He Cared and He Tried

A Review of Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson
by Joe Califano

Author Biography

Joseph Anthony Califano, Jr. was born on May 15, 1931. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1952 and from Harvard Law School in 1955. In July 1965, Califano became a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson and served as his senior domestic policy aide. He continued to serve in this post for the remainder of Johnson’s term.

Joe Califano’s Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is exactly as its name implies—it is a captivating look into the true conscience of the 1960s president who guided America through a turbulent era of war and civil unrest. Completely unlike the dull and near-lifeless nature of the typical textbook, this entrancing portrait of Lyndon Johnson presents, in full detail the true nature of the man in the Oval Office. The legislation behind the Great Society is common knowledge, but the man behind the legislation was one full of emotional complexities and ideological struggles. Califano’s memoir of Johnson’s White House years introduces the American public to a man who was “consumed and driven.”1

As tragic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Johnson was now, as president of the United States, free to bring his life-long personal beliefs into legislative action. Califano alludes to Johnson’s upbringing in Texas as a disturbing first-hand experience with racial discrimination. Johnson’s commitment to racial justice and eliminating poverty was, Califano asserts, truly genuine and sincere. The intimacy with which readers are brought to Johnson is truly stunning; Califano brings to attention the president’s acute hatred of being alone, always fearfully conscious that a second heart attack could occur at any time. The Vietnam War, too, heavily impacted the man. Strongly aware that most of the young soldiers in Southeast Asia knew not what they were fighting for, Johnson acknowledged with a heavy heart that “to know war is to know that there is still madness in this world.”2 Another detail of the president’s personal life that only Califano would be aware of is that Johnson, quite clandestinely, stopped drinking; Califano cites the cause as Johnson’s concern about not being at “full capacity of every second of every day” 3 at a time when, at any moment, he might have to make a critical decision about the troops in Vietnam. These aspects of Johnson’s life paint a clearer picture of the man responsible for transforming an entire nation.

The first of the three major sections of the book is appropriately titled “Happy Days,” the majority of which deals with the struggle-by-struggle determination of Johnson to use his legendary personality and presence to persuade a reluctant Congress into passing another civil rights act. Through this, readers glean the president’s strong political beliefs, and, by extent, learn the underlying motives behind the Great Society. Johnson was ecstatic at the idea of transforming slums into clean, modern communities complete with scenic roadways, programs for the preservation of historic sites, and secure police protection. He was also eager to approve measures that would “encourage comprehensive health planning at the local level, modernize hospitals, increase the number of doctors graduating from medical schools, train paramedics, and …[even] create a Committee on Mental Retardation.”4 This truly was a man who cared deeply for the well-being and improvement of the nation.

And so, the second section of the book is, quite understandably, titled “Sleepless Nights.” Johnson’s thirst for racial justice and his push for the Great Society took a heavy toll on the man. Yearning recognition for his efforts and longing to leave a positive legacy in American history, Johnson stressed the importance of keeping up with the news, and he personally took to heart when race riots appeared in newspapers as a bitter slap in the face despite his intense efforts. Especially disconcerting to Johnson were protestors’ chants outside the White House one evening of, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”5 He was bothered, too, by the draft, for he saw that “blacks and Mexican-Americans…did not have nearly the same opportunity to escape the draft through higher education and occupational deferments” as the children of the middle and upper class.6 Califano notes that, because Johnson made the draft fairer and thus affected the children of the wealthier and the more influential, he put himself at great political risk. Also noteworthy is Johnson’s nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be the first black Supreme Court justice; this acutely reflects the man’s belief in the importance of role models to encourage children of every ethnicity to aspire for whatever future they desire, regardless of racial limitations. Undoubtedly, Johnson faced an overwhelmingly exhausting flood of stress and anxiety.

Thus, Califano titles the third and final section of the book, “Nightmare Year”. The notorious year of 1968 marked an American period of social turbulence and national instability. Johnson became distressed with articles denigrating his administration and polls questioning his leadership. He was deeply troubled by the budget deficit and the stalemate over taxes. Almost frenetically, he pressed the contentious 90th Congress for domestic reforms as time seemed to be running out at an alarming pace. The assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy within months of each other understandably did not help to alleviate the dark atmosphere either. Indeed, when Johnson’s administration finally did draw to an end, he looked back on it with much regret and bitter feelings of dissatisfaction. He regretted his failure to get a gun registration and licensing bill passed, and he felt guilty for not achieving peace in Southeast Asia and establishing an early end to the war. Still, Califano reminds the reader that Johnson had the courage to accept the inevitable risks of his policies, and that, if nothing else, it must be recognized that “Lyndon Johnson cared and…tried.”7

The conclusion Califano makes, then, is that Johnson “was prepared to land on his sword…to advance the cause of the poor and the black, [to] resist the Communist aggression he saw in Southeast Asia, and [to] heal the divisions in our nation he had come to symbolize.”8 If, upon reading these assertions, one would perceive Johnson as a humanitarian figure, Califano would most likely smile and reply with an enthusiastic, “exactly!” Indeed, throughout the book, Califano presents Johnson as almost a humanitarian martyr — risking his political reputation time and time again in order to fight and struggle for the needs of the nation’s less fortunate. Congress responded reluctantly to his aspirations for the impoverished and the racially discriminated, and the public—both American and globally—responded contemptuously to his efforts to maintain the war in Vietnam. The book makes it clear that Johnson successfully won many battles for the implementation of the Great Society, and yet, upon completion of the book, the reader realizes that, by the time Johnson’s term was over, the Great Society was still not a reality. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Califano, Johnson “left plenty of achievements to build on and plenty of mistakes to learn from.”9

However, one cannot help but wonder from these optimistic affirmations whether Califano is truly legitimate as, not only an admirer of the president, but also a critic. Indeed, the special assistant for domestic affairs played a very personal role with the president that, like all close relationships, is inevitably prone to bias. It seems as if, at every turn, Califano is there to back up another one of Johnson’s bold moves. Still, with this book having been written nearly twenty decades after the fact, Califano has certainly had an abundant amount of time to think matters out and reevaluate the truth of what went on during the Johnson administration. Califano himself points out, “I’ve spent many hours since then reflecting on these years.”10 And yet, for the same reason, these near-twenty years after the death of Johnson may have cemented the figure into Califano’s mind as a selfless and righteous man incapable of ideological blemishes. Nevertheless, whether Califano may have presented the man as idealized or not, the undeniable character of Johnson shines through, and it is apparent that, at the very least, the truth seems to be more aligned with Califano’s portrayal than the opposite.

Laura Kalman of the New York Times, fully conscious of Califano’s noble depiction of the president,sharply acknowledges the book as a description of Johnson “when he was good.”11 She asserts that this memoir of the last three and a half years of his presidency stands out in its “vividness”, in which Johnson “leaps out of the pages in all his raw and earthy glory.” 12 Kalman points out that, as the special assistant for domestic affairs, no one worked more closely with Johnson than Califano on domestic policy and the economy. She even cites The New York Times’ 1968 entitlement of Califano as the “Deputy President for Domestic Affairs” as further testimony to the author’s supreme authority on the subject. Kalman notes that, “though most memoirs by presidential aides present a fuller picture of their authors than of the Chief Executives”, Califano actually describes Johnson “more distinctly than he does himself.”13 She pointedly remarks that, according to the book, “the President berated…[Califano]…so often for ineptness that it is sometimes hard to understand why Johnson prized him.”14 Kalman concludes that Califano stayed with the president because he believed in his program, though it is “unclear how he felt about his relationship with Johnson.”15 She admits that no single memoir can offer a definitive portrait of Johnson because he “wore so many different faces for so many different people”, but she acknowledges that, with Califano’s account, “we feel Johnson’s presence.”16

Hugh Sidey of Time magazine has assessed this book to be a crucial chapter in the “complex Johnson political odyssey.”17 He states that Califano has delivered a “hard, pure nugget of L.B.J.” that is “close to the truth”, and he adds that “Califano was there taking notes.” 18 Sidey, similarly to Kalman, mentions the “deviousness, the bullying and the lying” of Johnson, which are “reported so graphically…that a reader must wonder how Califano…could work for such a tyrant.”18 He affirms that Johnson’s mistrust of Vice President Hubert Humphrey has “never been so starkly chronicled.”19 Indeed, Johnson had stripped Humphrey of all authority on civil rights programs in a “brutal” maneuver that had placed Califano uncomfortably at the middle of matters. Still, Sidey perceives in Califano a keen insight into the “larger purpose struggling within that tortured man.”20 It is clear through the civil rights campaign and the legislative battles on health, education, and housing that there is a “vision held high by Johnson”, and Califano deftly narrates this humanitarian battle. 21 However, Sidey describes the detail in to which Califano describes life with Johnson as “[bothering] us with a lot of irrelevant comings and goings around the White House.”22 Indeed, there is an overwhelming amount of seemingly-unimportant recounts of mundane matters that, for Sidey and some others, may drag down the book’s sense of urgency. Nonetheless, this book is otherwise a vibrant look into the mind of a stressed national leader through the eyes of a surprisingly patient and compliant personal advisor.

The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson largely reflects the immense impact the decade of the sixties has had on American society. Johnson, with his plan for the Great Society, laid the foundation for an enormous amount of domestic reform. Views towards education, health care, and welfare all drastically changed due to his Great Society objective. Johnson’s hatred of racism had helped to advance the cause of the civil rights movement, and ethnic minorities nationwide are where they are now at least in some part by his unwavering struggle for racial justice. Meanwhile, the crisis in Vietnam affected the nation greatly. This being the first war to be televised, Americans back home were now able to, as they ate their dinners in their living rooms, witness the inevitable carnage that comes with war. Califano adds that it took a “frightful toll on the nation and the President,” and that “its bloody battles sapped the American spirit, took thousands of young lives, and stunted the growth of the Great Society.”23

Analysis of Califano’s depiction of the 1960s as a time that forever changed America holds true in light of present-day perspective. Children of all races have the right to education in non-discriminatory schools, and, even going beyond what Johnson originally believed possible, scholarships are now especially available for college-bound students of all ethnicities, including both blacks and Hispanics. Healthcare, although expensive, is now readily available to almost any American citizen in need, and countless organizations working ardently to eradicate poverty in America are fulfilling Califano assertion that Johnson “simply refused to accept poverty.”24 Racism, although still regrettably present, is looked down upon and would be shunned were it ever to appear in governmental practice. The mere fact that, citing an example, George W. Bush would be criticized for slow delivery of relief to predominantly black hurricane victims merely testifies to just how much national attitude has changed. Remembrance of the Vietnam War and the many lives lost along with it has driven the American public to be a largely anti-war nation, as is evident by current-day widespread criticism of the American War in Iraq. Califano’s perception of the sixties and Johnson’s integral role in the era as a pivotal point in American history is clearly well-founded.

The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson focuses on the president trapped in the middle of all the chaos and turmoil of a turbulent era. Leading a nation like this could not have been easy, and Califano is there to document just how Johnson chose to meet this situation. In the face of this civil hysteria, Johnson kept his composure of, as Califano notes, “powerful personal presence, remarkable intelligence, penetrating psychological insights, and enormous political talent.”25 The presidency of Lyndon Johnson truly was a drama of triumph and tragedy; not only for the man himself, but for the nation he led.

review by Matt Schwartz

    Califano, Joseph. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1991, 341.
  1. Califano, Joseph 119.
  2. Califano, Joseph 125 .
  3. Califano, Joseph 115.
  4. Califano, Joseph 203.
  5. Califano, Joseph 203.
  6. Califano, Joseph 341.
  7. Califano, Joseph 340.
  8. Califano, Joseph 338.
  9. Califano, Joseph 341.
  10. Kalman, Laura. “When He Was Good.” New York Times: 15
  11. Kalman, Laura.
  12. Kalman, Laura.
  13. Kalman, Laura.
  14. Kalman, Laura.
  15. Kalman, Laura.
  16. Sidey, Hugh. “The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years.” Time 138.n26 (Dec 30, 1991): 80(1).
  17. Sidey, Hugh.
  18. Sidey, Hugh.
  19. Sidey, Hugh.
  20. Sidey, Hugh.
  21. Sidey, Hugh.
  22. Califano, Joseph 339.
  23. Califano, Joseph 338.
  24. Califano, Joseph 340.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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