Monday, August 27, 2012

Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters (2010)

The very last sentences of this book is in essence Peters' take on LBJ:

Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird's press secretary, who was affectionately regarded in Washington for her humor and common sense, says: "That's just him.  You have to face the fact that he was that way.  You had to accept him warts and all."  And so does history.

Peters really doesn't pull any punches, and LBJ's accomplishments and warts are scattered throughout the book for all to see. His extramarital affairs, his abuse and humiliation of his subordinates and associates, his political chicanery to get elected.  His story about LBJ's huge dick - Jumbo - and how he used to whip it out and make his male subordinates take theirs out to compare was deliciously gossipy; his taking a shit in front of them was crudely gossipy as well.  Still Peters is fair - Johnson was half diamond, half dirt, and Peters details the diamond aspects as well.  The Kennedys - Bobby in particular - aren't all good to Johnson being all bad.  With Vietnam, he followed both the conventional wisdom of the time (which only overwhelmingly turned against the war rather late in the game, perhaps due to press manipulation) and his fear of being branded a loser like Truman who "lost" China.  His Great Society, although berated by many today, was still a shining jewel - "only Franklin Roosevelt can match Johnson's legislative record."  As time recedes from the heady days of the sixties, Johnson (like most presidents) will be evaluated and reevaluated and probably found wanting in some areas but great in others.  There will probably never be a better politician in the White House though, and that may be something we are going to need to ever get anything done again.  He really believed in helping the underdog too, whatever his issues with power and courage.  He's certainly an anti-hero; there's not much on the outside to admire.

Lyndon B. Johnson (The American Presidents, #36)Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not the most interesting book in this series, but still well worth reading.  Peters quotes Lady Bird's press secretary Liz Carpenter at the end:  "That's just him.  You have to face the fact that he was that way.  You had to accept him warts and all."  And so does history."  That seems to be the guiding principle behind Peters narrative.  Johnson was a combination of diamond and dirt, and Peters shows both sides.  The cheating husband and horrible boss (The Devil Wears Prada in politics) was also the gentle giant who passed the Great Society.  It's a study in contrasts.  If Peters didn't bring LBJ quite to life in the book, he certainly presented the many facets of a president  that history is still trying to figure out.

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