LBJ: Architect of American Ambition.

Author:Whitt, Jacqueline E.
Position:Lyndon Baines Johnson - Book review

Lyndon Baines Johnson was never supposed to be president, at least according to the Kennedys, yet he presided over one of the most volatile decades of the twentieth century. Both reviled and revered, Johnson maintains a conspicuous place in the imagery and sound bites of the 1960s, and Randall Woods in LBJ: Architect of American Ambition joins a long and distinguished cadre of historians to tackle Johnson's biography. Even with several excellent biographies available, notably Robert Caro's multivolume work, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which remains unfinished, and Robert Dallek's two-volume Lone-Star Rising and Flawed Giant. Woods relies on these impressive and provocative works, but he also stakes out some new ground in order to offer something new both to the casual reader and the historian of the period. From the beginning, Woods understands Johnson as deeply enigmatic and frequently embodying at once contradictory and complementary characteristics.

Ultimately, the biography must explain the presidential Johnson who took office in the mid-1960s when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, so the book begins there and then engages the reader in an extended flashback to Johnson's family and early life. Throughout the book, Texas, as a place and as a symbol, looms large in Woods' analysis; Johnson's ambitions and personality matched the landscape from which he hailed. In the first part of the book, Woods sets out a careful chronological study of Johnson's childhood, and whereas other scholars have focused on the impact of Lyndon's father, Sam Ealy, Woods pays similarly close and detailed attention to Lyndon's mother Rebecca Baines Johnson's influence on his development. Ealy had a discernible populist streak and the ruggedness of a Westerner, which LBJ certainly inherited, but his mother's religion and idealism left indelible marks on him as well.

As Johnson matured, his skills as a politician and his larger-than-life personality cemented itself. Perhaps surprising to those familiar with the "Johnson treatment," Woods paints Johnson as a not-particularly-natural politician; he had trouble connecting with large crowds and was not an especially skilled debater or public speaker. Yet Johnson's ambitions and work ethic far outstripped these liabilities. If something didn't come naturally, Johnson worked at it doggedly--he would shake more hands, visit more places, and learn more policy than his opponents. His dogged determination and...

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