Lyndon Johnson was the architect of his own downfall, as this sprawling biography shows.
Who knew that at the instant LBJ heard the crack of Oswald’s rifle on that November morning in Dallas, he “was both exhilarated and apprehensive”? Defying commonsensical convention, Woods (History/Univ. of Arkansas) presumes to inhabit the president’s mind at key moments, and he over-dramatizes where plenty of drama is already in play. Despite these blemishes, Woods’s life of the blustering Texan who found John Kennedy too conservative has many virtues. He ably depicts how childhood circumstances—poverty, an alcoholic father, a domineering mother—forged Johnson’s character, and often not to the good; by the time he entered college, LBJ had a knack for making enemies and a tendency to bully and manipulate others into doing his dirty work. He was secretive and aggressive, earning the nickname “Bull” for his rough ways and nonstop talking. For all his flaws, though, Johnson evolved into a definitive politician brilliantly skilled at forging strange-bedfellows alliances and making compromises. One of his first acts on entering the Senate was to forge a close relationship with Georgian Richard Russell, a segregationist and right-winger who was also a master of persuasion and vote-getting. Johnson quickly learned, and he outpaced the master, who exclaimed, “The son of a bitch, you can’t say no to him!” LBJ kept the South Democratic; he gathered power carefully, amassing blackmail-worthy dossiers on his colleagues, and used that power to win pitched battles—all fine, so long as he was striving for social justice and racial equality. Alas, Vietnam derailed him, and Woods’s book closes lingeringly on a president so broken by that distant war that he welcomed the prospect of either Bobby Kennedy’s or Richard Nixon’s taking over the White House to “heal the wounds now separating the country.”
A sympathetic, well-rounded complement to Robert Caro’s monumental biography-in-progress.