Me & LBJ


Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency by Mark K. Updegrove
LBJ, signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill
(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)
OK, first: the author of this book has one of the coolest jobs in the world. He’s the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum (a
place I want to visit so bad it hurts).

And he’s put together a terrific book.
I guess this style of book is sometimes called an oral biography (which is such an unfortunate
phrase), but I think in this case it’s not an accurate description, because it
also involves print sources. This one is a mix of snippets from interviews,
memoirs, and biographies, all strung together to create a cohesive narrative.*
So, on one page, for example, we have a section from an LBJ interview, followed by an excerpt from a Barry Goldwater interview, then a
paragraph from a book quoting Warren Rogers (bureau chief for Hearst
Newspapers), followed by a Ted Kennedy interview snippet—all dealing with the complex relationship between LBJ and the Kennedy family.
This style of book—you can pick it up and read a little bit, and
then put it down, knowing that you can dive right back in again where you left off. (Some books require a running start to resume reading them; this kind doesn’t.) So for a reader who’s feeling scattered, I highly recommend this format.
And with this book, I experienced that thing that happens with biographies: the feeling of dread as I reached the end of the book—because the
person dies. And at the end of this book, I was blinking back tears. Of course, I already knew LBJ has the power to make me weepy. 
And it happened again with this book. Here’s how:
After leaving the presidency, LBJ spoke of a story he’d been told
by one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, who said that he went into his backyard and looked up at the moon and wondered if could be true that he had really been there. LBJ said he’d told that story to some friends and said, “Perhaps… the time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the power and splendor of the presidency and find it hard to believe I had actually been there.” Of the first night back on his ranch, he said, “But on this night I knew I had been there. And I knew that I had given it everything that was in me.” (p. 322)
Reading these words (that last part!) just a few pages before the end of the book, and then reading the final words about LBJ being buried near an oak tree on his ranch—it just did me in.
[Let’s pause, as I collect myself…   Hang on, it’ll be just a moment…
All right. Now we may proceed.]
This portrait of LBJ paints out a few of the unpleasantnesses, and as long as a person recognizes that, I think it’s OK. But there also are some surprises here, and one of the big ones (BIG!) is that LBJ made the transfer of
power (from himself to Nixon) go very smoothly. He was generous. In the words of Walt Rostow: “[The transition] was a magnificent performance to observe. But I think it goes back to a strand in President Johnson that I think is important and hasn’t been caught much, which is that he is a man of government—politics.” (p. 315) 
A simply wonderful look at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential years, told by those who were there.
*Some other fine examples of this style of book:
Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton

4 thoughts on “Me & LBJ

  1. This book puts LBJ in a much more flattering light than the Caro books do. It's one of the things I like best about LBJ — he was filled with such contradictions. Fascinating.

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