Review 1720: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

As a young adult in the late 60’s and 70’s, I did not have a high opinion of Lyndon Johnson. Although I was not political, like many people, I was against the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until I lived in Texas that I saw another side to Johnson, who was revered for, among other things, bringing electricity to rural Texas to ease the work of women.

Doris Kearns Goodwin worked in the White House in the late 60’s, and when Johnson asked her to help him write his memoirs, she declined because she also was against the war. However, Johnson was a master of persuasion, and she finally agreed. The memoir never got written, but Goodwin had unprecedented access to Johnson because of it and eventually used her notes to write this biography.

Goodwin is obviously interested in the pursuit and use of power, and Johnson is a perfect subject for that interest. She depicts a man who did not pursue power for itself but for the good he could do with it. I failed to mark them in the text, but many of his comments about the presidency and the use of power contrast starkly with the thinking of our last regime, which was fizzling out as I read this book.

Goodwin paints a picture of a complex man, brilliant but at times crude, organized, manipulative, a consummate negotiator, but a man with good intentions. It’s a pity that the war overshadowed and overwhelmed the other accomplishments of his presidency. Because of it, we forget that he put into process programs to help the needy and people of color. Medicare and the Voting Rights Act are down to him as well as other programs that were not handled as well because of his preoccupation with the war or that were gutted by Richard Nixon.

I did get a little bogged down in the chapter about the war, and it being a different time, today’s readers may have problems with how Johnson and others refer to minority groups. Still, I found this book really insightful and interesting, as it explores the reasons for some of his controversial decisions.

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6 thoughts on “Review 1720: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

  1. Kurtzer September 9, 2021 / 11:09 am

    Good review, Kay. I also didn’t like the way the war in Nam was handled, but thought LBJ did the best he could for people of color and the working man. He should be remembered for the progress he brought to our country.

    • whatmeread September 9, 2021 / 1:17 pm

      Yes, he did a lot. Is that you, Dee?

  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead September 11, 2021 / 6:44 am

    Enjoyed the review! In more ambitious days (long, long ago) I actually made it through part of part of this biography. Johnson really was a fascinating and important historical character, as your review points out. It’s sad that the Vietnam War (which he inherited from Kennedy & Eisenhower) overshadowed his presidency, which really did see a re-making of U.S. society in many respects. I think people forget how hard he pushed for racial equality & social justice (in addition to everything else, he appointed Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court justice).

    • whatmeread September 11, 2021 / 10:48 am

      Yes, they have forgotten or they never knew.

  3. FictionFan September 13, 2021 / 1:39 am

    One of the reason I like reading political bios of figures who were big names in my youth is that I often find myself re-assessing them with the benefit of distance. It’s a rare politician who is all bad or all good but in the heat of the moment it can be hard to see what legacy they will leave when history judges them.

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