LBJ: Architect of American Ambition [NOOK Book]

Overview

For almost forty years, the verdict on Lyndon Johnson's presidency has been reduced to a handful of harsh words: tragedy, betrayal, lost opportunity. Initially, historians focused on the Vietnam War and how that conflict derailed liberalism, tarnished the nation's reputation, wasted lives, and eventually even led to Watergate. More recently, Johnson has been excoriated in more personal terms: as a player of political hardball, as the product of...
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LBJ: Architect of American Ambition

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Overview

For almost forty years, the verdict on Lyndon Johnson's presidency has been reduced to a handful of harsh words: tragedy, betrayal, lost opportunity. Initially, historians focused on the Vietnam War and how that conflict derailed liberalism, tarnished the nation's reputation, wasted lives, and eventually even led to Watergate. More recently, Johnson has been excoriated in more personal terms: as a player of political hardball, as the product of machine-style corruption, as an opportunist, as a cruel husband and boss.

In LBJ, Randall B. Woods, a distinguished historian of twentieth-century America and a son of Texas, offers a wholesale reappraisal and sweeping, authoritative account of the LBJ who has been lost under this baleful gaze. Woods understands the political landscape of the American South and the differences between personal failings and political principles. Thanks to the release of thousands of hours of LBJ's White House tapes, along with the declassification of tens of thousands of documents and interviews with key aides, Woods's LBJ brings crucial new evidence to bear on many key aspects of the man and the politician. As private conversations reveal, Johnson intentionally exaggerated his stereotype in many interviews, for reasons of both tactics and contempt. It is time to set the record straight.

Woods's Johnson is a flawed but deeply sympathetic character. He was born into a family with a liberal Texas tradition of public service and a strong belief in the public good. He worked tirelessly, but not just for the sake of ambition. His approach to reform at home, and to fighting fascism and communism abroad, was motivated by the same ideals and based on a liberal Christian tradition that is often forgotten today. Vietnam turned into a tragedy, but it was part and parcel of Johnson's commitment to civil rights and antipoverty reforms. LBJ offers a fascinating new history of the political upheavals of the 1960s and a new way to understand the last great burst of liberalism in America.

Johnson was a magnetic character, and his life was filled with fascinating stories and scenes. Through insights gained from interviews with his longtime secretary, his Secret Service detail, and his closest aides and confidants, Woods brings Johnson before us in vivid and unforgettable color.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73) is a biographer's dream. Talented, intense, complex, and even contradictory, the 36th president inspired both loyalty and loathing among those who knew him well. To some, he was a passionate, heroic reformer; to others, a cynically manipulative man with an obsession for power. Randall Woods's LBJ paints this larger-than-life Texan as more sympathetic than the dark Machiavellian of Robert Caro's multivolume epic, but it doesn't airbrush his faults: He details Johnson's habitual infidelity and his aggressive political tactics. Drawing on thousands of hours of previously unused White House tapes and other documents, the award-winning historian presents LBJ as shrewd politician devoted to Great Society programs that he created virtually single-handed.
Nick Kotz
… in his masterful new biography, Randall B. Woods convincingly makes the case for Johnson's greatness -- as the last American president whose leadership achieved truly revolutionary breakthroughs in progressive domestic legislation, bringing changes that have improved the lives of most Americans. In this compelling, massive narrative, Woods portrays Johnson fairly and fully in all his complexity, with adequate attention to flaws in his character and his tragic miscalculations in Vietnam. Considering today's vitriolic polarization, it is instructive to learn how Johnson skillfully won broad public and bipartisan support to break the gridlock associated with the controversial, historic 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts and more than a score of other major initiatives.
— The Washington Post
Alan Brinkley
… in writing LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, Woods has produced an excellent biography that fully deserves a place alongside the best of the Johnson studies yet to appear. He is more sympathetic and nuanced than Caro, more fluid and (despite the significant length of his book) more concise than Dallek — and equally scrupulous in his use of archives and existing scholarship. Even readers familiar with the many other fine books on Johnson will learn a great deal from Woods.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Why, after major works by Robert A. Caro and Robert Dallek, do we need another biography of Lyndon B. Johnson? The answer is that Johnson was so complex that every new biographer willing to do the tough spadework of original research discovers fresh layers of Johnsonian reality to explain, new psychological and political corridors to explore. Such is the case with this excellent new work by University of Arkansas historian Woods (Fulbright, a Biography). Woods finds Johnson's key motivation to be largely altruistic, emerging from righteous outrage over the poverty and racism he'd witnessed while growing up in Texas. Woods serves up a Johnson who is less cynical, less self-serving and more heroic and tragic than the man portrayed elsewhere. Woods's Johnson is a man who saw his greatest personal ambitions realized with the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and the Great Society programs. Not inappropriately, Woods concludes his eloquent and riveting account by quoting Ralph Ellison, who noted that Johnson, spurned at the end of his life by both liberals and conservatives, would "have to settle for being recognized as the greatest American President for the poor and for the Negroes, but that, as I see it, is a very great honor indeed." 16 pages of b&w photos. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Booklist

Wood's single volume evenhandedly condenses the complexities and controversies associated with the thirty-sixth president of the U.S....Raised in the populist tradition, LBJ cut his political teeth as an all-out New Dealer. But he shrewdly knew that the ambitions he harbored for himself and American society would never be realized without placating conservatives of various kinds--economic, segregationist, or anticommunist. In this fact of Johnson's political life, which induced some to perceive him as a malodorous wheeler-dealer, Woods detects a remarkable consistency, an inwardly liberal LBJ whose outwardly moderate politics were an expression of his mastery of political calculus...Thorough, astute, and readable.
Gilbert Taylor

The Age

This is an absorbing portrait of a man who was as stand-and-deliver as his plain-speaking persona suggested but also a highly complex, driven individual who not only sought power but sought to do something with it.
Steven Carroll

Library Journal
Woods (history, Univ. of Arkansas; Fulbright: A Biography) offers a sympathetic portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as a progressive legislator and president. The LBJ presented here contrasts strikingly with the self-serving, power-hungry politician depicted in the first two volumes of Robert Caro's biography, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent. He is more like the calculating and complex leader revealed in Robert Dallek's Flawed Giant. Richly but sometimes overly detailed, this substantial biography traces Johnson from his Texas childhood to his many years in the House and Senate, his accidental presidency following Kennedy's assassination, and his 1964 landslide election and Great Society triumphs, ultimately brought down by the Vietnam War. The author's strength is his excellent account of LBJ's presidency, especially how his domestic programs benefited African Americans and other minorities. His weakness is that unlike Dallek he does not provide a summation of Johnson's political legacy. In this thoroughly researched and fluidly written narrative, Woods adds some luster to Johnson's reputation. Primarily for Johnson scholars and serious general readers; strongly recommended for all academic and larger public libraries.-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 apresident 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.
Boston Globe - Carol Iaciofano
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a complex man who helped shape extraordinary times...Woods has created a full and well-balanced biography of an icon that manages to feel fresh...The LBJ of this book has more light than darkness--a contrary but deeply compassionate individual who was often two steps ahead of everyone else in the room, and who was undone by the times in which he lived.
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Cary Clack
Randall Woods has produced a magnificent portrait of Johnson that, while candid in showing the president's flaws, is [also] sympathetic.
Christian Science Monitor - Randy Dotinga
In little more than five years, Lyndon Baines Johnson probably did more to reform and repair American society than anyone else in history. Yet, instead of being memorialized as a hero, LBJ is more often remembered as a slimy manipulator whose good intentions were sunk in the quagmire of a needless war. But as LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, an outstanding new biography by Randall B. Woods, reminds us, the career and legacy of this extraordinarily complex Texan can hardly be summarized in a sentence...LBJ leaves us with a fuller picture of this 'accidental president' and a greater appreciation of him as a noble failure or--perhaps more accurately--a great man with some king-size flaws.
Washington Post Book World - Nick Kotz
In his masterful new biography, Randall B. Woods convincingly makes the case for Johnson's greatness--as the last American president whose leadership achieved truly revolutionary breakthroughs in progressive domestic legislation, bringing changes that have improved the lives of most Americans. In this compelling, massive narrative, Woods portrays Johnson fairly and fully in all his complexity, with adequate attention to flaws in his character and his tragic miscalculations in Vietnam...In illuminating detail, Woods describes the enormous political skills with which Johnson, in quiet partnership with civil rights leaders, persuaded Congress to secure the basic freedoms of African Americans. Woods reminds us that dozens of government benefits and protections that Americans take for granted today were won in the 1960s principally because of LBJ's vision, legislative mastery and determination...Woods follows in the footsteps of LBJ's most reliable earlier biographers--Ronnie Dugger, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Dallek--but makes his own unique contribution to the Johnson literature with a fresh, probing interpretation of the influences and ideals that shaped Johnson and his presidency...The book's strengths include a balanced narrative, graceful prose and Woods's nuanced understanding of Southern politics and culture.
New York Times Book Review - Alan Brinkley
In writing LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, Woods has produced an excellent biography that fully deserves a place alongside the best of the Johnson studies yet to appear. He is more sympathetic and nuanced than Caro, more fluid and (despite the significant length of his book) more concise than Dallek--and equally scrupulous in his use of archives and existing scholarship. Even readers familiar with the many other fine books on Johnson will learn a great deal from Woods. Unlike all but a few Johnson biographers, Woods is himself a Southerner, and has a particularly good understanding of the nexus of race, class, family and religion that shaped Johnson's life...Among Woods's many achievements in this fine biography is to allow us to see not only the enormous, tragic flaws in this extraordinary man, but also the greatness.
Booklist - Gilbert Taylor
Wood's single volume evenhandedly condenses the complexities and controversies associated with the thirty-sixth president of the U.S....Raised in the populist tradition, LBJ cut his political teeth as an all-out New Dealer. But he shrewdly knew that the ambitions he harbored for himself and American society would never be realized without placating conservatives of various kinds--economic, segregationist, or anticommunist. In this fact of Johnson's political life, which induced some to perceive him as a malodorous wheeler-dealer, Woods detects a remarkable consistency, an inwardly liberal LBJ whose outwardly moderate politics were an expression of his mastery of political calculus...Thorough, astute, and readable.
The Age - Steven Carroll
This is an absorbing portrait of a man who was as stand-and-deliver as his plain-speaking persona suggested but also a highly complex, driven individual who not only sought power but sought to do something with it.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416593317
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2007
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 1024
  • Sales rank: 526,660
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Randall B. Woods is John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, where he has taught since 1971. His Fulbright: A Biography won the 1996 Robert H. Ferrell Prize for the Best Book on American Foreign Relations and the Virginia Ledbetter Prize for the Best Book on Southern Studies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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Read an Excerpt


PROLOGUE

The tall man wearing the Stetson sitting in the back of an open convertible was as unhappy as he had ever been in his life. Three years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had reluctantly agreed to serve as John F. Kennedy's running mate in the 1960 election. The Kennedys had not really wanted him, but the Democrats had to have Texas to win the presidency, and LBJ, the Lone Star State's most famous contemporary politician, could carry Texas. Johnson reasoned at the time that his position as majority leader would be meaningless if Richard Nixon and the Republicans won. The thirty-four months he had served as vice president had been excruciating. The "Irish Mafia" surrounding the president, and the liberal intellectuals that JFK had brought to Washington, snubbed Lyndon and Lady Bird at every opportunity. Portrayed as hayseed, a rube with coarse language and coarser looks, he was the constant butt of jokes on the Georgetown cocktail circuit and at Hickory Hill, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy's country home. The president had been outwardly respectful but had shunted LBJ aside to oversee the Space Program and the Committee on Equal Opportunity. As a consolation prize, the Johnsons had been sent on numerous overseas junkets where the vice president invariably responded to the warnings of pretentious U.S. diplomats by deliberately offending local customs. He had grown heavy, looked slovenly, and drank too much, Johnson thought ruefully. He was disgusted with his life and himself. Goddamn the Kennedys and goddamn his political luck!

Beside him in the car were his wife, Lady Bird, and the senior senator from Texas, Ralph Yarborough. Lady Bird was his only spouse but just one of a number of lovers. Throughout their marriage, she had simultaneously supported, reassured, and disappointed him. His volatility craved her stoicism, but at times it infuriated him.

Johnson and Yarborough shared similar values. Yet, LBJ thought, he could not look at the senior senator without a degree of unease. He was a liberal who had won in a state dominated by John Connally, the governor and conservative protégé of LBJ. Yarborough and Connally, like the two wings of the Democratic party in Texas, were continually at each other's throats, and the Kennedys were constantly after Johnson to clean up the mess. He had hoped that national office would free him from the prejudices and ignorance of the Texas oil and land barons, but it had not. Connally and Yarborough could both go to hell.

But then Johnson roused from his depressing reverie and looked up; it was a beautiful day, crisp and clear with the sun shining brightly out of the huge Texas sky. He noted with relief that the crowds lining the route being taken by the presidential motorcade were large and receptive. Dallas was a notorious hotbed of right-wing fanaticism. Lyndon and Lady Bird had been jostled, cursed, and spat upon by a hostile crowd outside the Adolphus Hotel during the 1960 campaign, a memory burned into their brains. But there were no signs of protesters. Perhaps the day would go well after all. There were already signs that Connally and Yarborough were, for appearances' sake, going to paper over their differences, at least for the time being.

With one hand holding his hat in the air and the other waving to the crowd, LBJ felt himself beginning to relax when he heard the crack of a rifle. Time stopped moving; the crowd seemed to hold its collective breath. Then another shot, and another. Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent assigned to the Johnsons, was sitting in the front seat. He reached back with one arm and forced LBJ to the floor. As Lady Bird and Senator Yarborough ducked, Youngblood vaulted over the seat, covering the vice president's body with his. The Secret Service's radio crackled as snippets of information came over the air. By now it was clear to all concerned that they were in the midst of an assassination attempt.

As the motorcade raced off to Parkland Hospital, Johnson, weighed down by Youngblood's two hundred pounds, began to consider his situation. Before their departure for Texas, Washington had been full of rumors that JFK was going to drop him from the ticket. Now there was a possibility that he would become, temporarily at least, president of the United States. The sudden reversal of fortune, if it came, would be stunning. He was both exhilarated and apprehensive. Then his thoughts turned from the personal to the public. Johnson, who could become hysterical over life's most trivial disruptions but who was given to calm deliberation in a major crisis, began to compose his thoughts. The country, the world, must be reassured, no matter what the origins of the conspiracy against the president or how vast the scope. He let his mind wander briefly to possible perpetrators. The Russians? Unlikely. Since Khrushchev's ascension to power, the Soviet Union had acted more and more like a conventional, status quo power, Marxist rhetoric notwithstanding. Right-wing true believers? Possibly. But most likely it was Castro. Bobby had been trying to kill the Cuban leader ever since the Missile Crisis. Hopefully, the culprit was some deranged American acting alone. God forbid that it turn out to be a Negro and the motive racial. Whoever the shooter was and whatever forces were behind him, the deed was done. He must bind the Union and its people tightly together until the crisis eased.

At Parkland, Lyndon and Lady Bird were hustled into a brightly lit room, the windows covered with sheets. Would-be assassins must be denied a shot at the vice president. The emergency room at the hospital seemed a maze of self-contained compartments, one housing Secret Service personnel, another the Dallas police, and others various medical teams, grieving Kennedy aides, and members of the Johnson entourage. While Lyndon conferred with Youngblood and his colleagues, Lady Bird went to console Jacqueline Kennedy and Nellie Connally, whose husband had also been shot.

Finally, LBJ was informed that Kennedy was dead. Lyndon Johnson was president of the United States. He was tempted to give in to the awe of the moment, but he resisted. Every second was crucial. The way he handled the assassination and its aftermath would do much to determine his success or failure as president, Johnson sensed. It was decided that he and his staff would return on Air Force One rather than Air Force Two because of the former's superior communication equipment. During the ensuing mad dash to Dallas Love Field, LBJ informed Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell that he was not leaving without Jackie and the president's body. They had come together, and they would return together.

Aboard Air Force One, while Johnson gathered his aides and the Kennedy people waited in shock for the presidential coffin to arrive, LBJ decided for symbolic reasons to be sworn in as president. The country was subsequently treated to the famous picture of LBJ, hand on Bible, standing before Judge Sarah T. Hughes, flanked by Lady Bird and Jackie, her green suit still splattered with her husband's blood. During the flight back, LBJ holed up in the state room, leaving Jackie the bedroom and personal quarters. From the front of the plane, LBJ could hear O'Donnell and his comrades, who were drinking steadily and growing more boisterous in the process. The new president knew that they were talking about him and what they were saying, how unfit he was to follow their fallen hero, how the trip to Texas would have been unnecessary if he had done his job, how difficult it was going to be to stomach his coarseness after JFK's elegant grace. He was tempted to get rid of the whole lot, cabinet and all, but he quickly rejected the idea. Unlike duly elected presidents, he would not have the time intervening between election and inauguration to vet and choose members of his government. Though Johnson knew that he could not trust most of the Kennedy team and that many of them would actively conspire against him, he would have to rely on them -- at least for a time.

The accidental president's mind drifted to his past, to the Hill Country, his mother and father, his choice of politics as a life. She had played the role of genteel, literate Baptist, he of a carousing populist politician. A respect, almost adulation, for public service had been one of the few things that had bound Rebekah and Sam Ealy Johnson together. Both looked to their eldest son to fulfill their unrealized dreams. His father had lived to see him elected to Congress, his mother to see him chosen Senate majority leader. Now he was leader of the free world. Perhaps now their ambition for him would be sated.

Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base. Bobby Kennedy boarded the plane, brushing past the Johnsons without acknowledgment, rushing to join Jackie and the coffin containing his brother's body. The Kennedys deplaned first and then, separately, Johnson and his aides. LBJ spoke a few words to the small crowd that had gathered in the rain and darkness. Accompanied by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, LBJ flew by marine helicopter to the White House. After greeting those of the staff who were on hand and receiving selected congressional leaders, the new chief executive departed for The Elms, the modest estate he and Lady Bird had chosen as their vice presidential residence. Selected friends and staff were there. So was daughter Lucy, who was then attending high school in Washington. Lynda, the Johnsons' older daughter, was a student at the University of Texas in Austin. There was supper and conversation. LBJ watched television footage of the assassination until he could stand it no longer. He went to bed. With aide Horace Busby and his wife holding his hands, he drifted off to sleep.

The next two days were filled with funeral preparations and meetings with cabinet members. LBJ at first intended to leave the investigation of the assassination to the Texas attorney general's office but was then persuaded to constitute a national commission; the stakes were too high to leave the matter to state authorities. In the midst of the national outpouring of grief that accompanied JFK's murder, Johnson realized that he would be spending the rest of his days as president living and acting in the shadow of a martyr. He could either be overwhelmed by Kennedy's death, or he could use it to advance his personal and political agenda.

Elected repeatedly from a state dominated by conservatives, LBJ had dreamed liberal dreams. So closely had he aligned himself with FDR that, during the late 1940s, some New Dealers had looked to him as Roosevelt's natural successor. But his Texas origins, his need to trim his sails before the winds generated by the oil and gas lobby, and his provincial image had seemed to doom whatever chances he had to become president and bring the New Deal-Fair Deal to fruition. But now, having acceded to the highest office in the land, perhaps Johnson could use the Kennedy mystique to realize the social justice agenda of Medicare, federal aid to education, environmental protection, immigration reform, an end to poverty, and equal rights for all.

In the days that followed, LBJ stayed up night after night at The Elms filling one legal pad after another with ideas for legislation that would comfort the afflicted and reassure the comfortable. Above all, he aspired to redeem the white South by shaming it into granting black Americans equal rights and equal opportunity. The shadow of Vietnam was barely visible, a mere spot on the horizon.

Copyright © 2006 by Randall B. Woods

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Table of Contents


Prologue     1
Roots     5
Growing Up     20
College     44
The Secretary     70
Lady Bird and the NYA     92
Congress     116
Pappy     138
War     158
Truman and the Coming of the Cold War     179
Coke     196
A Populist Gentlemen's Club     219
Leader     248
Passing the Lord's Prayer     274
Back from the Edge     291
Containing the Red-Hots: From Dulles to the Dixie Association     313
Lost in Space     332
1960     352
Camelot Meets Mr. Cornpone     375
Hanging On     400
Interregnum: Death and Resurrection     415
"Kennedy Was Too Conservative for Me"     440
Free at Last     467
Containment at Home and Abroad     483
"The Countryside of the World"     501
Bobby     519
Barry     539
A New Bill of Rights     557
The Crux of the Matter     574
Daunted Courage     593
Castro's and Kennedy's Shadows     621
A City on the Hill     649
Balancing Act     672
Divisions     693
Civil War     715
Battling Dr. Strangelove     739
The Holy Land     759
Backlash     783
Of Hawks and Doves, Vultures and Chickens     798
Tet     818
A Midsummer Nightmare     838
Touching the Void     865
Notes     885
Acknowledgments     957
Index     959
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