Published in 1998, “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973” is the concluding volume in Robert Dallek’s two-volume series on LBJ. Dallek is a retired professor of history and the author of nearly two dozen books including a bestselling biography of JFK (which I enjoyed) and a more recent dual-biography of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
This final volume in Dallek’s series covers the last twelve years of Johnson’s life beginning with his unhappy service as Vice President. Following a brief discussion of JFK’s assassination, the balance of its 628 pages march rigidly (but not always chronologically) through LBJ’s five-year presidency and his four-year retirement in Texas up through his death.
Although Dallek used the first volume in this series to rehabilitate LBJ’s image (which he believed was unfairly tarnished by previous biographers), this volume wastes no time worrying about third-party opinions. But much like the previous volume, Dallek’s assessment of his subject in “Flawed Giant” is impressively and almost ruthlessly well-balanced. He never fails to point out the silver lining LBJ’s darkest clouds, but rarely withholds blistering criticism of Johnson where it is warranted.
More than 80% of this biography is focused on Johnson’s presidency, and because Vietnam consumed so much of the Johnson administration’s time and energy it is not surprising that foreign policy crisis pervades this book. Unfortunately, readers familiar with the war – but not its politics – will find little familiar ground here. And readers who know little about the decade-long morass will learn virtually nothing of the war itself…but will be fully exposed to the political challenges it created.
Johnson’s “Great Society” receives significant attention, particularly in early chapters, but individual pieces of legislation are rarely examined or evaluated in an illuminating manner. Instead, discussions relating to LBJ’s domestic agenda tend to be sterile and “matter-of-fact.” Similarly, the review of his 1964 presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater (which I expected to be lively and engaging) was informative but extremely clinical.
Like the first volume in this series, “Flawed Giant” is far more a political biography than a personal one. I cannot recall his children being mentioned more than once, and Lady Bird appears only sporadically and remains hopelessly remote. Reference is made to LBJ’s penchant for philandering but because it apparently had no impact on his political career (or, apparently, his marriage) the topic is never pursued for more than a sentence or two.
While much about this book is “fine,” Dallek does an excellent job introducing LBJ’s White House aides (his long-time deputies as well as JFK “hold-overs”) and provides an interesting review of the 1968 presidential campaign which Johnson chose to sit out. The ambivalence LBJ demonstrated relating to a potential re-election bid and his difficulty selecting a “favorite” to support in his stead are quite well-described.
Finally, Dallek does an admirable job during the course of the book – and series – creating a comprehensive portrait of an extremely complex and contradictory personality who, it seems, is impossible to fully observe, evaluate, interpret and explain.
Overall, “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973” (as well as its predecessor volume) proves far more satisfying as a record of Johnson’s political career than as a narrative of his life. While it is a solid (if not excellent) historical study, it is not a particularly lively, colorful or tantalizing biography.
Overall rating: 3½ stars