American history, biographies, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Califano, LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek
With 35 presidents, 190 biographies and about 94,000 pages completed I am finally on to a president who actually occupied the White House during my lifetime.
I have no recollection whatsoever of LBJ during the brief period our lives overlapped, but as a native Texan I am well aware of his larger-than-life persona.
Over the next three months I’ll be reading nine biographies of LBJ totaling about 5,000 pages. To say I’m looking forward to learning more about this famously ambitious, manipulative and self-centered politician would be an understatement. I just hope he – and his biographers – don’t let me down!
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I’m beginning with Robert Dallek’s two-volume series on LBJ:
– Vol 1: “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960” (1991)
– Vol 2: “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973” (1998)
Dallek authored my favorite “traditional” biography of John F. Kennedy as well as a biography of Harry Truman which I thought was solid. His latest effort, a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is being released this November and looks promising.
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Next, recognizing that many readers don’t have the patience for a 1,200+ page series, I will be reading Dallek’s single-volume series abridgement “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President.” At just one-third the length of the full series, this is a book any fan of LBJ can find the time to read. The real question is: how much magic was sacrificed in order to abbreviate the series by 800 pages?
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Then…the moment I’ve been awaiting for nearly five years arrives when I begin reading Robert Caro’s series on LBJ:
– Vol 1: “The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson)” (1982)
– Vol 2: “Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson)” (1990)
– Vol 3: “Master of the Senate (The Years of Lyndon Johnson)” (2002)
– Vol 4: “The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson)” (2012)
Caro, of course, has devoted the majority of his adult life to this series. If his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses wasn’t perched on my bookshelf I wouldn’t believe he had done anything else with his life.
Earlier this year Caro reported he has completed 400 pages – and most of the research – for the final volume. But he still needs to spend some “quality time” in Vietnam to get a good sense of the region where so much of LBJ’s reputation was shattered. So…book release party at my place sometime in early 2020?
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Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” is the first of two “related-party” biographies of Johnson I’m reading. Published in 1976, this was Goodwin’s first book and seems to evoke a “love it or hate it” response from many of its readers. Goodwin, of course, was a White House Fellow during the Johnson administration and her husband was one of JFK’s speechwriters and Special Assistant to LBJ. You’ve been warned!
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I wrap-up my LBJ reading tour with “The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years” by Joseph Califano, Jr. He also served as a Special Assistant to LBJ and later as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Carter. This book promises a revealing (and, I presume, friendly) behind-the-scenes account of Califano’s years in the Johnson administration. In some ways it reminds me of Ted Sorensen’s book on JFK – but with half the pages and even less of the notoriety.
Wow, you are very ambitious. I am hoping to read one bio of each president and am using your site as a guide. I just ordered the Bauer bio of Zachary Taylor. Thanks for sharing your reading.
Fantastic! Good luck with Taylor and if you have a chance let me know what you think about the Bauer bio. ZT was more interesting than I expected but there’s no doubt that Taylor to Buchanan is a tougher stretch than Washington to Polk 🙂
I really enjoy Caro’s books (Passage to Power less so). Looking forward to his last in the series. Next onto Dallek’s books. Enjoy reading!
Happy Labor Day, Steve. Best wishes on your reading about LBJ. I just finished Eric Goldman’s The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, and it will be fun to see your review of Joseph Califano’s book to make a comparison of the two.
My plan is to begin reading presidential histories and your list of books and insightful reviews will be very helpful. I will occasionally veer off to the Oxford History series, recent textbooks, and Civil War chronicles, e.g., by James McPherson and David Donald. My wife and I will take a tour next spring of Civil War battlefields in your state of Virginia, as well as Maryland.
Lastly, in reading your reviews, my sense is that you judge a book by its readability, its clarity, its depth of content, as well as its skill in interpretation and analysis – the skill to explain why events occur and what the consequences are. Is that correct, or am I missing key parts of your assessments?
Interesting to see your reading plan since I was collecting the Oxford History series and Civil War books alongside my first presidential biographies. Given my proximity to so many battlefields, McPherson’s series in particular is really calling my name. There’s just so little time…
As far as the basis for my reviews is concerned, I think you have it spot on. Half of my rating is intended to reflect the “intrinsic” value of the book from an academic/historical perspective (recognizing that I’m not a historian so this imprecise at best). The other half is intended to reflect “entertainment” value which would encompass readability, clarity, throroughness (without being needlessly detailed), the incorporation of context where appropriate, identifying themes or providing interpretation & analysis (but providing the reader enough balanced insight to form their own conclusion)…
I definitely believe biographies can be both enjoyable and intellectually valuable, but the more I read the more I recognize how difficult it is to pull that off as an author. Some biographers are great historians but poor authors and some are the opposite. It is uncommon in my experience for someone to present and interpret history in a rigorous, meaningful and penetrating manner but also tell the story in an engaging way that leaves the reader unable to put the book down.
(I’ve also convinced myself it is far easier to read & critique than actually research & write…!)
Don Burkins said:
I’ve been following and using your reviews for several years now, enjoying your analyses and benefitting from your brush-clearing along the way. Many thanks for your perseverance and willingness to share. I’m excited to read of your LBJ plunge, my first real “growing up” pres during my teen years. I’ve read (and enjoyed) the Kearns Goodwin volume as complement and follow-up to an LBJ Library and ranch visit, finding the book to be full of interesting detail and personalized insights – but always aware of the “warning” elements entailed in her close relationship with him. Dalleck’s 2-volume bio awaits my willingness to commit so much time (and Caro’s length strikes fear and massive hesitation in me – so many other things to read!). Califano seems likely to be a friendly “quick read” by contrast. I’ll be awaiting your impressions while continuing my own slower-paced encounter with the Reconstruction era (thru Foner’s eyes) while building towards Smith’s Grant (I loved his FDR, although experiencing the “wait-a-minute” summary-absent ending of which you’d forewarned). Sorry for the embedded asides – I just want to express again how much I’ve appreciated having your readings, writings, and web-site as resource. Enjoy!
Don, if you find LBJ as fascinating as I do, the 1st 2 Caro books are a breeze; at least they were for me. I felt Passage to Power dragged on quite a bit Enjoy!
Thanks for your detailed thoughts – I really do appreciate feedback (particularly if it’s positive!) My goal has been to maintain a website that provides the kind of information I was looking for when I was getting started reading the presidents. I *almost* don’t even mind when I stumble across a biography I really don’t like since I’m able to share my thoughts with a large audience and, hopefully, provide enough insight into my thoughts that someone can determine whether to avoid it or read it anyway.
I thought about starting LBJ with Goodwin and Califano since they are relatively quick reads, but I obviously went with the Dallek series first and those two last. I’ll obviously be in a much better position to ascertain how balanced and penetrating they were after I’ve gone through the Dallek and Caro series….
Don’t let the length of Caro’s series intimidate you. While it’s a lot of information to absorb, they are actually pretty easy reads. I’m on the 4th in the series and after a couple weeks, I was shocked to see I only had about 150 pages left to read. He’s such an engaging writer, I find myself getting excited to see how events in the books turn out I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th book – I think if you give them a try, you won’t be disappointed.
After surviving the 3,300 page Carl Sandburg series on Abraham Lincoln I’m not sure any other literary effort can really intimidate me. Almost through Dallek’s first volume (of two) on LBJ and this seems quite detailed – so I can’t wait to see whether Caro’s incremental length is devoted to minutiae, colorful scene-setting, more emphasis on LBJ’s personal life,… Should be fun!
Don Burkins said:
steve Russell said:
He will be a good read I can assure you but totally different than JFK!
Look forward to your reviews, Steve
I’m about 100 pages into my first bio of LBJ and he almost couldn’t be more different than JFK! Looking forward to getting through his life one complete time so I have a better sense of his personality & character.
Steve, I am excited for you too to be diving into LBJ’s bios, particularly Caro’s series. I have no idea why, but I have very little interest in reading anything about JFK but I’m very interested in reading as much as I can on his successor. So, good luck and I’ll be checking in quite frequently!
As biographical subjects go, JFK was quite interesting. But his father seems even more captivating so I’ve already picked up a copy of a Joseph P. Kennedy bio by David Nasaw. Having said that, I won’t get to it for more than a year. In the meantime…on to LBJ! I think I’ll hit Caro’s series in mid-October and I can’t wait.
Feather Schwartz Foster said:
FYI – re Grant books. You might enjoy just about anything by Charles Bracelen Flood. He is very readable, and picks great subject matter! – Feather
I have his “Grant and Sherman” book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Sounds like I’m going to love it!
Marc Schneider said:
LBJ is both a fascinating and depressing figure. I’ve read the Caro and Dallek books on LBJ. I’m anxiously awaiting Caro’s last volume and hope he makes it through. Another excellent LBJ bio you might consider is “LBJ” by Randall Woods. There are lots of others I have not read, such as “LBJ and the American Dream” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. There are also others that are not strictly bios, such as “The Fierce urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society” by Julian E. Zelizer, and “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, ahd the Laws that Changed America” by Nick Kotz.
Thanks for the tip on Woods’ biography – it looks like one I definitely need to read. Will go on my follow-up list if I can’t manage to squeeze it in this round. Books like the ones you reference by Kotz and Zelizer (which I’ve heard is good) will end up on that follow-up list.
I won’t get to DKG’s “LBJ and the American Dream” for a few weeks…but I will get there!