Lone Star Rising
In his autobiographical memoir The Good Times (1990), Russell Baker recalls his days as White House correspondent for The New York Times during the mid-1950’s. At that time, Baker observes, the Senate was remarkably well supplied with talented leaders, but one, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, stood alone: “Johnson was a flesh- and-blood, three-volume biography, and if you ever got it written you’d discover after publication that you’d missed the key point and got the interpretation completely wrong and needed a fourth to set things right.” Multifaceted and complex, Johnson reminded him of a character from a Russian novel. The challenge inherent in the subject’s complexity and the overwhelming amount of biographical material in existence—millions of pages of documents and thousands of taped interviews—have not deterred a number of biographers from attempting to unravel the riddles inherent in Johnson’s life and career. During his lifetime, he was the subject of several campaign biographies, usually hagiographic, but at least one scathing attack appeared during his tenure in public office.
Following Johnson’s death in 1973, a series of single-volume biographies appeared, each shedding considerable light on his life. Among these, the works of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Merle Miller, and Ronnie Dugger—all relying heavily on the oral testimony of Johnson intimates and contemporaries—are particularly valuable. The challenge of the full- length three-volume study was first assumed by Robert Caro, whose first volume, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, appeared in 1982. Following the publication of his second and more controversial volume, The Path to Power (1990), a book that probes the darker sides of Johnson’s personality and career, Caro announced that his task might require four volumes instead of three.
Dallek, who has previously published books on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, has assumed the challenge of the full-length scholarly biography, though he expects to complete his work in two lengthy volumes. One major objective is a better-balanced, fairer view of Johnson than other biographies have accorded the subject. Lightly documented and accessible to the general reader, Dallek’s book draws heavily upon the mine of materials found in the Johnson Presidential Library and on taped interviews housed there and elsewhere. The title Lone Star Rising is remarkably well chosen, for it directs attention to the Texas background that served as a backdrop to Johnson’s ambition and explains much about his character.
The biography chronicles Johnson’s life from its beginning in the Texas Hill country to his election as vice president in the 1960 national election. During that time, Johnson served twenty-eight years in public life, beginning as a secretary to Congressman Richard Kleberg. All the significant American political events, conflicts, and movements of the mid- twentieth century swirl about Johnson: the Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the arms race, space exploration, the Civil Rights movement, and the social and economic entitlement legislation Johnson championed during his term as president. Thus, the biography recapitulates those significant times.
During the Depression, Johnson was appointed director of the National Youth Organization in Texas by President Roosevelt in 1935 and held the position until 1937, when he won a special election as congressman from the tenth district of Texas. After losing a special senatorial election in 1941, he remained in the House of Representatives until he won a Senate seat in 1948. There he served successively as minority whip, minority leader, and majority leader. He is generally regarded as the most effective majority leader ever to serve in the Senate, a judgment Dallek supports.
Exploring a life of glaring inconsistencies and contradictions creates uneasiness among readers, for it reminds them that real people, unlike those of literary works, are not all of a piece, a realization that arises from a deeper examination of character and motives than most undertake willingly. The complexity of Johnson’s life can hardly be exaggerated, although a biographer can provide plausible explanations for many of his personal traits and his actions. Like his daunting physical presence, the conflicting qualities within the man existed on the grand scale. The pragmatist and idealist, the populist and the tycoon, the mixture of virtues and vices, exaggerated admiration of riches and power and identification and sympathy for the poor, the crude frontiersman and the social charmer—these and more contradictions combined to form Johnson as the most complex political figure of his time. As Dallek observes, Johnson’s extremes...
(The entire section is 1969 words.)