American history, best biographies, biographies, book reviews, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Irwin Unger, Joseph Califano Jr., LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, presidential biographies, Pulitzer Prize, Randall Woods, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, US Presidents
After spending the past four months with Lyndon Johnson it’s fair to say that I found him to be the most interesting (and confounding) president since at least FDR…and perhaps ever.
Together, the nine biographies I read (including a four-volume series by Robert Caro, a two-volume series by Robert Dallek and Dallek’s series abridgment) reveal a fascinatingly complex man who was indefatigable, ambitious, ruthless, generous, conniving, sympathetic and incredibly manipulative.
With a heritage almost as modest as Abraham Lincoln’s and an adolescence shaped by World War I, the Great Depression and the unforgiving Texas Hill Country, Johnson was always a man on the move – a man perpetually running from something as well as for something.
His rise from congressional aide to President of the United States is a case study in making your own luck (and, when necessary, stealing some). But his presidential experience with Vietnam also proved to be a case study…in tragic misfortune. And for many observers it is that single foreign policy disaster that defines his otherwise remarkable thirty-three year political career.
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I began my 5,000+ page journey through LBJ’s life with Robert Dallek’s series, followed by his series abridgment.
* “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960” (Volume 1) was published in 1991 and covers LBJ’s life up through his election as vice president. In its first pages, this volume reads like an obtuse counterweight to biographies published during the 1980s which Dallek felt didn’t fully appreciate Johnson’s legacy. But at its core it offers a diligently balanced and no-frills perspective of LBJ during his most compelling years. — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973” (Volume 2) was published in 1998 and covers the remaining twelve years of Johnson’s life including his vice presidency, his presidency and his four-year retirement. Like the first volume, “Flawed Giant” is far more a political biography than a personal one and is also written in a serious and not particularly colorful style. — 3½ stars (Full review here)
* “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President” is Dallek’s 2004 series abridgment. Where the series contains more than 1,200 pages of text, this condensation runs just under 400 pages. Extremely faithful to the underlying series, this biography will provide most readers with more bang-for-the-buck. It provides an excellent perspective on LBJ’s complexity but, like the series, does not leave the reader with the impression of having actually just met the man. — 3½ stars (Full review here)
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Next I spent two-and-a-half months reading the four volumes of Robert Caro’s series which have been published so far. Underway for more than four decades, this series is the most remarkable biographical achievement I have witnessed – edging out even Dumas Malone’s magisterial six-volume series on Thomas Jefferson.
And irrespective of how you view Caro’s treatment of LBJ, this series is a testament to the extraordinary power of rigorous research, a keen nose for the story and super-human perseverance. And after nearly 3,000 pages…there’s still at least one more volume to go. (Live long and prosper, Mr. Caro!)
* “The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol 1)” was published in 1982. It is a profoundly penetrating, insightful and decidedly colorful account of LBJ’s early life (to about the mid-point of his career in the U.S. House). The first one-third of the book (~250 pages) is about as good as a biography can be, the numerous mini-biographies (of supporting characters) are uniformly excellent and no reader will finish this book without becoming fully immersed in LBJ’s early life. — 4½ stars (Full review here)
* “Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol 2)” was published in 1990 and covers seven difficult years of Johnson’s life: from just after his heartbreaking loss in a special 1941 Senate election to his controversial 1948 Senate victory. About half the length of the first volume, Caro’s writing style is entirely unaltered: frequently unwieldy but always clever. “Means of Ascent” energetically litigates Caro’s case against LBJ’s character defects but also leaves the reader awestruck at the force of Johnson’s character and personality. — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
* “Master of the Senate (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol 3)” was published in 2002 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Covering the dozen years Johnson spent in the U.S. Senate, this is the longest of the four existing volumes with just over 1,000 pages. The most enlightening chapters are those which reveal LBJ’s tactics for steadily gaining power and influence in the Senate, but some of the very best are those devoted to the plight of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era. While this volume could have been much less lengthy, it provides excellent coverage of LBJ’s most extraordinary years. — 4½ stars (Full review here)
* “The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol 4)” was published in 2012 and covers six years of LBJ’s life: from his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1960 to his State of the Union Address in 1964, seven weeks after JFK’s assassination. Like previous volumes in the series, this biography is almost as much about Johnson’s keen sense for power as it is a narrative of his life. Coverage of LBJ’s relationships with John and Robert Kennedy prove excellent and Caro’s review of the 1960 presidential nominating processes is absolutely captivating. — 4¾ stars (Full review here)
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I ended my LBJ tour reading two “memoirs” by authors who knew Johnson well. Though they are not traditional, each provides the reader with a valuable window into Johnson’s presidency and/or his presidential character.
* “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” by Doris Kearns Goodwin was published in 1976, just three years after LBJ’s death. Goodwin was a White House Fellow in 1967 and maintained a working relationship with Johnson for the remainder of his life. Although this book attempts to cover Johnson comprehensively, many important moments in his life (particularly prior to his presidency) are barely touched. Someone seeking a thorough introduction to Johnson will need to look elsewhere. Goodwin’s frequent “psychoanalysis” of LBJ will interest readers anxious to understand the man, but scholars will lament that she did not attempt to analyze his presidency with the same gusto. — 3½ stars (Full review here)
* The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson” by Joseph Califano, Jr. was published in 1991. Far less a traditional biography than Goodwin’s, this is a memoir of Califano’s 3½ years in the Johnson Administration. Rather than diluting his effort with Johnson’s pre-presidency, Califano focuses almost entirely on events which he witnessed from inside the White House. Although the narrative often feels breezy and unstructured, it provides unique insight into Johnson’s personality and character. — 3¼ stars (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Lyndon Johnson: Robert Caro’s multi-volume series on LBJ
Best Single-Volume Biography of LBJ: Robert Dallek’s “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President”
I’m also waiting for the fifth (and probably final) volume in Robert Caro’s series…but I don’t expect that to hit bookstores until 2020 at the earliest…