Lyndon's Reign as President

A Review of Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President
by Robert Dallek

Author Biography

Robert Dallek was born on May 16,1934, and currently lives in Washington D.C.. Dallek earned a Ph.D. and is known as an American Historian. He taught at UCLA and is currently the professor of History at the University of Boston. Furthermore, he has written many books such as Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960, and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973.

The rags-to-riches story of Lyndon B. Johnson was extraordinarily well-written by Robert Dallek, who is the author of the historical work, Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President. This book was the compressed version of the two volumes: "Lone Star Rising" (published in 1991), and "Flawed Giant" (published in 1998). Also, this book was made for students because he condensed 1,200 pages of text from the 2 volumes into a 377-page book, which would be easier for this audience to read. Moreover, this book gave a realistic, interesting, and balanced portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

The beginning of this book from chapters one to three focused on Lyndon Johnson’s childhood and the beginnings of his political career. He was born on August 27, 1908, in Texas. He was influenced into the ambition of governing because his father Sam Earl Johnson Jr. was in the House of Representatives. At times when people visited his dad for political advice, LBJ would “…hide into the bedroom next to the porch, listening through an open window to what was being said”.1 Later, his dad took LBJ to the legislature where he would stand in the gallery watching everything. However, LBJ’s adolescent years were very rebellious. In high school, for example, LBJ would take everything as a joke, but would still score highly because he was quicker then the other kids. In May 1924, LBJ graduated from the 11th grade, which was the final grade at Johnson High School, when he was only 15 years old. After high school, LBJ went to Southwestern Texas State Teacher’s College (S.W.T.S.T.C.) in San Marcos on his parents’ demands, but managed to get kicked out. LBJ retried S.W.T.S.T.C. in 1927, at his mother’s wishes. LBJ’s focus became earning a teacher’s certificate. In college, LBJ was described as a paradox because he was irritating when he bragged about his family, but successively did all his work and wanted power so he could help the poor and the minority. In 1928, LBJ left S.W.T.S.T.C. because of financial problems and started working in Cotulla, Texas for $93.50 a month. He was paid a high salary because the conditions he taught in were terrible. The students were poor and the areas they lived in were far worse than anything LBJ had ever experienced. After the depression in 1931, LBJ agreed to become an appointed secretary for congressman Richard Keleberg. Now, LBJ’s starting salary became $3, 900 and Keleberg often left his entire work to LBJ, who would have no clue on how to manage things. LBJ favored Franklin D. Roosevelt, so he convinced Keleberg not to vote against New Deal Programs. In 1934, LBJ met Claudia Alta Taylor, who he fell in love with and married. “Only 24-hours after they met he asked her to marry him”.2 Another success for LBJ was when he campaigned against eight opponents for a seat in the House of Representatives and won because he was the only one who supported the president, FDR. Later, however, he wanted to run for Senate, so, in 1941, he organized an illegal campaign over $25,000 that resulted in a loss to O’Daniel. A happier event occurred three years later in March of 1944 when LBJ had his first child, a girl. In 1945, however, FDR, the one person LBJ supported and believed in the most, died of a brain hemorrhage. A few years after the death of FDR, LBJ won the election for senator against Coke Stevenson in 1948. When LBJ finally became a senator in 1949, he was 40 years old. On January 2, 1953, LBJ got nominated as Minority Leader and later became the Majority Leader. As a senator, LBJ was very successful in driving major bills, such as wages and housing laws. Yet, a couple of years later in 1955, LBJ’s health problems began with a heart attack and a coronary occlusion on July 4. In politics though, LBJ was a supporter of the civil rights bill of 1956 and co-sponsored NASA with Style Bridges.

However, chapters four to seven demonstrated how LBJ wanted a higher position in politics. So in the presidential election of 1960, LBJ ran for the nomination for the President of the United States, but John F. Kennedy received it instead. When JFK got nominated, he wanted LBJ to run as his vice president. On July 14, LBJ received the nomination for vice president. In 1960, JFK became president and LBJ vice president. Although he had won vice, LBJ wasn’t happy and said, “Every time I came into John Kennedy’s presence, I felt like a goddamn raven hovering over his shoulder."3 This showed the inability of a vice president to make any decisions or commands that a president would be able to make. Nevertheless, since LBJ knew every reporter in Washington, JFK wanted to keep him happy so he let him keep his Majority Leader’s office. Furthermore, JFK continued to attempt to make LBJ happy, by telling him that he would represent the U.S. abroad and sending him on a world tour. As ambassador LBJ visited all of Asia and Africa. Later in the Committee of Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO), LBJ had the hardest time charring it because northern liberals would say he does too little and southern conservatives would attack him for doing too much. The turning point of Johnson’s vice presidential career came when JFK was assassinated in 1963 and hence, LBJ became the new president. LBJ felt a great deal of grief because he had lost a great rival. Also, LBJ’s objectives as president were to keep the country united and finish JFK’s liberal agenda. Thus, LBJ began his legislation with the tax cut and “War on Poverty”. Furthermore, LBJ started outlining his “Great Society” programs. However, foreign affairs took up most of the president’s time. One foreign affair issue was Vietnam. LBJ wanted to continue JFK’s mission in Vietnam, but he wanted to put the issue on hold until the November elections. On August 2, the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, so the aircraft that supported the Maddox fired back. LBJ justified this attack as self-defense by the U.S. and managed to persuade congress with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions to send troops to Vietnam. On the other hand, Barry Morris Goldwater became LBJ’s opponent in the 1964 elections. Also, Hubert Humphrey became the nominee for vice president on LBJ’s side. LBJ’s tactics for winning the election were to bash Goldwater for being an extremist. This strategy worked magnificently because LBJ won the election. After he won, LBJ gave federal aid to education, started Medicare for U.S. citizens over 65 years old, and, on May 26, got the voting rights bill passed in the civil rights category, but it wasn’t successful because a riot in Watts, Los Angles occurred over that issue and killed 34 people.

Furthermore, Lyndon Johnson’s problems continued to escalade from chapters eight to eleven. In the Vietnam issue, LBJ made an aggressive policy. When an American base at Peleiku was attacked and eight U.S. advisors were killed, LBJ agreed to an air strike. His bombing campaign was called “Rolling Thunder."4 In the end of February, LBJ sent marines to guard the American Air Bases in Danang, but didn’t put them in combat. However, Ho Chi Minh had his belief that the war would end if U.S. troops would withdraw from South Vietnam and stop attacking North Vietnam. LBJ tried to secretly change the positions of the troops in Vietnam from defensive to offensive, but word got out. Therefore, LBJ had no choice but to expand the Vietnam War so that he could preserve South Vietnam from a communist take over. Along with LBJ’s struggle with Vietnam was his struggle with the “Great Society”. For this program LBJ got bills passed that reduced hazards. However, his “War on Poverty” programs got diminished and a civil rights bill for equal housing and jury selection failed. Aside from the unsuccessful programs, LBJ acknowledged that the Vietnam War was a civil war against North and South Vietnam, therefore, he wanted to make a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam rather than earn a military victory. Although the U.S. was miserably failing, LBJ never gave up. This war with Vietnam destroyed any possibility for reform. In addition, the highlight of LBJ’s political reform was the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice. He appointed the colored Justice, Marshall, because he was trying to continue the fight for civil rights.

Towards the end from chapters twelve to fifteen, the deadlock in LBJ’s political career gets displayed. Moreover, LBJ simply lost hope for saving Vietnam and became desperate for a proposal. The fact that everyone such as senators, academics, business and religious leaders who opposed LBJ started to antagonize him. To make matters worse, on January 31, which was the first day of the Vietnamese New Year, “Tet”, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front launched the “Tet Offensive”, where the South Vietnamese and the U.S. embassy were attacked. However, after a month of fighting, U.S. troops killed 37,000 enemies, causing a major defeat on the communists. On the other hand, for the civil rights issue, when Martin Luther King Jr. got assassinated, the Open Housing Bill finally got passed. After that, LBJ decided to retire instead of running for the next election. Although he retired, he wrote memoirs, set up a presidential library in Austin, established LBJ School of Public Affairs at University of Texas, and finally put his ranch and business affairs in order. He remained out of politics, and, in 1969, Nixon got elected as president. Although LBJ had lived an extraordinary life filled with its upsides and downsides, he continued to have heart problems. In the end, LBJ died of a second heart attack.

Robert Dallek’s thesis in this book was to present the audience with a truly balanced biography of Johnson’s life. Also, he has placed Johnson in the best light possible. For example, in the 1948 senate campaign, Johnson steals the victory from Governor Coke Stephenson. Dallek displays this event in his book by presenting the fact that in Texas elections, everyone steals votes. This, therefore, balances the view of the reader because the reader can now assume that LBJ was dishonest, but so were his competitors. Also the author makes the assumptions that since the last four out of five presidents “…Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and two Bushes- have been from Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas speaks to the renewed political power of the south."5 Although this is true, all of these presidents had their success and their failures. Therefore, according to Dallek’s statement above, it can be seen that the south is gaining its political strengths back.

Nevertheless, the first volume that was written about LBJ was published 20 years after LBJ had left office, so there were disagreements over LBJ’s presidency at that time. Also, since this book was published by 2004, the consequences of the September 11, 2001 terror attack may have changed the author’s mind into believing that it’s always some foreign issue that ruins the presidency. For example, the Vietnam War ruined Johnson, and the Iraq War of 2003 ruined President George W. Bush.

In the Boston Globe newspaper, Ken Bode wrote an article describing how Dallek’s book, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Portrait of a President shows how Johnson’s failure with Vietnam has parallels with President Bush’s war in Iraq. Also, Bode believes that the portrait of LBJ presented by Dallek was “larger then normal in every aspect of life, ambition, shrewdness, great accomplishments, crudity, duplicity and ultimately failure."6 However, Josh Getlin from the Los Angles Times offered to speculate the differences between Robert Caro and Robert Dallek. Caro seemed to bash Lyndon in his books and wrote about the time period before LBJ became president. However, Dallek presented not only the negatives, but also the positives of LBJ, producing the balanced “portrait of a president”. Also, Getlin claims that “…Dallek- unlike Caro-points out that LBJ also worked feverishly to mobilize the war effort at home."7 Also, Getlin assumed that “Perspective is everything to the UCLA professor."8 This comment was used to describe how Dallek presented the 1948 Senate election where LBJ stole the senate seat from Governor Coke Stephens because the Senate seat had been stolen from LBJ in 1941.

After the reader has completely read this book, the reader has a clear view of how politics work. A strength of this book would be that it shows a clear indication of how LBJ became the president and was easy to read and comprehend. Another strength of this book would be how it showed LBJ’s momentum building up for politics from his childhood to his retirement. On the other hand, a weakness of this book is when, towards the end, it seems as though while the main focus was the Vietnam War, some other foreign issues were just thrown in there and it was hard to distinguish their significance. Also, another weakness of this book was that it seemed a bit conservative and didn’t really go into the personal life of the president. This book could have become more interesting if it had gone into the confidential or personal life of the president. It was well written, but really missing some powerful adjectives such as antagonizing instead of painful. According to Dallek, this period marked a watershed in American political and economical history. Even the reader could figure out that the political watershed was the Vietnam War, since the Vietnamese wouldn’t cooperate by forming a proposal that they would stick to. LBJ struggled with the decision to send troops into Vietnam, but after South Vietnam got attacked, the U.S. had to intervene to save that part of Vietnam from getting taken over by communists. This became a watershed because the U.S. ended up losing many troops in Vietnam and the U.S. lost South Vietnam to Communism. Also, this was the reason for the watershed in economy because a lot of money was put into the “Rolling Thunder” campaign and financing the war in Vietnam, causing the LBJ administration to almost go broke. The Vietnam War caused the values practiced to change a little, because the citizens demanded that their president be more honest, and the press had developed new ways to exploit politics. The ideas from Johnson’s presidency have not changed and most citizens still believe that war destroys reforms.

The impact that this era has had on America today is that the president’s every move now is published in newspapers, or shown on television, because when Lyndon B. Johnson was president, he had kept the Vietnam War a secret from the American public and congress, so that congress wouldn’t be able to stop the war effort. Moreover, people are further aware now of AIDS and birth control than they were in the 1960s and early 1970s. Also, the impact of a new wave of music that occurred in the early 1960s called “Rock and Roll” caused an inflammation of the rates of people using drugs, but also the style of clothing and melody from that period has influenced many of the current bands today to play and dress just like the “Rock and Rollers” of the 1960s.

Therefore, this book has been a very comprehendible elaboration of Lyndon Johnson ‘s life and has created the equal balance for the portrait of his Presidency. Also, Robert Dallek has proven himself as an extraordinary historian by presenting factual and chronological, rather than entertaining and random, information about Johnson’s life. Lyndon Johnson was a boy with immense dreams, who, as he grew up, discovered that dreams do come true, but with a price. LBJ’s price to pay was the continuation of JFK’s Vietnam affair. Since he personally decided to continue the Vietnam foreign affair, he ruined the presidential term and administration, which also lead to the destruction of the Great Society Programs and the loss of South Vietnam to Communism.

review by Sahar Masood

  1. Dallek, Robert. Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President. 198 Madison Avenue: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004, 6.
  2. Dallek, Robert 24.
  3. Dallek, Robert 122.
  4. Dallek, Robert 209.
  5. Dallek, Robert X (preface).
  6. Bode, Ken “‘Flawed Giant’ Lyndon Johnson Did Everything- succeed, scheme, cajole, and fail-On the Grand Scale.” Boston Globe 25 Jan 2004: 2.
  7. Getlin, Josh “ 2 Biographies, 2 Vastly different pictures of L.B.J. authors and historical writers against 1 another.” Los Angles Times 15 Jul 1991: 5.
  8. Getlin, Josh 5.

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