The Return of LBJ

Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960

by Robert Dallek
Oxford University Press, 721 pp., $30.00

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years

by Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $25.00

Among the presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George Bush, Lyndon Johnson has no serious rival for the distinction of being held in lowest esteem in current public opinion. A recent Harris poll found him ranked at the bottom of nearly all categories named. These included high moral standards, in which even Richard Nixon placed above Johnson, and John F. Kennedy stood at the very top. There seems little doubt that LBJ is the president Americans now most love to hate.

No simple explanation would serve to account for this, but any attempt that neglected certain complexities would surely fail. Outstanding among them are those of the Vietnam War. What with conservatives blaming Johnson for losing it, liberals blaming him for fighting it, and Americans generally seeking some villain on whom to unload their burden of shame and guilt and unable to use a martyred Kennedy for that purpose, what better scapegoat could they find? And he a southerner who had shattered the Yankee myth of invincibility and subjected true-blue Americans to their first admittedly lost war. And further, how could so crass a southerner be permitted his claims to have done more for civil rights and blacks than any president since Lincoln, and to have gone on to score more humanitarian reforms with his War on Poverty and his Great Society program than all of them put together?

A public need has grown for evidence that would justify an ever more derogatory image of LBJ. This need has been served mainly by journalists of varied talents and methods with books of several degrees of fairness and balance or lack of both. The latest, longest, and most ambitious of these is a multivolumed work in progress by Robert A. Caro that only gets him to the Senate in its second large volume. Caro lays great stress on digging up facts, with special attention to those that support his thesis. The fairness and balance and sense of humor with which he uses his vast store of facts have been questioned by a reviewer in these pages who called his book “the inverse of gilding the lily.”1

In contrast to the attention historians have lavished upon his predecessors and successors in the White House, scholars have shied away from Johnson. No serious, full-scale biography by a qualified historian has come forth until the appearance of the recent book by Robert Dallek. Known best for his Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, and the author of several other books, Dallek plans two large volumes on Johnson of which Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960 is the first.

But how can anyone, however scholarly, pretend complete impartiality and detachment about a subject like Lyndon Johnson? Professor Dallek does his best to avoid partisanship, polemics, and thesis riding, and he attempts to deal fairly and fully with all sides. While he has gone so far, in a statement to the press, as to place LBJ along with FDR as “one…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.