HE LITERATURE DEVOTED to the life and works

of Lyndon Baines Johnson is already vast and eventually will quite certainly be a library unto itself, which is doubtless appropriate for a man who was in every respect larger than life. Yet it is difficult to imagine that in all these billions of words there will be a fuller or more penetrating portrait of Johnson than is contained in this brief memoir by George Reedy, who served him during the years the giant Texan lumbered from the Senate to the vice presidency to the White House.

Reedy's memoir is deliberately self-effacing. "This book is not about Lyndon B. Johnson but about my reactions to Lyndon B. Johnson," he writes, and over and again he stresses that this "exercise in exorcism" is "not a biography nor is it a history" -- which indeed, by contrast with the first volume of Robert Caro's massive life, it is not. Yet Reedy discharges in full the biographer's central obligations: he brings his subject to life, and he finds shape and meaning in that life.

By no stretch of the imagination can Reedy be said to sentimentalize Johnson. To the contrary, he regards him as "a tormented man," and his summary of his personal characteristics is withering: "As a human being, he was a miserable person -- a bully, sadist, lout and egotist. He had no sense of loyalty (despite his protestations that it was the quality he valued above all others) and he enjoyed tormenting those who had done the most for him. He seemed to take a special delight in humiliating those who had cast in their lot with him."

To which the logical response is: Why did Reedy subject himself to the "agonizing" experience of working with Johnson in daily intimacy for nearly two decades? Reedy addresses the question with characteristic clarity and balance: "Why the members of his staff stuck with him -- including me -- is a question I cannot answer to this day. It had something to do with a feeling that he was a truly great man and that we owed it to the country to put up with his rampages so he would be there when he was needed. The sentiment may sound squishy to those who have never been close to him but he was capable of generating incredible loyalty. Naturally, we put the best face on things that we could. We ascribed his tantrums to an inferiority complex. This gave us a feeling that at heart he was a modest man, unaware of his great gifts. In fact, he did have an inferiority complex. It was not, however, the whole explanation for the conduct of a very complicated man."

For the rest of the explanation, Reedy looks in several directions. He argues that Johnson had a limitless capacity for "self-deception," that he had "a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that 'the truth' which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies." He discusses Johnson's well-known passion for secrecy, his belief that the business of the people was most effectively transacted away from the people's scrutiny. He examines the ways in which Johnson's joyless childhood shaped his lifelong pattern of "sympathy for the underdog, resentment of those who were secure" -- contending most convincingly that Johnson and his hero Huey Long "were men with a deep sense of historic wrongs unaccompanied by deep concepts of how they could be righted." His summary of Johnson's enormous reservoir of shortcomings is at once devastating and poignant:

"He did not wear the mantle of age with any grace because he had never learned to enjoy anything but sensual activity. He could think but not reflect; devise ingenious schemes for achieving goals but not ponder the validity of the goals; outguess his fellow human beings in playing the great game of one-upmanship without realizing that the game might not be worth playing. In short, he had none of the contemplative qualities which, in old age, can compensate for the loss of youthful vigor. A few weeks after his heart attack in 1955, he summed up the whole problem when he told a conference of doctors, gathered to evaluate his condition, that he enjoyed nothing but whiskey, sunshine and sex. Without realizing what he was doing, he had outlined succinctly the tragedy of his life."

Yet Reedy can look past all of these weaknesses and focus the heart of his book on Johnson's great strengths: his instinctive understanding of the labyrinthine workings of politics, his "superbly developed sense of timing," his grasp of the ingredients of compromise, his unswerving belief in equality of opportunity. He argues that these qualities largely produced what he sees as Johnson's two paramount accomplishments: his leadership of the Senate in the 1950s, which "put the nation's political machinery back on the track in a period when it was threatening to jump the rails," and his performance upon first assuming the presidency, which "demonstrated to the American people that a crackpot with a mail-order rifle could not kill the government of the United States."

With respect to the first of these, Reedy provides brief but illuminating analyses of what he regards as Johnson's most important instances of legislative leadership: the censure of Joe McCarthy, "one of the most delicate operations in modern political history," and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which Reedy correctly identifies as a "watershed" that opened the way for the more sweeping legislation that followed within a decade. "On both occasions," Reedy writes, "our society needed him desperately and on both occasions he came through. Whatever else may be said in history about him -- and much of it will be very unpleasant -- that should be recorded."

The nation also needed Johnson desperately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and again he came through; the details of this heroic performance require no further elaboration. But as for the later years of the Johnson presidency, Reedy argues that the landslide victory of 1964 seemed to Johnson not merely "sanctification" but "deification," and that "the whole nation would have been spared a major tragedy had he been able to carry on as an 'interim' president." This of course was the tragedy of Vietnam; Reedy believes, and the case he makes is powerful indeed, that had Johnson's vanity not been so grossly inflated by the election returns, he would have comprehended "the depth of opposition to the war" and would have declined to press the war further because of his instinctive "recognition of the necessity for public acquiesence, however reluctant, in any government program."

But the election returns did come in, blinding Johnson to the political realities and leading him down a path that proved disastrous for the country and for him. Reedy understands this, and the burden of blame he places on Johnson is enormous. But he also understands that the failures of Johnson's character and career must not cloud our view of his historic accomplishments. His final words are generous and sensible: "He was a bundle of contradictions and we will have to accept him the way he was. I only hope we really accept him that way -- not a saint and not a demon but still a towering figure on the landscape of American history." In this extraordinarily sensitive and revealing memoir, Reedy does precisely that.