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”
Follow-up items: When time permits I’m planning to read one or both of Randall Woods’s 2006 “LBJ: Architect of American Ambition” and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Irwin Unger’s 1999 “LBJ: A Life.”
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…
Wow, so many good books about Johnson. It will be hard to chose which LBJ book to read when I get there. I am on Franklin Pierce now so have a ways to go.
As one who is not impressed with LBJ’s character or legacy, he would not be someone I would want to read several volumes on. Still, with the fame of the quality of Caro’s work and its standing among presidential biographies, I suppose I will have to read the series. Would you rank Caro that highly? Would you rank him as a necessity to one wanting to read the best of presidential biographies?
I can’t think of two back-to-back presidents who impressed me *less* with the quality of their characters than JFK and LBJ. And yet as biographical subjects they both provide skilled authors with so much to work with that it ought to be a crime.
In the case of Caro’s series on LBJ…it really is a unique undertaking. His writing will NOT remind you of (for example) Ron Chernow’s which, in my experience, is almost magically fluid, vibrant, descriptive and informative. Caro’s style is more that of a private detective who is not a natural writer but always seems to be uncovering something no one else has discovered or is making connections everyone else missed. And when he really sets his mind to it he can set a scene or describe a personality right alongside the very best.
What’s missing for me in the case of LBJ is a single-volume biography with Chernow’s or McCullough’s engaging writing style but with the hard-hitting facts and circumstances uncovered and described by Caro.
I’ve anticipated reading Caro’s series for years and have been told by many it would change my life. And in a sense it did. But you don’t walk away amazed at how effortless his biographies are to read. Instead, you walk away amazed at all the pieces he put together, the insights he uncovered, the connections he made and the wonderful personalities he captured (from Rayburn to Russell to JFK…) And, as great as his volumes are, you then admit that it could all have been about 25% more efficient with a judicious but sharp editing pen…
Ha, ha Steve,
Love everything about your reply! I too am less impressed with the quality of their character, but unique subjects. Love your description of Caro as well….but while I agree could be 25% less, I really think they would be very different books and that would be unfortunate. IMO, I don’t have issues with his style (though I see where others would). I enjoy the blog very much!
Christopher Saunders said:
Another nice overview! I really look forward to your look at Nixon.
I recently read H R McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty in which he is critical of Johnson/ McNamara and the military regarding the decision process that resulted in sending American combat troops to S. Vietnam. Did any of the books you read give a good accounting of that? I imagine Caro will dissect that in his next book.
The various accounts I read of LBJ and Vietnam proved one thing to me: I still find the whole Vietnam quagmire difficult to de-construct and really understand. After reading so many bios of Lincoln and Grant I now feel like I have a great handle on the Civil War. But Vietnam…not so much.
I did, however, get the strong sense of ambivalence LBJ had over the conflict. He seemed to sense this was like flying too close to a black hole (or too close to the sun in a more popular reference). And yet he couldn’t help himself. And then, once really committed, couldn’t fully commit to an approach that would either put us on the glidepath to extricating ourselves or to winning decisively (no matter what the cost in terms of money, lives and bad publicity for himself).
I wasn’t aware of the McMaster book but I’ll have to look into it – I’m sure it’s fascinating given the author and his background.
I thought roughly the first half of the book a bit dull and tedious but then more interesting as the author details Johnson’s juggling act of his re-election efforts and getting his Great Society legislation thru Congress while trying to keep Vietnam on the back burner even though things were not going well there.
Your comments of Johnson’s ambivalence towards the war are right on the mark.
If you don’t read dereliction of duty then you haven’t given yourself the chance to see the truth about Vietnam
Jim Kane said:
It is Caro’s LBJ work (and Nixon’s Memoirs) that got me started on my reading journey. I read volume 1 of Caro’s LBJ in 1982 and have volume 4 sitting on a book shelf at home waiting to be read. I read a year or so ago that he does his manuscript by hand!
Somehow I pictured him typing the manuscript on an old fashioned manual typewriter…but handwriting it wouldn’t surprise me in the least!
If you haven’t already, you have to read this profile of Caro and his writing methods from when the latest volume came out, as well as the slideshow at the bottom of the page: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/magazine/robert-caros-big-dig.html
Another interview with the master: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/16/studies-in-power-an-interview-with-robert-caro/
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
In my opinion, Doris Kearns Goodwin missed a golden opportunity in her biography of LBJ. She had access that few others had but I think Lyndon Johnson played her. I think he had a sense that history was going to severely damage him because of Vietnam and was looking for someone other than himself to mollify the hit.
I enjoyed the book until chapter 5 when describing the term as leader of the Senate. I thought is was more like a political science course lecture and very theoretical and overly pedantic and also stopped reading the book at that point.
I generally like Goodwin’s Books and obviously she is a serious historian. However, I learned more about LBJ from Caro’s Books, a man who never met or interviewed LBJ than I did from Goodwin who was spending time with him face to face over the course of years.
Caro to me is hands down the best political biographer out there
I usually enjoy reading biographies written by someone with unusual access to a president (whether “authorized” or not) but do assume I need to be cautious while absorbing the biographer’s perspective.
And, unfortunately, there aren’t enough Robert Caros in the world. His method of research, his style of writing and his ability to dig out and convey a story is unparalleled in my experience. I do wish his editor could curb his verbosity at times, but his ongoing series on LBJ is almost indescribably impressive.
The other thing that struck me about LBJ biographies and has always troubled me is how pure LBJ’s motives were regarding civil rights. He was such a political animal and his mind seemed to essentially be a political calculator, where the victory sometimes seemed defined as fitting a square peg in a round hole. I don’t doubt that he received satisfaction from providing by his largesse something the African-Americans could not achieve by themselves, but I would be more impressed if he voiced or acted on these feelings before he got in power, as he did in Cotulla, Texas in 1928 for the Mexican American children.
I probably am wrong, but I don’t recall a similar action on behalf of the blacks prior to 1957. Goodwin in her psychiatric based forward and first chapter refers to Johnson’s need to be the “giver” and the obligation accruing to the “given”—sort of a Moses complex—not quite the purity of motive that I think Grant had in the 1870’s.
Enjoy your opinions and this website very much
Bruce Johnson said:
I have been reading your posts since about Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren, Not sure exactly when. Was very pleased to find your site and it’s been a great help in my post-retirement “bucket-list” activity of reading presidential biographies in order. I’m getting ready to begin LBJ and I have a question: You indicated in your “Follow-up Items” that when time permits, you may read Irwin Unger’s LBJ: A Life (1999). Is there a reason you did not include this tome in your first go-round? Thanks, and keep up the great work!!
Items on my “follow-up” list are either there because they weren’t yet published when I was reading that particular president or, as was the case here, I simply wasn’t aware of the book when I initially assembled my list. If I remember correctly, someone later recommended this title specifically, so I’ll go back and read it (at some point!)
Bruce Johnson said:
Great. Thank you!
Robin MacNab said:
Very interesting Chuck Todd interview with Robert Caro (skip to about halfway point in this podcast) https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/the-chuck-toddcast-meet-the-press/id1458338698?mt=2#episodeGuid=ea736542-71f7-11e9-acd3-5f8ea5964eca
I’m looking for some advice on reading LBJ bios, please.
I love your site, and really appreciate all the effort you’ve put in over the years. I’m 3 years into my journey of reading presidential bios (but not quite as many as you have). I’ve learned so much I can’t even begin to express it, and I found your site 3 years ago and I was off and running!
I’ve finally reached LBJ and would like some guidance. Like you, I’ve been looking forward to Caro’s work, but was surprised to see that although he’s written 4 extensive books, Caro’s books don’t cover LBJ’s presidency.
So, I’d like some advice on how to proceed. I’m thinking of reading Caro’s series, and to cover LBJ’s presidency, am thinking of reading Dallek’s “Flawed Giant” (vol 2 of that series). (I followed your advice on reading plan for Benjamin Harrison, just FYI, splitting the series, and thought it worked out great.)
Does this sound like a decent approach? I’d like to get good coverage of LBJ’s presidency, and await Caro’s fifth book, but no one knows when that will hit the presses.
I welcome your advice.
Len, that’s exactly what I would do. It won’t be perfect, of course, but it will be close. And I can’t wait to hear what you think of Caro’s series…! 🙂
Thanks Steve! I know switching horses midstream isn’t ideal, but hopefully by the time I get to Dallek’s book, I’ll have a good sense of LBJ 🙂 Of course I’d still have to read Caro’s fifth book regardless, it would be a crime not to.
I’m halfway through Caro’s first book– it’s a real gem, and I understand why you praised it so highly. I had no idea LBJ was such a head case! I’m exited to discover just how he works his way through the DC power maze. Fascinating stuff!
I recently finished up the four Caro books and Dallek’s “Flawed Giant”. Dallek’s final words seem fitting, that no matter what you think of LBJ, he’s unforgettable. Given the many obscure chief executives we’ve had, there could be worse fates.
Caro’s books were great overall, but at times seemed a bit too lengthy. He certainly covers a lot of extra ground, adding maybe too much context in some cases. I’ve read a few interviews with Caro, and he’s said that these books are more about the study of political power, and not necessarily biographies of LBJ. In that light, they make more sense.
I liked the first and third books the best, the beginning section of “Master of the Senate” where he covers the Senate dynamics, that section was extraordinary.
Some of Caro’s critics suggest that he despises LBJ, but I think his coverage was pretty fair and even-handed. LBJ did so many things that simply wouldn’t be tolerated today. No biographer worth her salt could skip over these aspects of his personality, and simply omit these behaviors, they were integral to his character, and make him such a complex personality.
Overall I’d say the series is well worth reading. Of course it takes quite a bit of time, but the events during LBJ’s political career (1937-1968) are so critical to understanding our country and current events, that it’s worth the investment. Caro does an outstanding job of analyzing events, and has an easy, accessible writing style.
Len, I don’t think I could have summed the series up any better! And I remember *exactly* which part of the “Master of the Senate” you are referring to – I thought it was absolutely masterful.
I caught a bit of fun-filled flak for not giving each of his books 5 stars, but I do still stand by my view that they could absolutely have been shorter (by virtue of not being as repetitive, if nothing else). But, still, this series is a national treasure and you can not understand LBJ, political power, or that era without ingesting those books.
I’m still on pins and needles waiting for the last of the series to earn a publication date!
Andy G. said:
I would definitely recommend Irwin & Deb Unger’s “LBJ : A Life” for those that don’t have the time or interest to tackle either Caro’s or Dalleck’s multi-volume sets. I just finished the book and thought it was an insightful and comprehensive review of LBJ’s life and work. It was balanced and well-detailed. LBJ presents such an intriguing case of contrasts in his character and among his achievements and failings.
The only issue I had was the lack of a Preface/Intro and Epilogue/Summary of LBJ’s impact and legacy. I’m not sure why they were not included as the 537 pages that were written was more than manageable. With those two missing pieces aside, I really enjoyed my time reading it.
Thanks Steve, that’s high praise from the master himself!
I too can’t wait for Caro’s fifth book, there’s so much material to cover, I’d imagine it will be another 1,000 pager. I’m really curious to see how he covers the Vietnam war (I heard he’s visited several times) and the Great Society. Caro is very insightful so I’m looking forward to learning a lot from this last book.