Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream / Edition 1

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Doris Kearns Goodwin's classic life of Lyndon Johnson, who presided over the Great Society, the Vietnam War, and other defining moments the tumultuous 1960s, is a monument in political biography. From the moment the author, then a young woman from Harvard, first encountered President Johnson at a White House dance in the spring of 1967, she became fascinated by the man--his character, his enormous energy and drive, and his manner of wielding these gifts in an endless pursuit of power. As a member of his White House staff, she soon became his personal confidante, and in the years before his death he revealed himself to her as he did to no other.

Widely praised and enormously popular, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is a work of biography like few others. With uncanny insight and a richly engrossing style, the author renders LBJ in all his vibrant, conflicted humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The most penetrating, fascinating political biography I have ever read . . . No other President has had a biographer who had such access to his private thoughts."—The New York Times

"Magnificent, brilliant, illuminating . . . A profound analysis of both the private and the public man."—Miami Herald

"Kearns has made Lyndon Johnson so whole, so understandable that the impact of the book is difficult to describe. It might have been called 'The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson,' for he comes to seem nothing so much as a figure out of Greek tragedy."—Houston Chronicle

"Johnson's every word and deed is measured in an attempt to understand one of the most powerful yet tragic of American Presidents."—Chicago Tribune

"A fine and shrewd book . . . Extraordinary . . . Poignant . . . The best [biography of LBJ] we have to date."—Boston Globe

"An extraordinary portrait of a generous, devious, complex, and profoundly manipulative man . . . [Kearns Goodwin] became the custodian not only of LBJ's political lore but of his memories, hopes, and nightmares . . . We have it all laid out for us in this wrenchingly intimate analysis of a man who virtues, like his faults, were on a giant scale."—Cosmopolitan

"Absorbing and sympathetic, warts and all."—The Washington Post

"A grand and fascinating portrait of a most complicated, haunted, and here appealing man."—The Village Voice

"Vivid . . . No other book is likely to offer a sharper, more intimate portrait of Lyndon Johnson in his full psychic undress."—Newsweek

"Powerful, first-rate, gratifying . . . [The author] has proven herself worthy of Lyndon Johnson's trust; for by sharing his fears and dreams with us, she has helped us to understand no just one man, but an era, and ultimately ourselves."—Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312060275
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/1991
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 78,723
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the celebrated historian who is also the author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and other bestsellers, has written a new foreword for this edition of Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with her husband and their three sons.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


On the north bank of the Pedernales River in Stonewall, BlancoCounty, Texas, a mile of dirt road connects the ranch house whereLyndon Johnson died to the small farmhouse in which he was born.During his last years, Johnson often ambled the stretch of grassy riverbottom, checking on his grazing Herefords, talking the entire way pastthe shack that once was his grandfather's house, past the low stone wallbordering the family cemetery, to the meticulously restored museum,his birthplace.

    There, his talk sometimes turned to his childhood, stories attachedto this room or that furnishing. Once, standing at the entrance to hisparents' bedroom, where Lyndon slept when his father was away,Johnson described to me a long-remembered ritual: "First my motherwashed my hands and face with water, then tucked me in between thecool, white sheets. She crossed then to that old marble dresser on thefar side of the room and seated herself on the straw chair in front ofthe mirror. I watched her take out the long brown pins from her hair.Then she shook her head from side to side, brushing her hair. I usedto count, fifty strokes with one arm, fifty with the other. Always thesame. Then she emptied a pitcher of water into the washbowl and, witha small yellow cloth, she scrubbed her face, throat, and arms. Then shecame back to the bed, said her prayers, and climbed in beside me.Propped against two pillows, she read to me from books she had readwith her father long ago ... Browning, Milton, Dickens. I liked it betterwhen she talked about when she was a younggirl."

    The world Rebekah described, as Johnson remembered it, wasvery different from the shabby life she was then leading with her husbandand children on the bank of the Pedernales. Her parents hadmoney, position, respectability. They lived in a two-story house surroundedby trees, terraced flower gardens, and a white picket fence. Herpeople—unlike their poor and ignorant neighbors along the Pedernales—were a proper, civilized breed of educators and preachers of Europeanculture. She projected herself to her son as a dreamy young girlwho had spent her afternoons reading poetry under the shade of the bigtrees in those gardens, her evenings discussing literature with her father,Joseph Wilson Baines.

    Baines, a lawyer, educator, and lay preacher in the Baptist churchin Blanco, Texas, was seen by his devoted daughter as the paradigm ofreligious ideals, moral thought, and civic duty. In the late 1870s he hadserved Texas as Secretary of State and afterward as a member of thestate legislature, where, as Rebekah told her son, "he thrilled the chamberswith eloquent speeches on the rights and duties of mankind, theevil of liquor, the importance of cleanliness in thought and deed, andthe iniquity of speculation." With his encouragement, Rebekah hadattended Baylor University—she was one of a small number of Texaswomen in college at that time—where she majored in literature andplanned to write a novel about the old South before the Civil War.

    "I'm certain she could have been a great novelist," Johnson toldme. "But then her daddy died and it all came apart. All his life he hadspoken out against the speculators. He was as righteous as they come.Then in 1904, while my mother was in college, he lost all his moneyon one disastrous deal. It killed him. He became very depressed and hishealth got worse until he died.

    "My mother said it was the end for her, too. In early 1907 shemoved with her mother to a smaller house in Fredericksburg, Texas.She taught elocution and corresponded for the local paper. She stillwanted to do something big, to go places and write, but she said thatafter her father's death she lost her confidence in everything. By thetime my father came into the picture she'd given up. She'd met him theyear before, after he'd won his first victory in the state legislature. Herfather thought he was the most promising young politician in BlancoCounty and wanted her to interview him for the family newspaper. Hewas tall. Six feet four."

    Sam Johnson was a small-time farmer and trader in real estate andcattle. A great storyteller, his language crude and often vulgar, he wasapparently a new kind of man for Rebekah, the opposite of her father.Eight months after her father's death, she married him and moved tothe little farm on the Pedernales:

    The anecdote Johnson told me of his mother's life does not cohere.If she had possessed the talents of a great novelist, it is hardly likelythat her writing would have been completely stopped by her father'sdeath. And her only published work, a history of the Johnson clan, isa highly mannered and sentimental rhapsody. "Now the light came infrom the east," she wrote of Lyndon's birth, "bringing a deep stillness,a stillness so profound and so pervasive that it seemed as if the earthitself were listening. And then there came a sharp, compelling cry—themost awesome, happiest sound known to human ears—the cry of anewborn baby; the first child of Sam Ealy and Rebekah Johnson was`discovering America.'" And her splendid image of Joseph Baines, aman who insisted on morals in politics and inveighed against speculatorsand drinkers, must be reconciled with the man who lost all hismoney on one speculative deal and introduced his only daughter to thehard-drinking, practical Sam Johnson.

    However concocted, Rebekah's family portrait, the types and conceptionsshe delineated, nonetheless affected Lyndon Johnson for therest of his life, forcing divisions between intellect, morality, and action,shaping ideals of the proper politician and the good life. By contrastingthe idyll of her cultured youth with the grimness of her marriage,Rebekah left her son forever ashamed of his roots on the Pedernales.

    There is a sense in which Rebekah's story resembles that of manyother educated women in the West, who found themselves trapped ina land and a life that they loathed, and yet whose only choice seemedself-denial. The "good woman" never complained in public; she consideredit her duty to repress any awareness of the disparities between thecivilization she had left behind and the one in which she had now placedherself.

    In her ancestral history, Rebekah writes only: "I was determinedto overcome circumstances instead of letting them overwhelm me. Atlast I realized that life is real and earnest and not the charming fairytaleof which I had so long dreamed." A life devoid of all she reverenced—reading and long conversation—a tedious life of feeding chickens,scrubbing wash, sewing clothes, growing vegetables, became simply theproblem of "adjustment to a completely opposite personality ... to astrange and new way of life, a way far removed from that I had knownin Blanco and Fredericksburg."

    To her son, however, Rebekah voiced her profound discontent,describing in anguishing detail the ordeal of her life on the Pedernaleswith Sam Johnson. "My mother," Johnson said, "soon discovered thatmy daddy was not a man to discuss higher things. To her mind his lifewas vulgar and ignorant. His idea of pleasure was to sit up half the nightwith his friends, drinking beer, telling stories, and playing dominoes.She felt very much alone. The first year of her marriage was the worstyear of her life. Then I came along and suddenly everything was allright again. I could do all the things she never did."

    "How children dance," Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "to the unlivedlives of their parents," suggesting in poetic language much of the analysisthat follows. In the course of this analysis psychiatric knowledge willbe used as a means of understanding the formation of Johnson's behavior.This body of knowledge, however, is and perhaps always will beincomplete. There are mysteries of the human mind that no analytictechnique can penetrate—mysteries which, over time, even the greatestpsychiatrists, poets, dramatists, and novelists have been unable to explain.There is, for example, no psychiatric principle that can explainJohnson's immense talents, his extraordinary ability to harness hispersonal needs and direct his strength—tirelessly and with practicalintelligence—toward the highest public achievements, or his capacityto sustain a private life whose intimate stability was rare, even amongthose not subject to the disintegrative pressures of a public career.Indeed, to know fully the disabling conditions of Johnson's youth canonly increase admiration for the inexplicable power of his will.

* * *

    Remembering his early years, Johnson spoke almost exclusively ofhis mother. When he mentioned his father, it was to enumerate hisliabilities as a husband and explain what he did to Rebekah.

    "One of the first things I remember about my daddy," Johnsonsaid, "was the time he cut my hair. When I was four or five, I had longcurls. He hated them. `He's a boy,' he'd say to my mother, `and you'remaking a sissy of him. You've got to cut those curls.' My motherrefused. Then, one Sunday morning when she went off to church, hetook the big scissors and cut off all my hair. When my mother camehome, she refused to speak to him for a week."

    Contention between Sam and Rebekah was not restricted to thenurture of their son. There were constant disputes over how the householdshould be managed, whether it would be a home or a hostelry. "Iremember one Thanksgiving," he said. "Holidays always seem to meana lot to women and they certainly did to my mother. She had gottenout the wedding china and roasted a huge turkey. Everything was setjust right. She sat at the head of the table with her fancy lace dress andbig wide sleeves. She was saying the prayers when a knock came on thedoor. My daddy answered and found a Mexican family with five children.

    "They lived nearby. My father had done a lot to help them overthe years. Now they were returning his favor. They had brought hima green cake, the biggest cake I'd ever seen. Well, the minute he sawthem out there, cold and hungry, he invited them to dinner. He wasalways doing things like that. The dinner was loud. There was a lot oflaughing and yelling. I liked it. But then I looked at my mother. Herface was bent toward her plate and she said nothing. I had a feeling thatsomething was wrong, but I was having such a good time I didn't payattention. After the meal, she stood up and went to her room. I followeda little behind her and heard her crying in there. I guess she was reallycounting on it being a private occasion. I looked at her sad face and Ifelt guilty. I went in and tried to make her feel better."

    Yet these discords were mild, Johnson remembered, in comparisonto the fights provoked by his father's drinking. In the Baines' familycode, sobriety was essential; it ensured the cardinal quality, self-control.Sobriety was a promise of industry and reliability. Nor was Rebekahalone in her dismay; at that time, women throughout the West regardedliquor as the most threatening rival for their husband's acceptability,devotion, and income. Their anxiety sustained the Prohibition movement,which enlisted the support of thousands, among them RebekahBaines Johnson. This war between good and evil was manifest in thetwo main symbols of the small Western towns—the church, with itssteeple pointing upward to heaven, and the low saloon, with its swingingdoors leading straight down to hell. There was no room in Rebekah'sProtestant ethic for uncontrolled and frivolous behavior. Economicand social ruin awaited the drunkard. Temperance was both thesign of morality and the key to economic success.

    According to her son, Rebekah saw this conviction painfully vindicatedin her own husband's intemperance. "There was nothingMother hated more than seeing my daddy drink. When he had toomuch to drink, he'd lose control of himself. He used bad language. Hesquandered the little money we had on the cotton and real estatemarkets. Sometimes he'd be lucky and make a lot of money. But moreoften he lost out. One year we'd all be riding high in Pedernales terms,so high in fact that on a scale of A to F, we'd be fight up there withthe A's. Then two years later, he'd lose it all. The cotton he had boughtfor forty-four cents a bale had dropped to six cents a bale, and with itthe Johnsons had dropped to the bottom of the heap. These ups anddowns were hard on my mother. She wanted things to be nice for us,but she could never count on a stable income. When she got upset, sheblamed our money problems on my father's drinking. And then shecried a lot. Especially when he stayed out all night. I remember one badnight. I woke up and heard her in the parlor crying her eyes out. I knewshe needed me. With me there, she seemed less afraid. She stoppedcrying and told me over and over how important it was that I neverlose control of myself and disappoint her that way. I promised that Iwould be there to protect her always. Finally she calmed down and weboth fell asleep."

    The image of Rebekah Baines Johnson that emerges in thesestories is that of a drastically unhappy woman, cut off from all thethings that had once given her pleasure in life, stranded in a cabin ona muddy stream with a man she considered vulgar and brutish, afrustrated woman with a host of throttled ambitions, trying, throughher first-born son, to find a substitute for a dead father, an unsuccessfulmarriage, and a failed career. She seemed under a compulsion to renewon her son's behalf all the plans and projects she had given up forherself. The son would fulfill the wishful dreams she had never carriedout, he would become the important person she had failed to be.

    "She never wanted me to be alone," Lyndon later recalled. "Shekept me constantly amused. I remember playing games with her thatonly the two of us could play. And she always let me win even if to doso we had to change the rules. I knew how much she needed me, thatshe needed me to take care of her. I liked that. It made me feel big andimportant. It made me believe I could do anything in the wholeworld."

    From his position of primacy in his mother's home, Johnsonseemed to develop what Freud has called "the feeling of a conqueror,that confidence of success that often induces real success." The earlyprivilege of his mother's intense love was a source of great energy andpower. He learned the alphabet before he was two, learned to read andspell before he was four, and at three could recite long passages ofpoetry from Longfellow and Tennyson. "I'll never forget how much mymother loved me when I recited those poems. The minute I finishedshe'd take me in her arms and hug me so hard I sometimes thought I'dbe strangled to death."

    But as strong as Rebekah's feelings undoubtedly were, one gets theimpression Lyndon never experienced her love as a steady or reliableforce, but as a conditional reward, alternately given and taken away.When he failed to satisfy her desires—as he did when he refused tocomplete the violin and dancing lessons she set up for him when he wasseven and eight—he experienced not simply criticism but a completewithdrawal of affection. "For days after I quit those lessons she walkedaround the house pretending I was dead. And then to make it worse,I had to watch her being especially warm and nice to my father andsisters." The same experience was repeated later when Johnsonrefused to go to college and Rebekah closed him out for weeks, refusingto speak or even to look at him.

    One cannot prove the existence of a pattern on the basis of threeor four remembered incidents. But there does seem to be a connectinglink between the syndrome implicit in Johnson's childhood memories—of love alternately given and taken away—and the pattern observedin nearly all his adult relationships. With friends, colleagues, and membersof his staff, Johnson was capable of unusual closeness; he envelopedpeople, one by one, in the warmth of his affection and concern. If thehospital bill of a friend needed payment, he paid it. If an employee'schild needed a new coat, he bought it. If a secretary's house neededrenovation, he supervised. But in return he demanded a measure ofgratitude and loyalty so high that disappointment was inevitable. Andwhen the disappointment came, Johnson tended to withdraw his affectionand concern—the "Johnson freeze-out" it was called—hurtingothers in much the same way his mother had hurt him years before.

    So predictable was his tendency to spoil the relationships he mostcared about that it suggests in him the presence of a powerful fearattached to the experience of intimacy: a fear reminiscent perhaps ofthat he must have felt years before as a consequence of the unique rolehe'd been asked to play in his mother's life. For though the young boytook obvious pleasure from certain aspects of his special role—"I lovedit when my mother needed me and when she told me all her secrets"—he is certain to have feared, at least subconsciously, that his fathermight one day cease tolerating his presumption and take revenge. Johnsondoes remember the "absolute terror" he experienced one nightwhen he was wakened from sleep in his mother's bed by the suddenopening of the bedroom door, only to find a younger sister standingthere, in her nightgown, crying out for her mother. And from the fearsof the boy would develop in the man a continuing sense that, in the end,his power to command love and affection was illegitimate, momentarilywielded but easily overthrown.

    While admitting the pain and confusion he felt as a child, Johnsonrefused to recognize his mother as a possible source. But it is a commonplaceof psychiatric observation that too much devotion and tendernesscan lead to great trouble when the child has to step from the tinykingdom of his mother's home. When Johnson first went to school,he stood next to his teacher all day long, refusing to let go of her skirt.As the teacher, Katie Dietrich, told the story many years later, shecould hardly understand him the first two weeks. He had a peculiar wayof rolling his r's and his own way of talking. If she asked him to readthe lesson, he would simply stand there, unmoving and mute. Finally,she called "Miss Rebekah," who suggested that perhaps things wouldprogress if Lyndon were allowed to sit on the teacher's lap whenevershe asked him to read. She tried and the tactic succeeded. Still, Johnsonwanted to be home, and in three months got his wish. He contractedwhooping cough, the first of a series of illnesses that strangely abettedhis desires, and had to be kept at home for the remainder of the schoolyear.

    So close was the boy to his mother, as Johnson recalled, that oneimagines him as an only child when in fact he had four siblings: Rebekah,born when he was two, Josepha when he was four, Sam when hewas six, and Lucia when he was eight. Of his relations with his siblingsJohnson said very little. There is one vivid scene, however, which hedescribed as a memory but which may, instead, have been a dream oreven an aggressive fantasy against both his mother and the unborn childshe was then carrying: "I was throwing a baseball to my oldest sister,Rebekah. We were playing in the yard in front of our house. Motherwas watching. My younger sister, Josepha, was sitting in her cribbehind us, crying. I threw the ball straight and fast, but just as it leftmy hands Mother moved toward Josepha and stepped right in the pathof the ball. She was very pregnant with Sam then. The ball hit her hard,right in the middle of her stomach, and she lost her balance and felldown. I was terrified at the thought of what I'd done. I was certain thather belly would pop just like a balloon. Later, I found out that she hadbeen even more frightened than me. She was, she told me much later,certain that the baby had been damaged. But at the time she saidnothing of her fear; she immediately gathered me up into her arms andheld me until I finally stopped crying."

    It is difficult to imagine that a boy of five could throw a ball withsufficient force to knock an adult woman to the ground. It is alsodifficult, though not impossible, to accept the certainty of Rebekah'sbelief that in her fall she had damaged her unborn child. The interestingdetail is Johnson's memory that his mother stepped right into the pathof the moving ball, permitting the argument that she and not he wasresponsible.

    "But that wasn't all," Johnson continued. "Later that day, I lefthome to walk to my grandfather's house, which was a half-mile up theroad. Mother, always afraid that I would fall into the river, had toldme never to leave the dirt path. But the day was hot and the road wasdry and dusty and I wanted to cool my hands and feet. I left the roadand ran down to the river bank. I was skipping along until I fell on theroots of a dead tree, and hit my head. I tried to get up. My head hurt.I fell back and lay still. I thought I would be left there forever. It wasmy punishment. Then, suddenly, my parents were there. Together theypicked me up and carried me home. They put me to bed, blew out thelight, and sat down at the end of the bed waiting for me to fall asleep.All the time they kept talking in a low voice. They sounded goodtogether. Mother's voice was not as cold as it usually was when shetalked with Father. His voice was warm, too. I remember thinking thatbeing hurt and frightened was worth it so long as it ended this way. Ithought that I would have been willing to go through the experiencea hundred times to be sure of finding at the end a thing so nice andfriendly as my parents were then."

* * *

    The boy's willingness to exchange physical pain for mental peaceprovides an interior window on the constant tensions that must haveshaped his childhood days. Further evidence of these tensions is suggestedin Johnson's memory of his grandfather's house just down theroad as "the perfect escape from all my problems at home." Yearslater Johnson told how much he loved to visit with his grandfather latein the day, when the two of them could talk undisturbed for two hoursor more. "I sat beside the rocker on the floor of the porch, thinking allthe while how lucky I was to have as a granddaddy this big man withthe white beard who had lived the most exciting life imaginable."


Excerpted from Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Copyright © 1991 by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Foreword i
Chapter 1 / GROWING UP 19
Chapter 3 / THE MAKING OF A Politician 72
Chapter 5 / THE SENATE LEADER 135
Chapter 8 / THE GREAT SOCIETY 210
Chapter 9 / VIETNAM 251
Chapter 10 / THINGS CO WRONG 286
Chapter 12 / THE WITHDRAWAL 335
Epilogue 353
Acknowledgments 367
Author's Postscript 369
Notes 401
Index 421
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 9, 2009

    Learned much more about Johnson by reading the book. Little too much psychoanalysis, but some if it helped me understand his character. It was a quick read...and I would recommend the book. Liked Doris's FDR and Lincoln book better..easy reads.

    I would recommend this book as it provided good insight into the decision process of Johnson. Enjoyed learning more about his legislative superiority. Viet Nam war segment could have been more

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 1, 2012

    Highly recommended

    This is an extremely well written one-volume account of the life and legacy of Lyndon Johnson. Doris Kearns Goodwin ("Team of Rivals," "No Ordinary Time") is a consummate teller of history and brings us a unique perspective on Johnson's life - that of someone invited by him to sit and hear his life story over the course of several months. She records his account, but also supplies her own critique of LBJ, the history he lived and the history he made.

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  • Posted July 1, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Very Focused and Strongly Recommended

    I have been curious about Lyndon Johnson for some time. Doris Kearns Goodwin has done an excellent job in writing this book, which makes if even better because she had worked for Lyndon Johnson while he was in the Presidency and afterwards.

    One of the first things I noticed was that the book remains sharply focused. The book was so focused that some of the issues of Johnson's time were not elaborated upon. As if it is expected that you were supposed to know about the situations at hand. His policies that were established, such as the Great Society, were not talked about so much in detail as what the policies of the time consisted of, but how he dealt with them and was involved in getting the laws passed through Congress. For this reason, I feel that it is important that you have some background knowledge of the era and the specific policies established. Since I was born 12 years after Johnson's death, I had a little difficulty trying to discern what some of those issues were excluding actual policies.

    Johnson used his power for the sake of helping the less fortunate for the most part. I respect him so much for this, his interest in helping the poor, and minorities is such a rarity. If it wasn't for him, I probably would not have been able to attend college because of the costs, or maybe I would have because costs may have been much lower which is off topic. Also, maybe there would have been civil rights issues that would have had an effect on me and others if it partially were not for him.

    There is a common complaint here and elsewhere about the psychoanalysis of Johnson's life. I felt that this insight was not excessive and, for the most part, is included in the first few chapters of this book and in the postscript (which I recommend reading). I felt that it was necessary to be informed of the psychology of this individual becuase of his, what I think "rare" personality. Johnson was a very mecurial individual and it shows throughout the book. His mecurial personality was definitely used to get what he wanted throughout his political career.

    This book is strongly recommeneded for people who are interested in politics, history, or biographies in general. Please take a look at the suggested book if you are interested in what the Great Society consisted of. Also, try reading the postscript after the acknowledgements of this book. It is additional psychoanalysis of his personality throughout his life.

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