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Review of “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960 (Vol 1)” by Robert Dallek

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Published in 1991, “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960” is the first volume in a two-volume series on LBJ written by Robert Dallek. Dallek is a retired professor of history and the author of nearly two dozen books including a bestselling biography of JFK (which I recently read and liked) and a more recent dual-biography of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Covering LBJ’s life through his election as VP, this book often feels like a deliberate counterweight to Johnson’s previous biographers (notably Robert Caro and Ronnie Dugger). In Dallek’s view, earlier books portrayed Johnson in an unfairly harsh light and failed to acknowledge that his unsavory methods for accumulating and using power often led to significant legislative progress for the poor and disenfranchised.

Dallek also believes that the enormous contributions Johnson made during his political career are largely unrecognized by the public-at-large. But while his book begins by rushing to LBJ’s defense in an almost distracting manner, it soon adopts a more objective approach of discussing Johnson’s glaring flaws…but only alongside his best traits and accomplishments.

The ruthlessly balanced portrait of LBJ which emerges is intriguing (and perhaps entirely appropriate) but feels forced and artificial. Every character flaw must be balanced by some positive effect. Each bribe, every campaign finance law violated, every fraudulent ballot cast on behalf of LBJ is offset in a way that suggests the author believes the end always justifies the means.

The book’s 591 pages proceed chronologically and quickly betray the fact that Dallek is a more skillful historian than author. He is facile with details but not with storytelling; the discussion is consistently thoughtful and substantive…but is rarely colorful or engaging. Despite LBJ’s absurdly interesting personality, Dallek conveys far less of the drama, excitement and flavor of the man and his times than is deserved.

And while it is not clear that LBJ actually possessed a personal life, whatever life he did lead outside politics managed to elude Dallek’s grasp. The reader can be forgiven for thinking LBJ must have slept in his office his entire political career and never saw his family. Lady Bird appears sporadically – and only cursorily – and Johnson’s daughters are mentioned…at least once.

For all its faults, though, “Lone Star Rising” is excellent in many respects. In spite of the author’s almost pathological desire to identify every redeeming aspect of LBJ’s character, ample evidence is offered on both sides of each issue to allow the reader to form an independent conclusion about Johnson’s behavior. And if his private life remains elusive, his political career is examined in piercing and revealing detail.

Early pages describing LBJ’s time as a new Senate Minority Leader are a fascinating study in aggregating and wielding power, and the discussion of Johnson’s early months as Majority Leader proves even more compelling. Dallek’s behind-the-scenes account of the 1960 presidential nomination process (which JFK, not LBJ, ultimately won) is probably better described than in any of the JFK biographies I’ve read. And the LBJ-for-VP discussion is the best I’ve seen anywhere (caveat: I’ve not yet tackled the Caro series).

Overall, Robert Dallek’s “Lone Star Rising” proves to be a solid political, but not personal, biography of the early LBJ. It offers excellent insight into Johnson’s personality and character as well as a significant (and detailed) focus on his political evolution. Although it will appeal primarily to scholars and lacks both fluidity and verve, it provides just enough pizzazz to entice the patient reader to move on to Volume 2.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars

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