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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Day 815: No Ordinary Time

Cover for No Ordinary TimeNo Ordinary Time tells of the contributions of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the conduct of the United States before and during its participation in World War II. The book relates how Franklin Roosevelt exercised his acute political awareness of public opinion to nudge the U.S. out of isolationism during the war, foreseeing as he did how the world would be changed if Germany succeeded and how assisting England against the Axis powers allowed the U.S. to ramp up for war. While Roosevelt was concentrating on the war, Eleanor remained his social conscience, attempting to hold on to the social advances of the New Deal, taking up the causes of women and their right to work and of African-Americans and their right to equal treatment.

The book also treats of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. Although they were always friends and companions, Eleanor had been devastated much earlier in their marriage to find out that Franklin had been having an affair with her own secretary, Lucy Mercer. This discovery ended certain aspects of their marital relationship. Eleanor’s relationship with her mother-in-law was difficult, too. In many ways, Eleanor was never at home in her own house. When she had to find a way to be of use as First Lady, since the traditional role of hostess didn’t suit her, she began to make a life for herself as Franklin’s eyes and ears around the country. So successful was she at this that when Franklin wanted to rekindle their relationship later in life and asked her to stay home more, she didn’t want to give up her active life.

These were two remarkable people, although they had their faults. At times, Eleanor’s zeal for a cause made her oblivious to Franklin’s need at the end of the day for relaxation. She found it difficult to unbend, always wanting to be active. Franklin, although charming and seemingly affectionate, was occasionally selfish and seemed sometimes to have no care for people who had given him unstinting care and friendship.

Reading this book made me feel as if I really knew these people, a feeling I seldom get from nonfiction. This is a fascinating story, sometimes thrilling, sometimes sad, about an important period in our history.

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Day 661: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Cover for The Bully PulpitNoted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin approaches her subject of the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft from several insightful angles. Although her book examines their careers separately, it is focused on the differences in their personalities and approaches that finally led to the serious rift in their friendship of many years. This rift also led to Roosevelt’s third run for president, which split the Republican ticket.

One of the major differences that Goodwin identifies is their relationships to and use of the press. The journalists particularly close to Roosevelt and involved in the fortunes of both presidents all worked for McClure’s magazine and make up an impressive list of names in journalism: Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, and Lincoln Steffens.

I wanted to read more by Goodwin after I read Team of Rivals, the great history of Lincoln’s career that inspired the movie Lincoln. Although I also have her book about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in my queue, I was interested in this one because I know only a little bit about Teddy Roosevelt and almost nothing about Taft, just the broad outlines of their careers.

Without going into detail about the careers and personalities of either man, although I developed respect for both, after reading this book, I confess to having a lot of sympathy for Taft over their split. The fact is that Roosevelt regretted his decision not to run for a third term and so looked for excuses to find fault with Taft’s presidency. After Roosevelt’s return from Africa, he criticized Taft’s record of progressive legislation even though it was actually better than Roosevelt’s own. Taft later acknowledged that he wasn’t as good as Roosevelt in publicizing his accomplishments or explaining his policies to the press.

This book is thoroughly interesting and revealing of the characters of both men. It is carefully researched, and it is also very well written. Although quite hefty at 750 pages, it moves along at a good pace and does not get bogged down with extraneous details.

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Day 260: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Cover for Team of RivalsBest Book of the Week!

Doris Kearns Goodwin begins her examination of Lincoln’s administration by remarking that because so much has been written about him, everything might be thought to have been said. However, by examining his career in terms of the team he put together to run the country, she found much more to write about.

This team consisted of his rivals in politics. Edwin Stanton, who treated Lincoln with contempt on their first meeting and who Lincoln made Secretary of War, was griefstricken at Lincoln’s death. Salmon P. Chase, eternally Lincoln’s rival for the presidency and a frequent undercutter, was an extremely competent Secretary of the Treasury. William H. Seward, the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination that Lincoln won, was at first inclined to underestimate Lincoln but became his closest friend and advisor as Secretary of State. Edward Bates, the Attorney General, was a homebody who was not sure he wanted a public life and at first looked upon Lincoln as well-meaning but incompetent, but ended up thinking he was very nearly perfect.

Team of Rivals begins on the day of the Republican convention of 1860, in which, of the rivals who had some expectation of winning the nomination of the party, Lincoln would seem to have the least. Seward was the odds-on favorite, but he had made many enemies in the party. Chase’s overwhelming ambition for the presidency lead him on several occasions to ignore the warning signs that he would not be the nominee. Bates was willing to act if nominated but made no extraordinary efforts because he preferred his home life.

Goodwin’s narrative then turns farther into the past to trace the men’s respective careers. In this examination she shows how Lincoln cleverly set himself up to be everyone’s second choice for the Republican nomination.

The book follows Lincoln’s nomination, campaign, and stunning victory, but the bulk of it concerns the compelling story of how he put together a cabinet containing these men, who were not only rivals for the office but who were from different regions of the country and who had different views on the important issues of the day. He then managed to work with these men and run the country during one of its most difficult times. It was frequently rumored that Seward actually held the power, but Goodwin shows us that Lincoln was always in charge.

Through an examination of the diaries of the men, letters, and other sources, Goodwin provides us with the fascinating details of political machinations, the conduct of the war, the fights among the generals, the alliances and friendships, and the story of how several men, who began with no esteem of Lincoln at all, grew to respect and love him.

Goodwin’s book is one of the most absorbing history books I have read. Although it is long and takes awhile to read, it explains each issue in completely lucid terms and interesting detail. The most important thing I got from the book was a fuller understanding of Lincoln’s greatness, his humor, kindness, and magnanimity–and what a disaster for the country his death was.