(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) is frequently associated with two important occurrences in American history: civil rights and Vietnam. In these two areas, the thirty-sixth President of the United States had his greatest achievements and greatest failures, making him a man both revered and detested. In Lyndon, popular biographer Merle Miller brings LBJ to life with a candor that helps the general public understand contradictions in the former president’s character and the reasons behind the most crucial decisions of his presidency.

Miller is a veteran writer whose last book, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, was a number-one best-seller. He has written other acclaimed novels and nonfiction exposés, many of which draw upon his experiences as a combat correspondent during World War II. His biography of LBJ, which is heavily researched and documented, took him five years to write and is a reliable, well-written political history.

The term “oral biography” means the story of a person’s life told in large part by the people who knew him. It is a writing style rich in anecdote, metaphor, and quotation which must be skillfully arranged into narrative. Miller accomplishes this task well in a lengthy biography that covers LBJ’s life from birth to death. Many colorful, intimate details abound, especially since LBJ himself never stopped talking and was a larger than life public figure whom interviewers could not ignore.

Miller captures LBJ’s physical exuberance by describing the former president’s zest for work, coarse manners, and overpowering manipulation of others, particularly Hubert H. Humphrey, whom he destroyed as a presidential candidate. Many voices recall Johnson’s escapades as an iron fisted wheeler-dealer politician who would go to extremes to control others. One common manipulation was paying excessive attention to detail; for example, noticing the hairstyle of his secretaries, and then demanding improvement.

Johnson frequently assessed those around him, subjecting new and old acquaintances to the famous “Johnson treatment.” He would probe and question, looking hard for weaknesses and character flaws, then he would preach nonstop about some important matter until he had motivated the person to do his will. Often he would yell and be excessively dramatic as he destroyed all defenses. He was a performer and an operator whose Rabelaisian behavior, while it frequently offended others, made him a master legislator. Miller describes how, as Democratic Majority Leader, Johnson exhibited unusual skill in marshaling support for President Eisenhower’s programs.

Although Miller concentrates on LBJ’s political career, he also delves into Johnson’s family history and early life in “Young Lyndon,” the first of six sections of his book. Born in 1908 near Stonewall, Texas, into a farming family, LBJ was graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos in 1930 and taught in a Texas high school before entering politics.

The story begins with accounts of Lyndon’s birth and his devotion to his mother, Rebeckah Baines, who had a lasting influence on his character. Lyndon experienced poverty in his childhood, but, as a former colleague recalls, he exaggerated that poverty to attract sympathy. There was always something dishonest in his character that made him distrust others and bend the truth for personal advantage. Yet, there was also a strong moral streak instilled by his mother and a sympathy for the underdog. While a teacher and principal at Cotulla High School in Texas, he became deeply moved by the plight of the Mexican-Americans, a concern that blossomed later into his war on poverty. The experience profoundly changed him from a narrow conservative into an expansive New Dealer.

Then as later, LBJ had enormous physical energy that made him a human dynamo and an ambitious problem solver. In his first political job as secretary to Congressman Dick Kleberg, he demonstrated his later acclaimed ability to get things done through personal contact. He even persuaded Western Union boys to leak him telegrams announcing federal projects and then released the news first under his own name. Resourceful and devoted to basics, he attended to his job in his own as well as his employer’s best interest.

Lyndon once told a friend “... the way you get ahead in this world, you get close to those who are the heads of things.” True to his extremist nature, he would go to considerable lengths to ingratiate himself with influential leaders. A favorite story concerns his arranging a surprise birthday party for senior congressman, Sam Rayburn. President Roosevelt allegedly gave the party but Johnson, then a freshman congressman, did all the work, arranging everything to the last detail. He delighted the President by presenting him with a Texas stetson, then made sure that he was photographed along with Rayburn and Roosevelt. He made himself important in such ways and a recipient of favors from senior politicians who could best guide his career.

Lady Bird Johnson recalls her first impressions of her future husband as a whirlwind. He proposed on their first or second date which seemed like sheer lunacy until she realized he was serious. Johnson’s intensity and exuberance often aroused this reaction in...

(The entire section is 2190 words.)