A distinguished historian of twentieth-century America, Woods offers a wholesale reappraisal and sweeping, authoritative account of the life of one of the most fascinating and complex U.S. presidents.
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About the Author
Randall B. Woods is John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. He is also the author of the widely praised Fulbright: A Biography.
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LBJArchitect of American Ambition
By Randall Woods
Free PressCopyright © 2006 Randall B. Woods
All right reserved.
PrologueThe 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 presidentinvariably 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.
Excerpted from LBJ by Randall Woods Copyright © 2006 by Randall B. Woods. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Growing Up 20
The Secretary 70
Lady Bird and the NYA 92
Truman and the Coming of the Cold War 179
A Populist Gentlemen's Club 219
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
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
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
Civil War 715
Battling Dr. Strangelove 739
The Holy Land 759
Of Hawks and Doves, Vultures and Chickens 798
A Midsummer Nightmare 838
Touching the Void 865
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
884 pages (without notes) of the life of LBJ. It was a slog, and every moment of his life is covered in detail. Very well researched and noted, but it gets very long, almost painful.
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.