Lyndon Johnson and
His Times 1961-1973
By Robert Dallek
Oxford University Press, 628 Pages, $35
Since the foundation of the Republic, no President has held sway over the United States as did Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 and 1965. Johnson, as he often reminded people, pushed into law more significant legislation during that period than even fdr had in 1933-34. Confirmed in 1964 by the largest popular vote percentage ever recorded in a presidential election up to that time, Johnson seemed on the way to becoming the most influential President of the century.
But by 1967, Johnson's world was collapsing, and in March 1968, terrified of losing the Democratic nomination to Robert Kennedy, he announced he would not run for re-election. How could such a talented man fall so far, so fast? Flawed Giant--Robert Dallek's giant biography of Lyndon Johnson from his ascension to the Vice Presidency in 1961 until his death in 1973--provides some answers.
Besides synthesizing the large volume of scholarship already published about Johnson, Dallek conducted vast original research, including interviews with Lady Bird Johnson and Bill Moyers and analysis of papers and White House tapes that have recently become available to the public. Like Richard Nixon, Johnson made extensive secret tapes of Oval Office conversations; about half of them have been released, and they provide Dallek with major new information about the lbj presidency.
Most of Dallek's material from 1963-65 is already familiar, but as Johnson and America sink deeper and deeper into Vietnam, Dallek's fresh research becomes engrossing.
As Dallek explains, Johnson lacked a strategy for American success in Vietnam. He got into Vietnam because he feared the imminent collapse of the South Vietnamese regime would provoke a "who lost Vietnam?" backlash similar to the "who lost China?" charges that Harry Truman faced. Not only would an anti-Communist backlash imperil Johnson's domestic programs; Johnson could not bear to be seen as weak. He lacked a realistic plan for how to end the conflict; as long as North Vietnam was determined to conquer the South, and as long as Johnson was determined not to risk war with China by invading the North, stalemate was assured.
Not only did Johnson lie to the American people about the prospects for the war, he surrounded himself with liars. Johnson wanted only positive information, and his anger at aides who tried to tell him the truth about the military situation in Vietnam ensured he would hear only that we were winning.
Johnson likewise deceived himself about domestic opposition to the war, insisting that it was inspired and carefully directed by Soviet agents. At Johnson's direction, J. Edgar Hoover's fbi spied extensively on the anti-war movement and the bureau reported to Johnson again and again that there was no substantial foreign or Communist connection. But these reports did nothing to relieve the President's paranoia.
As the White House staff recognized, by 1967 Johnson had become so mentally unbalanced as to call into question his fitness to continue to serve in office. He was frequently depressed, and often lapsed into frightening paranoid rants.
Dallek's revelations about the 1968 presidential campaign are particularly interesting. Right up until the riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Johnson had hopes of being drafted as his party's nominee, even though he had withdrawn from the race half a year before. Afraid that Hubert Humphrey would not toe Johnson's line in Vietnam, lbj (who would have preferred to be succeeded by Nelson Rockefeller) bugged Humphrey's campaign and for most of 1968 made only half-hearted efforts for the Vice President who had served him so loyally.
During the general election race, Johnson discovered but did not disclose that Richard Nixon's campaign had received a $500,000 contribution from the military junta running Greece. lbj kept his knowledge of this crime secret until 1973, when the Nixon administration attempted to blackmail Johnson into convincing Congress to shut down the Watergate investigation. lbj let Nixon know that Johnson knew about the bribe from the Greeks; the White House pressure abruptly ceased.
The Dallek book is considerably more evenhanded than Robert Caro's volumes, which treat Johnson as a monster. Dallek's orientation is that of a conventional liberal--praising Johnson's domestic accomplishments and bemoaning the distraction of the Vietnam War--yet the author's domestic policy evaluations are so brief that their liberal slant provides no impediment to a conservative's enjoyment of the book.
Dallek is not afraid to show Johnson's arrogance, megalomania, and insecurity, all of which kept Johnson stuck in Vietnam long after a more rational man would have begun exploring alternatives. But Dallek gives scant attention to Johnson's numerous extra-marital affairs, or to his family life. Thus, while Flawed Giant thoroughly documents Johnson the President, the book provides less insight into lbj's character than does Jeff Shesol's Mutual Contempt, a study of the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy.
American historians will continue to puzzle over how one man of humble origins could combine such prodigious quantities of good and evil, insight and self-delusion. But the American people must answer another question: Since fdr created the modern imperial presidency, why do we so often elect Presidents like Johnson, talented men with no regard for the truth; men with so much assurance of their own righteousness and so much personal arrogance that they violate federal statutes the way ordinary people violate speeding laws, ignore the Constitution, and lie to the American people?
The presidencies of fdr, lbj, Nixon, and Clinton collectively suggest that the office of President, as it currently exists, attracts gluttonously ambitious men who pose dangers to constitutional government. Perhaps the next time the American people vote, they should pay less attention to the candidates' platitudes and instead insist that the next President do what any President could easily do, but none has seriously considered in the last six decades: Shrink the executive branch of the federal government, and the presidency itself, back to constitutional dimensions.