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.