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Lyndon B. Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 36th President, 1963-1969

The towering figure who sought to transform America into a “Great Society” but whose ambitions and presidency collapsed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War

Few figures in American history are as compelling and complex as Lyndon Baines Johnson, who established himself as the master of the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and succeeded John F. Kennedy in the White House after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.

Charles Peters, a keen observer of Washington politics for more than five decades, tells the story of Johnson’s presidency as the tale of an immensely talented politician driven by ambition and desire. As part of the Kennedy-Johnson administration from 1961 to 1968, Peters knew key players, including Johnson’s aides, giving him inside knowledge of the legislative wizardry that led to historic triumphs like the Voting Rights Act and the personal insecurities that led to the tragedy of Vietnam.

Peters’s experiences have given him unique insight into the poisonous rivalry between Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, showing how their misunderstanding of each other exacerbated Johnson’s self-doubt and led him into the morass of Vietnam, which crippled his presidency and finally drove this larger-than-life man from the office that was his lifelong ambition.

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  1. Robin Friedman says

    Lyndon Johnson in the American Presidents Series For aging American baby boomers, the presidency of Lyndon Johnson brings back painful memories. Johnson (1908 — 1973) became the 36th president on November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President John Kennedy. He is known for his escalation of the War in Vietnam and for the tumultuous period of unrest in the United States which followed in its wake.Charles Peters offers a portrayal of Johnson, in all his complexity, in his recent short biography in the American Presidents Series edited by the late Arthur Schelsinger Jr. and by Sean Willentz. The books in this series give valuable short introductions and assessments to each of our presidents. Several of the volumes, including this biography of Johnson, are not mere summaries but rather offer and informed and challenging perspective in their own right. A political insider. Peters edited the “Washington Monthly” for 32 years, and he has written a book about “How Washington Really Works” and a book about the Republican nomination of Wendell Wilkie for president in 1940.Peters gives much space to Johnson’s life before he became president. The background he offers is essential to understanding the man. Born to poverty in rural Texas, Johnson struggled to afford and to graduate from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. His ambition and domineering personality showed as a young man, and Johnson early proved adept in learning to network. In 1931, Johnson became a staff assistant to Representative Richard Kleberg and, with a short two-year interlude, he would remain in Washington, D.C. until the conclusion of his presidency.After an intense courtship, Johnson married the well to do Lady Bird Taylor. During their long marriage, he was frequently unfaithful to her. Many of his affairs were known to Washington insiders if not to the larger public. Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, was narrowly defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1941, and in turn won a disputed and highly controversial election to the Senate in 1948. During his early teunure in Washington, Johnson ingratiated himself with powerful and important individuals including President Roosevelt and Sam Rayburn.With his legislative skills, Johnson rose quickly, becoming Senate majority whip in1951, and majority leader in 1955. In 1955, likely as a result of stress, smoking, and heavy drinking, he suffered a major heart attack. Johnson unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1956. In 1957, he was instrumental in securing the passage of the first major Civil Rights legislation in 100 years. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1960, and accepted the Vice-presidential nomination offered by a reluctant John Kennedy in order to secure Southern support for the ticket. The southerner Johnson and the patrician Kennedys never got along well. Johnson became president when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and in 1964 was elected to the presidency in his own right in a landslide against Barry Goldwater.Johnson’s domineering personality, shrewdness, and knowledge of the legislative process helped him secure an ambitious domestic program upon Kennedy’s death. Johnson also had a commitment to Civil Rights which was probably more deeply felt than his predecessor’s. He secured the enactment of landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964 and voting rights legislation in 1965. In 1965, Johnson secured the passage of Medicare as well as of a sweeping Immigration Reform Bill the consequences of which remain with the United States today. Johnson also initiated a series of programs known as the War on Poverty with at best mixed results. His domestic vision was known as the “Great Society”.Johnson will forever be remembered for escalating the War in Vietnam. Peters’ book focuses on how this escalation came about. He argues that Johnson felt pressured by many politicians he viewed as hawkish, including Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy had, apparently unknown to Johnson, offered a softer line some three years earlier in the Cuban Missle Crisis. Against some doubts on his part, Johnson emeshed himself in Vietnam by sending ground troops. Oddly enough, most of his critics challenged his use of air raids and did not place enough emphasis on the ground war. With the tragedy of the Vietnam war, came the student protests, rioting, the year 1968, and massive changes that remain with the United States, for good and bad. Much of subsequent United States history, unhappily, can be viewed as a reaction to both the War in Vietnam and to the unrest which followed it, culminating in 1968 with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Johnson declined to run for the presidency in 1968. Richard Nixon eked out a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey.Peters emphasiszes both Johnson’s virtues and skills together with his weak points — his bullying,…

  2. Steven A. Peterson says

    Useful–but brief–biography 0

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