attorney general under Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general and undersecretary of state for Lyndon B. Johnson, recounts his experiences.
Katzenbach’s memoir opens with the 1960 U.S. election, which he followed with interest from abroad in Geneva, where he was on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. Sensing a new administration with unprecedented energy, youth and hope, he made some calls to friends and found himself in the attorney general’s office. His colleagues come vibrantly to life in this firsthand account, which includes vivid re-creations of conversations among RFK, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace and LBJ. One brief exchange between LBJ and Wallace perfectly captures each man’s personality and positions. Katzenbach does not reveal anything groundbreaking, and his discussions of major political movements are best when they concern something he was passionate about, civil rights in particular. Two especially engrossing sections chronicle his experiences while attempting to enroll African-American students at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama. Explaining the painstaking organization and effort that went into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Katzenbach provides some select anecdotes. Beyond these skillfully told personal histories, he chronicles the decline of the optimism that characterized the Attorney General’s office during the Kennedy administration into the faltering uncertainty that followed JFK’s assassination and continued into Johnson’s term. The author is always candid, though occasionally a bit repetitive, and his devotion to his work comes through clearly. The book is less effective when discussing subjects Katzenbach viewed with pessimism, such as the war in Vietnam. It seems evident that the end of LBJ’s term was the right time for him to leave.
Not always riveting, but an intelligently written eyewitness account of some of 20th-century America’s most critical moments.