LBJ: Architect of American Ambitionby Randall Woods
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.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
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.
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.
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Read an Excerpt
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
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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One star may or may not be justified because no one I know read it. I bought this as a present but when I saw it, it would have been like giving a death sentence. Lesson: always look at the page count before you buy. Seems more like a text book than recreational reading.