A review of LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, by Randall B. Woods

How fitting that with the sounding bell of the 2008 presidential sweepstakes, a new study appears about a president who left a lasting mark. Lyndon Johnson told a college chum that he intended to live his life in such a way that after he had been dead for a hundred years somebody would know that he had lived. With 34 down and 66 to go (LBJ died in 1973), he is getting his wish. Johnson took on big things. His was not a presidency characterized by school uniforms. He left behind a legacy of dazzling successes (especially in civil rights) and monumental failures (pronounced “Vietnam.”) How all of this came from the hands of the same man is a question with which historians will wrestle for as long as people write history. In his far too lengthy study, with its ridiculous subtitle, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, Randall B. Woods is the latest to join the fray.

Those who delve into this work should know that this is neither an objective portrait, nor even a detached one. It is not so much that Woods magnifies Johnson’s virtues (he does) or that he ignores his flaws (one senses that he would have liked to), but that he always paints Johnson in the best possible light. In those instances where Johnson’s behavior was too outrageous for even Woods to justify, he finds a way to relate it from what might have been Johnson’s point of view. Lyndon Johnson would have liked this book. Had he the ability or the inclination, it is the kind of book he would have liked to have written. One cannot, however, conceive of Johnson picking up and sticking with as large a work as this on any of his predecessors. That was one of his failings. As Woods relates it, the 36th president read and reflected too little on serious subjects and spent too much time poring over ephemeral news stories and broadcasts about himself. (What little we know of the current president’s reading habits suggests that the opposite may be the case.)

Yet whatever its defects, Woods’s tome might be the best we are likely to get. (Robert Dallek’s two-volume study, upon which Woods often relies, is far superior.) Interestingly, but not all that surprisingly, Woods fails to mention, let alone cite, Robert Caro’s three-volume study of Johnson. (A fourth is underway.) This apparent non-coincidence invites suspicion that Woods intended this work, in part, as a refutation of Caro’s writings. Lay the two authors’ works side by side and different LBJs emerge. Caro’s Johnson is a political opportunist with a streak of idealism. Woods’s Johnson is an idealist trapped in the body of a political operative.

Woods’s hero was born August 27, 1908 in Stonewall, Texas. He grew up in and around Johnson City, a town named for his ancestors, 50 miles west of Austin. Although his family occasionally experienced hard times, resulting from fluctuations in the prices of cotton and real estate, in which Johnson’s father was heavily invested, Johnson’s origins were hardly as humble as he pretended. Relatives on both sides of his family, including his father, served in the state legislature. His maternal grandfather had been president of Baylor University. The Johnsons, Woods reports, were part of “a rural aristocracy that formed an integral part of virtually every community under five thousand in Texas.” Woods attributes Johnson’s frequent tirades against the “Harvards” he kept encountering less to feelings of inadequacy than to easterners’ failure to acknowledge his Texas “aristocratic” roots. The few who did, or pretended to-Abe Fortas, Adlai Stevenson, and, interestingly, Alger Hiss-Johnson befriended. (Elsewhere in the book, Woods records that Lyndon and Adlai had never been “close.” This is among several contradictions and inaccuracies in the book that shake the reader’s confidence in its author. Woods’s identifies Thomas Marshall as Harding’s vice president, rather than as Wilson’s; he casts Clifford Case as a Senator from South Dakota, rather New Jersey; and, on different pages, he has Robert McNamara a former executive at both Ford Motors and General Motors. One could go on.)

Both of Lyndon’s parents had been teachers. Both were smitten by the economic populism that sprouted in their region. They spent one of their first dates listening William Jennings Bryan address the Texas legislature. Johnson’s father Sam, as a state legislator, favored regulation of railroads, increased state funding to rural schools, relief for farmers affected by droughts, and women’s suffrage. He broke with many of his fellow populists in his opposition to prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. He also defended the rights of German-Americans against Nativists during World War I. When Lyndon reached the age of nine, Sam began taking the youngster to the statehouse to observe the proceedings. Many found Sam to be domineering, a trait others would notice in his son.

Lyndon’s mother, who Woods depicts as a “self-appointed martyr,” tended to household affairs, while writing for several Texas newspapers from her home. As would her son, she complained often about her lot in life, usually in front of an audience. Put off by her husband’s drinking and fondness for the saloon-ridden culture of the state capital, Rebekah hectored her son to become the kind of man she had hoped to marry. Lyndon competed for his parents’ and teachers’ attention by playing the part of the clown when he was in a good mood and through disruptive behavior when he was not.

As he would never stop reminding the “Harvards” in his life, Johnson was a graduate of Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College. While he succeeded in cultivating his instructors and especially the college president, whose protégé he became, Lyndon made a poor impression on his fellow students. “Aggressiveness to the point of personal offense, followed by feelings of regret and efforts at atonement,” is how one student described his manner. One sees in this account the emergence of what would become known as the “Johnson treatment.”

Between his junior and senior years, Johnson served as principal and teacher at Welhausen School in Cotulla, not far from the Mexican border. Mexican-Americans constituted 75% of the town’s population. The children in Johnson’s care were among the poorest in the state. The current Texan in the White House would describe them as victims of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The experience had a profound affect on Johnson. He took a personal interest in his students and inspired them to want to rise above their lot. As president, he spoke of his former charges in a prime-time speech before a specially convened joint session of Congress in which he made the case for federal enforcement of voting rights for minorities. An aide recalled that while he put the famous “We shall overcome” speech to paper, its contents were vintage Johnson.

Woods sees in Johnson’s actions at Cotulla the emergence of a tendency he would display on other occasions. He would champion the downtrodden, but only so far. Usually he would stop before giving offense to whatever power structure he anticipated needing in the future. The strategy served Johnson well until he ran up against a power broker of a different sort than Texas school boards, state legislators, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, or recalcitrant Senators (segregationist and otherwise): Johnson probably went to his grave baffled that Ho Chi Minh would turn down American offers to develop the Lower Mekong River Basin.

Aided by an uncle, Lyndon landed a teaching job in a high school in Houston. After a local Congressman died, LBJ’s father pressed the winner of a special election, Richard Kleberg, to name Lyndon his chief of staff. Johnson spent his time in Washington learning his way around Capitol Hill and forging ties to other young staffers. Through the intercession of liberal Rep. Maury Maverick, Franklin Roosevelt put aside his reservations about Johnson’s age and named the 26-year-old head of the National Youth Administration in Texas. Johnson raised hackles when he, unlike managers of other New Deal programs in the south, steered considerable funds to African-Americans. He also learned how to work the media.

The death of a second Congressman catapulted the now well-known Lyndon Johnson into the House of Representatives. Seeking the chance of a lifetime, Johnson outworked his opponents. He won the Democratic primary with 28% of the vote finished first in a field that included eight other candidates. He had also campaigned as a Roosevelt loyalist in a year in which FDR’s popularity, courtesy of his failed attempt to pack the Supreme Court, was waning. FDR and his lieutenants picked up on this. Roosevelt made Johnson’s Congressional career when he personally persuaded the Rural Electrification Authority to bend its rules so that farming cooperatives in LBJ’s district could qualify for cheaply supplied power. Two years later, again with the help of FDR’s administration, LBJ brought a naval air station to Corpus Christi. Contracts for both projects conveniently went to a firm subsequently known as “Brown and Root,” whose principals were Johnson allies.

While in the House, Johnson embarked on two outside interests that made him a subject for considerable gossip and speculation: he began building the communications empire that would earn him a fortune and started sleeping with glamorous women, some of whom were married to powerful men, including Johnson political mentors. Standard Johnson lore maintains that Johnson kept his distance from radio and television stations that his wife technically owned. Lady Bird Johnson, the story goes, transformed the companies she owned through her acumen as a businesswoman. She also received a special kind of help. As one Johnson associate saw it, anyone who believed that the Federal Communications Commission, which speedily approved Mrs. Johnson’s purchase of the KTBC radio station, did not know that she was married to a powerful politician, would “believe twenty-two impossible things before breakfast.” To secure a national affiliation for the station, Johnson personally called on CBS president William Paley. When the station ventured into television during the decade in which the industry experienced its largest growth, the Johnson-owned KTBC remained the only VHF station operating in Austin. (Caro relates how businesses seeking government favors found it helpful to purchase large chunks of advertising time on KTBC.)

Once in Congress, LBJ began an affair with Alice Glass, the future wife of Charles Marsh, the liberal newspaper publisher who had made advancing Johnson’s career a major preoccupation. Other woman would follow, including one who, according to Woods, bore him a son. What did Lady Bird make of her husband’s antics? According to Woods, she alternated between pretending not to notice and acting as her husband’s enabler. The daughter of a womanizing father, she grew up believing that all married men had girlfriends, says Woods. She emerges as the most pitiful character in his book.

In his depiction of Johnson’s first two Senate campaigns, Woods’s account of Johnson’s career diverts the most from Caro’s. In 1940, Johnson, even with help from FBI agents sent by Roosevelt to Texas to help his protégé, was done in by chicanery of crooked election judges. He lost the primary by less than 2,000 votes. Eight years later, Johnson won a Senatorial primary by 87 votes, courtesy of the famous late-arriving Ballot Box 13 and a decree by Justice Hugo Black, instigated by Fortas, that denied federal jurisdiction over Texas’s electoral procedures. Woods attributes the outcome to the closing of ranks among New Dealers. This time, Woods assures readers, Lyndon had learned not to release all of his voted ahead of the opposition. (Through this practice, those who specialize in stealing, negating, or stuffing ballots know in advance how many they need to “find.”)

He launched his Senate career by assuring powerful Texas interests that he was not the populist they took him to be. When Leland Olds, chairman of the Federal Power Commission and an advocate of greater regulation of the oil industry, came up for reconfirmation, Johnson, relying on information supplied by the House Un-American Activities Committee, engineered the defeat of the nomination by smearing the nominee. While he said he was not calling Olds a “communist,” Johnson read from decades-old articles Olds had written and rhetorically asked his colleagues whether they wanted a commissioner or a commissar to head the agency. The nomination died 53 to 15.

Woods sees Johnson’s behavior as “inexcusable, perhaps, but understandable.” He points out that by the time the Olds hearing occurred the public had become concerned about potential Communist infiltration of government and that the trial of accused Soviet agent Alger Hiss was in full bloom. Johnson’s apologist is less forgiving of other politicians, primarily Republicans, who employed tactics similar to Johnson’s. Woods, for instance, introduces Richard Nixon to his readers as “Ike’s red-baiting running mate.” Nixon first acquired the “red-bating” moniker when he exposed Hiss’s treachery before the very House committee to which Johnson turned for assistance. Johnson smeared Olds more a year before Nixon, running for Senator in California on an anti-Communist platform, defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas, an actress turned liberal Congresswoman.(In the six years preceding that campaign, Douglas had been Johnson’s mistress.)

Of Johnson’s penchant for gathering information about his colleagues, Woods supplies a defense offered by paranoids. Johnson, he says, assembled the material to “prevent colleagues from using his own peccadilloes against him.” Woods regards the tapes LBJ made of his presidential telephone conversations as part of a effort to keep track of the “incredibly complex math that underlay” hundreds of pieces of legislation. (How strange he would not share their contents with aides he had assigned to help “work” the Hill.) As Woods tells it, there is no evidence that LBJ ever leaked information he acquired in surreptitiously. To anyone who believes that, Lyndon would have gladly sold a bridge. Reporters declining to name LBJ as their source have spoken of “tips” he sent their way. Anyone taking Woods at his word will find reassurance in his relating of how Johnson, armed with the fruit of J. Edgar Hoover’s bugs, beseeches civil rights leaders to persuade the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to curb his sexual appetites. Woods makes no mention of Johnson’s keeping on his nightstand FBI-produced files on the private lives of allies, adversaries, and celebrities.

Woods relates, but with less color and suspense than previous authors, Johnson’s dexterous steering the 1957 civil rights bill to passage. So that he could claim credit for passing the first civil rights bill in 80 years, the man Caro calls the “master of the Senate” steered it through the Senate after first inserting language that rendered it ineffective. An angry Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had made the bill a centerpiece of his agenda, seriously considered vetoing the measure LBJ had crippled. (For a fuller account of this episode, see David A. Nichols’s A Matter of Jusice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

In his discussion of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960, Woods sheds no new light on why Johnson accepted Kennedy’s offer. (Perhaps he was sore at Nixon for hastening Helen’s departure from Washington.) In 1956, Woods says, Kennedy’s father offered to finance a Johnson presidential run with the proviso that LBJ take Jack as his running mate. Did the old man make Johnson a similar offer in 1960, but at a reduced rate? (Perhaps JFK was only half-joking when he said that Old Joe was not willing to pay for a landslide.) Some believe that Johnson thought he could continue to function as majority leader while vice president. After the new Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield, reminded him of the separation of powers, Johnson stopped attending Democratic caucuses. (Afterwards, he took to asking associates the difference between a caucus and a cactus. The latter, he would tell them, wore its pricks on the outside.) Most of what anyone ever need know about Johnson’s years as vice president is captured by Woods in the chapter heading, “Camelot Meets Mr. Cornpone.” Suffice it to say that in the second job, LBJ was no Dick Cheney.

As president, Johnson wasted little time making Kennedy’s program his own and adding to it. He made his first order of business passage of Kennedy’s proposed tax cut. Enacted early in 1964, the measure ushered in a period of record economic growth, a swelling in government coffers, and shrinking unemployment. Woods cannot bring himself to say it, but when two of Johnson’s successors, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, repeated Kennedy’s experiment and reduced marginal tax rates significantly, the economy responded similarly. (Kennedy and Johnson, though, lived at a time when conservatives preferred balanced budgets and reduced spending to tax cuts and liberals were more prone to cut taxes, maintain spending, and tolerate temporary deficits-and liberals, as most historians will attest, are always in the right, even after they reverse themselves.)

With the help of aides well versed in the writings of Michael Harrington (The Other America,1962) and othersJohnson made what he called the “war on poverty” his second order of business. He gave it life in the form of the Economic Opportunity Act and named Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver as its lead general. Woods concedes that Johnson and his team announced programs without having in mind a clear picture of how they would work. This helps explain the operational gap between presidential pronouncements about turning “tax-eaters” into “tax-payers” and increases in both public assistance spending and welfare roles. Similarly disjointed thinking could be found in Johnson’s launching of what would become known as “affirmative action.” Johnson certainly had a point when he said that “you do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete’…and still believe that you have been completely fair.” But should special assistance be awarded to people who had not suffered from discrimination and should such benefits be bestowed solely on the basis of race (or gender)? Johnson was not the man to ask.

Woods is especially struck that the Great Society came into being not at a time of economic downturn, as with the New Deal, and that its intended beneficiary was not the majority of Americans, but a distinct minority. He proclaims that Johnson’s ideal was big government, big business, and big labor operating collectively to resolve all social problems (and, presumably, to pay for all solutions). He rightly calls this “corporatism,” but does not note that its most prominent practitioners had been dictators (i.e., Mussolini and Peron).

Of Johnson’s “finest hour” as president, his skillful throwing of the full weight of his office to extend full benefits of citizenship to African-Americans, Woods retells a well-known story without fresh insights. Johnson took his stand knowing that it would work to his party’s detriment in his native region. Yet he forged on, partly because he saw a chance to end a great injustice and partly because he recognized how it might transform the American south. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket,” Johnson said. By the time he left office, candidates would be competing for votes on different terms than before. They would also need to seek votes from newly enfranchised African-Americans.

Having let his personal experiences shape his approach to domestic policy, Johnson was at a loss when it came to foreign affairs. Nor was he particularly interested in learning things that had not been part of his pre-presidential experience. “Goddamn it, George,” an exasperated Johnson barked at freshman Senator George McGovern, “you and Fulbright, and all you history teachers, I haven’t got time to fuck around with history. I’ve got boys on the line out there. I can’t be worried about history when there are boys out there who might die before morning.” Those “boys” would number more than 500,000 by the time Johnson left office. Why had he sent them?

Lyndon Johnson had convinced himself or let others convince him, that through a limited show of force, he could prevent South Vietnam from falling under the control of the Communist north. But how much force would it take to complete this mission? Johnson did not know. He would throw so many more in as the need arose and see what happened. In between such build-ups, he would continue building his Great Society. He would leave them there primarily to prevent Republicans from accusing him of “losing” territory to the Communists, as they had of Truman. But he would not wage enough of a war, lest he provoke the Soviets or the Chinese into retaliating on behalf of their client. Having gotten Johnson’s number, the enemy proved more effective in influencing American policy and strategy than the American president was in shaping Hanoi’s. It also showed itself more closely attuned to American public opinion and the American people’s limited patience for prolonged foreign interventions than the president, who filled his pockets with polls published in newspapers. The risky and militarily costly Tet offensive launched in early 1968 set off a chain of events that ultimately sent Lyndon Johnson, America’s master politician, home. “The laws of politics do not allow even the mightiest nation to win a victory it cannot define,” Newsweek‘s Emmet John Hughes observed in the early days of that war. His words have a most contemporary ring.