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LBJ, IRT, USA, LSD* or All I need to know about LBJ I learned from bloggers

For some unfathomable reason, I have developed an obession with Lyndon B. Johnson.

lbj.jpgIt started innocently enough. I was reading Nelson DeMille's Up Country, which, in part, deals with the Vietnam War. As always happens when I read a book with some factual base, I become obsessed with research. So I began reading about the Vietnam War, digging up old articles, taking books out of the library and generally not watching Apocalypse Now.

My Vietnam War research came in handy when people start comparing Iraq to that war. At least I was able to compare and contrast with the confidence gained from my new knowledge (I had studied the Vietnam War before, but at the time - many, many years ago, during my No Nukes phase - I was a bleeding heart liberal and studied the war through the blood-colored glasses of propaganda).

So, inevitably, my Vietnam War obessesion led me to wanting to delve into the life and times of LBJ. As luck would have it, Path to War was available on demand (on my digital cable box), so I watched that - twice- and mentioned it to my father during Thanksgiving dinner, who then gave me a book he had coincidentally just finished; Means of Ascent. I finished the book yesterday, and it pretty much confirmed my view that LBJ was an arrogant bastard. While his domestic policies were admirable - he did a lot for racial equality, even though I believe it was grudgingly done - everything else about him was false. His presidency was filled with lies and deception.

The only thing I remember about Lyndon Johnson was his presidential funeral. I vaguely remember watching television and seeing some kind of procession go by the White House. I was seven when he left office, too young to have cared about world and domestic affairs. I was eleven when he died, still too young for him to have mattered much to me.

I want to know more. But I want to hear it from people, not books. That means you. I want to know everything about him and his presidency and his wartime policies and strategy. Did you like him? Did you hate him? What did he bring to Americans? What did he take away? Am I wrong to come away with a feeling that he was a major hardass, a liar, a phony and a creep?

If you could recommend any further reading on LBJ, I would appreciate it. (My library seems to stock books that are older than the Pope, and the reference librarian is nothing more than an old man with a computer database). I'd like to read books that show different sides of LBJ, from different points of view. Mostly, though, I want to know what you all think of the man. Hopefully, I will get opinions from all sides of the political spectrum.

Thank you in advance for indulging my research-specific obsessive-compulsiveness.

*[see here for reference]


Well if you don't mind a book recommendation, try Ronald Kessler's "Inside the White House." There's lots on Johnson. He left quite an impression on the White House.

He installed a six-headed, high-pressure shower (I want one!). And at the end of his term, he loaded up several trailers with White House swag and took them back to his Texas ranch. Sort of a reverse carpetbagger.

Robert Caro seems to have done the magnum opus on Johnson's years in the Senate; it came out last year, but was overshadowed by Edmund Morris' "Theodore Rex." The book "Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate" (V.3 of the series that includes Means of Ascent). Michael Beschloss also does a text based on Johnson's recordings (like Nixon, he made secret tapes). I'm not sure what that's called, but it's supposed to be good.

A couple other books, both by people who got to know LBJ pretty closely. Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream" and Joe Califano, "The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson". Johnson, I think, was probably better as a legislative operator, than as Chief Executive. He liked the give and take of working bills through Congress.

My overall impression of LBJ is pretty derogatory, and one image stands out in my mind when his name comes up. It is recounted in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff: John Glenn is about to go into space during the Mercury program, and there are problems on the launch platform, involving a long hold. LBJ is in his limo outside Annie Glenn's house in Houston, looking to spread his unction and emote all over her on national TV, but she won't let him in. Johnson orders NASA to break into the launch sequence and tell Glenn to tell his wife to open the door. Glenn refuses to do so, and LBJ throws a screaming fit in his limo (I believe this incident was covered in the movie).

Also, some months ago, I watched Brian Lamb interview Robert Caro on CSPAN about Caro's book The Master of The Senate, and he told anecdote after anecdote about how LBJ evidently had no compunction about ruining the careers and lives of anyone who crossed him. He seemed never to display any magnanimity or graciousness toward anyone other than a major fundraiser. He pretty much came across as the Red Auerbach of politics.


You can actually listen to streaming audio of the LBJ White House tapes over at CSPAN's Broadband web site. Pretty amazing stuff. These are the tapes Michael Beschloss used for his books on LBJ.

I couldn't approve more of obsessive-compulsive research. Since that's my life.

Yes, absolutely read Robert Caro. (Heck, read his books on Robert Moses, despite having almost nothing to do with LBJ, just because you'll learn more about NYC than you ever did before, and because it's the single best biography of anyone ever written.)

"Am I wrong to come away with a feeling that he was a major hardass, a liar, a phony and a creep?"

No, you're not. He ended up doing some great things domestically, things that were generally killed by Nixon and Reagan, leading them and others to speak of the "failure of liberalism" and "the welfare society" when it was they who smothered the baby in the cradle (no, not all of it was wonderful; some of it was flawed and some of it was highly flawed, but it could have been improved, pruned, and trimmed, rather than killed dead), but he knew nothing of the world outside the US, and his fear of looking soft on communism and losing a war led him to slaughter, failure, and tragedy.

His policy flaws seem remarkably separable from his gigantic personal flaws, overall, however.

LBJ was a corrupt, womanizing, schmoozing hardass realist. One of the things he was realistic about was that it was time for a civil rights bill, and he twisted arms and sucked dicks till it passed, even though he knew it would kill his party in the south. For that thing alone he was a hero whose time in the White House was not a waste.

There was a piece on NPR in mid-november discussing the LBJ white house tapes. He comes across as a very complex man, at times jarring and at times ... something else.

Of course, as a fellow Texan, I guess I'm used to hard-nosed politicians. It seems to be the only kind we grow (including George W.)

I'll add my vote for Caro. I started off pretty anti-Johnson, beginning with being an AuH2O-pin-wearing third-grader. Perversely, I ended up reading Caro with more respect for Johnson than I had had, but that may just be a sign of how little I started with.

Beyond the fact that he was about as crooked a politician as there has been, though, there was another thing that I knew about him that hurt his image in my mind. My father was in the Air Force unit in the Pacific that Johnson flew with in his short tour as a Congressional volunteer. Johnson's one flying mission was a bombing run over the Japanese mainland, the sort that my father and his crew did more or less daily. Johnson, set up by MacArthur, went on one such trip; per MacArthur's orders, as soon as their plane started getting flak, his plane turned tail and returned to base. The rest of the unit went on with thie mission, with some casualties and the loss of a couple aircraft.

Johnson got a Silver Star from MacArthur (who was without peer at knowing what to kiss and what to suck, and when.) For the people who actually completed the mission, including my father and the guys who got shot down, it was just another day at the office.

All of the Caro books are excellent reads and very thorough. I never knew how big an S.O.B. Johnson was until I read Means of Ascent.

Caro probably covers it, but he felt hugely inferior to the "East Coast establishment," particularly as personified by the Kennedys. He was convinced Bobby hated him as the usurper who took JFK's place; had Bobby lived, it would have made for some fascinating reading when RFK's memoirs were published.

Everyone's given you great resources for home study, so I thought I would just share my memories/reflections.

I was born in 59. I was probably taking a nap when Kennedy was killed.

I remember Johnson aging so much in the years I watched him on TV. It wasn't like he started out young (and I started watching when I was 5 or so). But by the time he gave his famous "if nominated" address...I thought "he looks so tired".

My dad worked with NASA subcontractors in the 60s...I remember talking (when I was 19) to 3 of the guys he worked with about the work they did. They all admired LBJ's support (and they admit it was tainted with pork-politicking) of the program.

I actually remember more about Ladybird...how elegant, and southern, and "Texan" she came across.

I remember when I was in high school reading the Warren Report, and then Jim Bishop's "The Day Kennedy Was Shot". I'm still amazed that they were on the bookshelf (above where the World Books wound up that mom and dad got for me and my sisters)...which gives me some insight into how it affected my parents. Even though I wasn't from Dallas (we moved there from Alabama when I was 10), I began to understand something of the Dallas stigma. It's hard to explain, but you could feel it. People did not want to talk about it. I could tell my mom's new bridge friends being so embarassed and suddenly quiet if you asked about it. Picked that up when I was 15, so you can imagine how obvious it had to be.

When you talked about LBJ and his presidency, it always had this pall hanging over it. I've never met a native Texan who took enthusiastic pride in his presidency...another thing that's hard to explain, not ashamed, not that they didn't support him. Maybe the pall of Kennedy and the pall of Vietnam hanging over him. Maybe ultimately what made him look so old and tired in my mind's eye.

Two things I think of when I think of LBJ:

- Story goes when he and Kennedy were watching Alan Shepard blast off as the first American in space, he turned to JFK and said, "If only he could have been a Negro."

- I've also heard that it was not uncommon for him to hold impromptu meetings in the john, LBJ on the shitter laying cable, and his boys gathered 'round. Arrogant bastard, indeed.

You might want to look at Graham, Civil Rights and the Presidency. Matusow, The Unravelling of America has some pretty snarky things to say about the Great Society.

The Johnson story I use when I teach the US survey is Wilbur Mills, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, meeting Johnson and telling him that Mills would refuse to fund the Vietnam war unless Johnson cut funding to his Great Society program. Mills knew the budget would be running a deficit, but he insisted that the president pay the costs of his war by cutting his programs as a bow towards fiscal sanity. Johnson hated doing it, but he did it. I got the story from Taxing America the professional biography of Mills. - I forget the author of the top of my head.

Have fun reading up on LBJ

Ted K.

Yes, Caro's book on Robert Moses is absolute genius! I have never been more in awe and yet still repulsed by a human as when I read about Moses.