Flawed Giant

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

More a history than a biography, FLAWED GIANT: LYNDON JOHNSON AND HIS TIMES, 1961-1973 completes the account of Lyndon Johnson that Robert Dallek began with LONE STAR RISING: LYNDON JOHNSON AND HIS TIMES, 1908-1960 (1991). Readers who wish to understand Johnson’s character and its formative influences need to begin with the first volume. In FLAWED GIANT, one catches only glimpses of the human being underneath the public figure, in part because there is so much of the public figure to recount, in part because Johnson—a troubled, difficult, well meaning man—was so complex.

The strands of Dallek’s book, identified by section headings, outline major themes of the executive career. As Vice President, Johnson was an unhappy but loyal subordinate of President John F. Kennedy, spending his time and energy on foreign travels, the space program, a committee devoted to equality of opportunity, and personal pursuits.

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson assured a smooth transition to the new administration. In his own tenure, lasting five years and two months, Johnson emerges as a master of domestic politics and domestic programs. Dallek fully accounts for his mastery of the legislative process that resulted in more major domestic programs and bills than any previous president had achieved. Even greater detail is devoted to the war in Vietnam, the tragedy of Johnson’s Administration. Dallek makes plain why the war moved on inexorably, in part because of Johnson but mainly because war policy was rooted in decades of reasonably successful United States foreign policy.

Dallek is too cautious to predict Johnson’s place in history, though he strongly endorses the view that he will not be a forgotten President.

Sources for Further Study

Campaigns and Elections. XIX, June, 1998, p. 10

The Economist. CCCXLVII, April 18, 1998, p. S8.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, July, 1998, p. 118.

Insight on the News. XIV, June 8, 1998, p. 36.

Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 74.

Los Angeles Times. March 16, 1998, p. A15.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 12, 1998, p. 5.

Newsweek. CXXXI, April 20, 1998, p. 66.

The Washington Monthly. XXX, May, 1998, p. 41.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, April 26, 1998, p. 1.

Flawed Giant

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Flawed Giant, Robert Dallek concludes his two-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-sixth U.S. president, whose tenure in office lasted five years and two months, and who, Dallek argues, left a strong if ambiguous legacy. Dallek, who has studied the Johnson presidency for more than a decade, has drawn upon materials recently made public from the LBJ Presidential Library and upon numerous interviews with members of Johnson’s staff. Very much a book about Johnson’s times, Flawed Giant is as much historical narrative as biography. To understand Johnson’s character, or at least to view him with sympathy, one should read Lone Star Rising (1991), Dallek’s first volume, which gives an account of Johnson’s family background and formative influences. Flawed Giant makes Johnson appear an even larger influence on events than he was, for it recounts events with him at the center.

Chronologically, the biography highlights the following dominant motifs of Johnson’s executive career: the vice presidency (1961-1963), an unhappy time for Johnson; the transition to the presidency and consolidation of power (1963-1964); the Great Society domestic programs (1964-1965), when Johnson was firmly in control; Johnson’s management of the Vietnam War (1966-1968), a time of frustration and bitter disappointment; and his retirement and death (1969-1973).

Although Dallek’s narrative is straightforward for the most part, he occasionally establishes different strands that require alertness from the reader and that may be disconcerting to those not already familiar with the events. For example, he may end a section with a portion of a Johnson speech relevant to that topic, then begin another topic from an earlier time and follow it up to another part of the same speech.

The section on the vice presidency illustrates Dallek’s approach effectively. Vice President Johnson devoted himself primarily to three areas: foreign travel as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of American capitalism; the space program, where he shaped policy and dovetailed expansion in accord with his desire for economic growth and integration of the South; and a committee established by President Kennedy to promote equality of opportunity. Dallek narrates Johnson’s experiences in all three areas, revealing his varying successes and disappointments. On foreign travel, usually to Asia or Africa, Johnson was often uncomfortable and made his hosts so. He wanted to appear before large crowds and often treated them as if he were a campaigner seeking their votes, even handing out leftover campaign materials he brought along. He did folksy things such as inviting a Pakistani camel driver to visit the United States. Ominously for his later experience, he expressed the view that foreigners were not like the people he knew.

While he was treated with correctness by Kennedy and his staff, he felt like an outsider, removed from really important policy decisions. He was rarely consulted on foreign policy and had little role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. His earlier conflict with Robert Kennedy, which would last until Kennedy’s death, only intensified. As Dallek points out, Johnson reacted to his frustration by indulging in personal excesses.

The personal picture that emerges of Johnson is hardly coherent. He was a physical giant, six feet three-and-a-half inches tall, with an oversized ego, a hypersensitivity to criticism, and an energy level that caused him to be described as a tornado in pants. As president, he usually worked eighteen-hour days, often driven by a sense of urgency about moving legislation forward. Yet Dallek acknowledges that to understand Johnson is almost impossible; even those who were close to him claimed not to have understood him, though some described him as manic depressive. He could be gloomy and withdrawn one day and on the next jovial, regaling his associates with humorous, often earthy, anecdotes and skillfully mimicking opponents.

The desire for power was his dominant trait, but even this desire had many facets. Johnson himself said that he did not seek power for wealth or its perquisites but rather to do good with it, to improve the lot of ordinary people. His life and achievement are testimony to his truth and sincerity, for the use of power to benefit the needy runs like a thread through his public life from its beginning.

Yet this is not the entire story. It is also true that, psychologically, Johnson wanted and probably needed the gratitude, the adulation, of those whom he helped, and he wanted a place in history as the man who outdid Franklin Roosevelt by fulfilling the promises of Roosevelt’s New Deal. As for his principal flaw, Dallek’s narrative suggests that it was Johnson’s tendency...

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