American history, biographies, book reviews, LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Dallek
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
Yikes. Had though Dallek would have been my first choice of a full account of LBJ. I enjoy aspects of Caro, e.g. the coverage of LBJ as a Senator, but a judicious, well written single comprehensive bio seems lacking.
From what I can tell, and I’m obviously early in my LBJ journey, there aren’t any great single-volume comprehensive bios of LBJ. (I haven’t yet read Dallek’s series abridgement of course…)
So for anyone unwilling to tackle an enormous and incomplete series (by Caro), the Dallek series may be the best alternative.
Now that I’ve read the first volume in Dallek’s series I just wish he had adopted a slightly less defensive tone…and had someone like Chernow or McCullough “dress it up” slightly to make it more engaging and more personally revealing. Still, this volume reveals a especially intriguing subject despite the book’s flaws.
Todd Michael Carlsen said:
I read Dallek’s single abridgment. It is what you would expect — the review of Lone Star Rising captures the essence. It oddly gives the dirty details, like stuffing ballots, while feeling shallow.
I liked the one-volume “Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson” that focused on the presidency and especially the Great Society. There is a summary at the back listing LBJ’s long list of legislative accomplishments, and the author inserts some judgments in the ranking. For example, it starts off with the “crown jewels,” then great accomplishments. For those of a liberal opinion, it is a stunning list of achievements. Much of modern government began with LBJ, from fighting pollution, school lunches for kids, funding for secondary education, and of course the big ones in Medicare, Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, etc. Guns of Butter is a good book for looking at the domestic policy aspect of his presidency.
It also explains how the inflation of the 1970s was caused by Johnson, hence the title. In one legislative stroke, to gain votes, he boosted Social Security payments, putting money into circulation. And he spent on both war and domestic programs, pushing money into an economy that could only produce so much. I think LBJ fancied himself to be like FDR, and in some ways he was, but LBJ did not have the conservative personal sense that FDR had.
As mentioned, Johnson may be tough to cover in one book. You almost have to break him into different pieces: the great society, the complicated Vietnam War, his corrupt character and burning ego, his soft side, the cast of character like Hubert Humphrey…
I am looking forward to ” Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House Hardcover’ by Joshua Zeitz, to be released in January. The Great Society certainly did much, and we could still use the best book on the subject. From there people can argue what was good, what was great, and what was a mistake.
I thought John Andrew’s “Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society” was useful for understanding some of the Great Society. Some of the LBK domestic spending smelled to me like political opportunism, like money for CAP (Community Action Program), creating community jobs work programs, Etc.
I don’t know if I could stand a biography that tried to “redeem” LBJ. In any event, your review was great. I’ll probably skip Dallek, but it’s good to know where it stands.
I thought you might read Caro first. Saving the best for later? That is, if you feel it is the best after you read all your LBJ.
As for Caro, have you heard if he will deliver the last volume? If he doesn’t, that will be damaging to the overall prestige of the much-praised series, I would think.
Caro is reportedly about 1/2 way through the last volume (he had 400 pages written a few months ago) but needs to spend time in Vietnam before he can make a last big “push.” My bet is on early 2020 but it’s just a guess. I certainly hope he takes an aspirin daily, loves fresh fruits and vegetables and shuns red meat, hot dogs and donuts… 🙂
Ha! Good point!
… and stays healthy in Vietnam.
I have read the Caro series to date and not Dallek. My one comment: “In Dallek’s view, earlier books portrayed Johnson in an unfairly harsh light and failed to acknowledge that his unsavory methods…… led to significant legislative progress”
Not sure if this refers to Caro here but I felt Caro was appropriately harsh on LBJ but also acknowledged significant accomplishments…..just my opinion.
Keep up the good work, I enjoy your blog
Thanks, and yes Dallek was referring largely to Caro in his criticism of LBJ’s earlier biographers. Frankly, I can’t wait to see how Caro deals with LBJ’s flaws. It occasionally felt as though Dallek was “covering” for Johnson so even if Caro simply dispenses with that he will seem comparatively harsh.
Apologies if this is covered somewhere, but not sure I completely understand the rating system; equal weight is given to the quality writing and whether the bio gives historical context. Given this, what differentiates a good book from a great one? Is there much difference between a 3.5 star and 3¾ rating?
To cut to the chase: no there isn’t much difference (in my mind, anyway) between a 3.5 and 3.75 rating. In my system a book can earn 2.5 stars for being “readability” (being engaging, fun to read, etc.) and 2.5 stars for its academic / intellectual / historic contribution. A fun but shallow book earns few stars. A penetrating and insightful biography that breaks new ground but proves tedious and dull earns few stars.
The reason I value the text of my reviews far above the numerical rankings is that some people value insight over engagement and others are just looking for an entertaining book and the “one number” rating system doesn’t tell you where the book performed well and where it fell short.
Steve, Are there any biographies to date that you’ve read more than once (perhaps Chernow’s Washington)? Are there any biographies outside of the topic of U.S. presidents that you’ve read multiple times?
Sadly, no. I have too long a list of things to get through just once, although I expect to re-read Chernow’s “Washington” and Ferling’s “John Adams: A Life” pretty quickly after I get through bios of Obama. I’ve never before focused on biographies of any type, so I don’t have any non-POTUS bios to recommend from personal experience…but Chernow’s Hamilton, Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and Davis Nasaw’s Joseph P. Kennedy will be among my earliest priorities once I’ve completed this current project. ((And I’m always taking suggestions!))
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.