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The book “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President” is a condensed version of a two volume work on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson – “Lone Star Rising” (1991) and “Flawed Giant” (1998). Written by Robert Dallek, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize, the book gives a wonderful portrait of President Lyndon Johnson, one of America’s well known politicians.
In his preface, Dallek says that he has abridged his two books so that it would appeal to more people particularly students. The book is based on fourteen years of dedicated research by the author that involved personal interviews, research of about 450 historical documents and oral histories. The book offers the reader an opportunity to think about the extraordinary man Lyndon B. Johnson and how he influenced the country.
The legacy left behind by President Johnson is highly debated by historians. But Dallek is convinced that President Johnson’s influenced the nation positively during the period extending from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s. The book depicts in an authentic manner, Lyndon B. Johnson as a complex personality with various shades in his character.
The book discusses in detail the conflicts and inner turmoil of Johnson’s early life and career and how he achieved his goals as a congressman, senator and majority leader. Lyndon Johnson was a man with a dubious background as he was involved in ballot box manipulation, back room deals, use of political contacts and control of Senators.
However, he ardently supported the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and was truly committed to the eradication of poverty. While on hand, he showed a ruthless streak, egoism, and vindictive behavior, he was also a soft hearted, shy, magnanimous person of extraordinary dedication, commitment, leadership and hardwork.
By tracing his career and life, Robert Dallek writes about American politics, foreign policy and crucial historical changes in the American political system. The book shows Johnson as the frustrated boy who runs away from home, as the twenty three year old aide to a rich Congressman, as a forty year old Senator, and as a very unpopular president in his later days.
Robert Dallek, in his book, explains the inner workings of this remarkable man – of extraordinary ambitions, lofty visions and high energy who loved working really hard to achieve his political goals. People did not always approve of the reforms he introduced. But time shows that they were truly for the welfare of the country.
The book traces the life of President Lyndon Johnson as he starts out as a poor boy with high ambitions from a remote Texas town and how he lands in the White House, makes an impact on the nation and finally comes back to Texas in retirement. Lyndon B. Johnson’s childhood is described using his own words “When I was young, poverty was so common we didn’t know it had a name” (quoted on p. 1).
He was a very ambitious child who firmly believed he had a right to govern and lead. Lyndon Johnson was born to Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. and Rebekah Baines who lived a hard pioneer life on Hill Country Farm. Sam was a politician and Lyndon was much influenced by the political aspirations and activities of his father.
He often accompanied his father to the legislature and developed a love for campaigning. Lyndon Johnson, as a student was indifferent and lacked interest in religion. He seemed irresponsible and enjoyed drinking and wasting time with his friends. He also ran away from home on frequent trips in his childhood.
He was basically a rebellious child who had high ambitions. Without studying, he could not achieve much and that frustrated him. As a boy, he was once beaten by up a German farm boy and this event changed the course of his life. He decided to pursue his education as per his parents’ wishes and went to San Marcos College, a small provincial school in 1927.
While he studied, he also took up odd jobs to pay his fees. In May 1929, Lyndon completed his teaching course at San Marcos and with the help of his uncle, George, got himself a good job in Sam Houston High School. Though he worked with passion as a teacher, Lyndon’s heart was in politics and in November 1931 he accepted appointment as secretary to new U.S. congressman from Texas, Richard Kleberg and moved to Washington.
This marked the first major step into the political world for Lyndon. He supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and was much inspired by him. Lyndon’s main assets were his high ambitions and knack for practical politics. In 1932, he returned to Texas to run Kleberg’s primary campaign against three other democrats.
Lyndon’s work paid off and Kleberg won the primaries. It was during this period he met and fell in love with Claudia Alta Taylor. He proposed and married her within three months of meeting. With his aggressive style of promotion, Lyndon got the job of running the Texas National Youth Administration and made it a great success with his hardwork and won the recognition of top officials.
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Lyndon decided to run for the House. Deciding to capitalize on the popularity of FDR, he designed a campaign strategy that would link him to FDR and his programs. He campaigned hard and met as many voters as possible. He also resorted to bribing the voters and finally won the election. Dallek writes eloquently: “Johnson was a self-serving opportunist who used his connections to advance himself….
He was not only a shrewd operator with his eyes on the main chance but also a man of vision who worked effectively for a larger good” (p. 46). Lyndon Johnson learnt very early that violating campaign finance laws and ballot box manipulations were part of the election game. He soon became adept at seeking political advantage in all ways. He also was good at business, and used his political contacts to develop his businesses.
He acquired a radio station for his wife and made it hugely profitable through favorable rulings from the Federal Communications Commission. After the death of President Roosevelt, Lyndon decided to become a Senator. He wanted to run for the Senate from Texas. He campaigned hard but also broke many rules in the process. He spent a lot more than what was allowed for election campaigning.
By last minute manipulation of votes, Lyndon Johnson won the election. The fraud became known to the public and due to this accusation Lyndon became very determined to be a good senator in Texas. At age 40, Lyndon Johnson became Senator. He was basically a workaholic and work was a major part of his life. He forged vital political connections.
He was soon running for the post of party Whip. By 1952, Lyndon achieved the Democratic Party’s Senate leadership post. With his hard work and strategic movies, Johnson ensured that the Democrats gained control of Congress in 1956 elections. He now became the youngest majority leader in Senate history.
According to Bryce Harlow, Eisenhower’s aide, Johnson had “a special gift, an indefinable talent for leadership that created fear, admiration and a desire in others to follow” (p. 82). He was good at acting, dramatizing, persuading and cajoling. He was an expert at manipulating other senators to his advantage. In 1957, Johnson chose the issue of Civil rights to upgrade his political image and decided to work to protect black rights in the South.
He supported a civil rights law in 1957 which was viewed skeptically by some people and as a historical achievement by some others. A major achievement of Lyndon Johnson was the creation of NASA as a civilian controlled space agency. In 1960, he became vice presidential nominee for presidential candidate Jack Kennedy.
On November 8, Kennedy won the presidency and Lyndon became Vice-President. Lyndon Johnson did not enjoy the passive role accorded to him. As a good will ambassador Lyndon visited many countries but his eccentric behavior abroad made people view him as a comic character. Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F Kennedy as president.
He supported the Vietnam War but he did not want it to come in the way of the elections. So he wanted the military to wait till the elections were over in 1964. He won the presidential election easily and soon after, sent the US troops to South Vietnam. In early 1965, Johnson authorized ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ that involved bombing of North Vietnam and NLF held regions in South Vietnam.
It was expected to be over in eight weeks but lasted for three years and as the war dragged on Americans wanted the war to be over. In the meantime, President Lyndon introduced many programs to change race relations, reduce the suffering of the poor and improve the overall quality of life among the underprivileged.
Through his support for the Civil rights and voting rights of the black community he paved the way for the rise of a larger and richer black middle class.
He is also responsible for introducing “Medicare, Medicaid, urban renewal, aid to education, immigration reform, and safety and consumer regulations” (p. 374). But towards the beginning of 1967, there was extensive disillusionment among the public over the sensibility of his reforms and the Vietnam War.
The book is written chronologically and begins with descriptions of the origins of Lyndon B. Johnson and traces his growth into adulthood and how he forged ahead in his political career. The author uses an easy to read style and the book can be understood by anyone with an interest in the character of Lyndon Johnson. The authors describe the historical background at every stage in Lyndon’s life.
There are many direct quotes included in this book that add a lot of authenticity to the book. While some of the quotes are by President Lyndon Johnson, there are quotes by other historical people. Moreover, almost all significant events in Lyndon’s life are dated accurately. The book is written in third person and takes a neutral viewpoint. It does not have any bias in its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.
In fact, there is equal focus on both his good and bad sides. The book allows the reader to understand that the boy Lyndon Johnson was frustrated and torn apart by his high political ambitions and the harsh realities of life. He was intelligent but unable to focus in his studies due to his unstable financial status. He is forced to take up odd jobs during his school days.
He is forced to take up a teaching career before completing his teaching course. However, he was always a hardworking person. His work ethic is very strong as he often is said to work more than twelve hours in a day. However, Dallek also exposes the fact that Lyndon Johnson always sought political mileage and would stoop to any level to exploit situations to his advantage.
Of particular note is the scene in which he and his wife Lady Bird are abused verbally and physically by a crowd in Dallas. Johnson prevented the police from protecting him and spent more time among the abusive crowd so that it could be recorded and televised. He used it to label the Republicans as extremists.
Dallek also reveals that Lyndon Johnson was not averse to using bribes and manipulation of ballots in order to win an election. But the same Lyndon Johnson never wasted an opportunity to serve the youth and downtrodden of this country. In fact, according to Dallek, Johnson played a crucial role in creating national change by bringing the South into active politics.
Thus the book gives adequate glimpses to both the sides of Lyndon Johnson. The validity of the author’s theories rests on the fact that this book is based on an extensive research conducted on historical manuscripts, oral histories and personal interviews. Dallek does not ignore the weaker side of Lyndon Johnson.
He talks about his passion to reach the top by any means – straight or crooked and also his sheer brilliance as a politician. President Lyndon Johnson is not a very popular historical figure as many people disapproved of the Vietnam War and many of his good intentioned reforms.
This book, by focusing on the good side of Lyndon Johnson reminds the readers that he was a great visionary who worked to bring the South into the mainstream of society and worked to improve the living conditions of the poor and downtrodden.
The author depicts Lyndon Johnson as a man in eternal conflict. He always desired for higher political positions in life and the reason according to the author is that he desired power so that he could give things to the needy people. This seems to be a very superficial inference. When one reads about “The Treatment” that Lyndon Johnson gives the fellow members of the Senate in order to get bills passed, one can understand that he was someone who loved power for its own sake.
He enjoyed intimidating people with his theatrics. Also there are some instances in the book where the author does not explain why Lyndon was behaving the way he did. For example, when Joe Kennedy approaches him with an offer that he would get him a ticket if he expressed his intent to stand for presidency and include Jack Kennedy as Vice President, Lyndon lets go of the opportunity.
It’s not in his true nature to let go of real opportunities. I personally wish the author could have added more details regarding his decisions. Moreover, the relationship between Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson is very confusing in the book. While on one hand Kennedy chooses Lyndon to be the Vice President, he also tries to keep him far away from foreign policy matters and important decisions such as the Vietnam War.
Dallek writes about this gap while at the same time, Dallek also says that Kennedy invited Johnson to all cabinet meetings and important gatherings. The relationship between President Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could have been elaborated further.
Despite the fact that one desires more from this book, what cannot be denied is that this book is tremendously thought provoking. This book serves as a biography of Lyndon Johnson while at the same time it serves as a guide to American history. It also traces the psychological evolution of Lyndon Johnson from an ambitious boy to a shrewd politician.
Dallek’s research is relevant to the study of present day politics in the United States as it helps in understanding the workings of the mind of an intelligent politician with personal ambitions and good intentions. The book helps us understand that behind the smiling face of successful leaders, there is a lot of hard work, sacrifices, and compromises.
Whether a leader stands out in history as a hero depends on how high his values are and how he makes crucial decisions. Lyndon Johnson seems more representative of present day politicians who try to exploit every possible opportunity to their own political advantage.
Dallek, R. (2004). Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President. Oxford University Press.