Sunday, May 30, 2010;
LYNDON B. JOHNSON
By Charles Peters
Times. 199 pp. $23
Tired of waiting for Robert Caro to wrap up his mammoth, multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson? If so, Charles Peters's sleek little number on the 36th president may ease your restlessness. Peters knows this material both as an insider (he worked on the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, who picked Johnson as his running mate) and as a longtime observer (he went on to found and edit the Washington Monthly). Peters considers Johnson a tragic figure, dazzlingly effective as a legislator but nonetheless profoundly insecure, especially around the family whose fortunes were intertwined with his: the Kennedys, whom he resented for their glamour and Ivy League polish. Then, as president, the ultimate maneuverer found himself unable to work his way out of the quagmire in Vietnam.
Johnson's near-obsession with the Kennedys surfaces early in the book. On Page 2, Peters quotes his subject claiming, "My ancestors were teachers and lawyers and college presidents and governors when the Kennedys in this country were still tending bar." The tension was exacerbated when Kennedy and Johnson debated each other at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, while Johnson was still hoping to win the presidential nomination. Johnson snidely compared his own sterling attendance record with the absenteeism of "some" senators. "Kennedy replied that he assumed Johnson was talking about some other senators," Peters reports, "and proceeded to praise Johnson's record of 'answering those quorum calls.' " Johnson, Peters concludes, had been "outclassed."
As for the burden of Vietnam, which poisoned a presidency that had started off with a series of remarkable legislative triumphs, Peters rightly points out that for several years virtually the whole country was united behind the effort to halt the advance of communism in Asia -- and that for a president to have simply called off a war once we were in the thick of it would have been unprecedented.
-- Dennis Drabelle