Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Lyndon Johnson tried to persuade and finally pleaded with twenty-five-year-old Doris Kearns to help him write his memoirs. During the last months of his Presidency, when he was so disliked by many people that he rarely left the White House, he was convinced that his last chance would be with the historians. He was not very sanguine about how the historians would treat him, but he felt that he had to get his side of the story out. Though he had planned to write three volumes, his efforts resulted in only one book, The Vantage Point: Perspective on the Presidency. It was not a success, in spite of Kearns’s efforts to get him to reveal himself, largely because, while LBJ was one of the greatest of storytellers, he was ineffective and artificial when dealing with unknown audiences.

Kearns was never asked to be an official biographer, but Johnson must have known that one day she would write a book about him. Long after he had lost interest in his own memoirs he continued to hold long, introspective talks with her. He said he revealed his innermost thoughts to her because she reminded him of his dead mother. One suspects, however, that he had chosen this Harvard intellectual as the instrument by which he could convey his story to the historians. She would be accepted by the thinkers he could not reach, and she could write the book he could not produce. It may be that he realized that even his vaunted persuasiveness could not totally overcome her professional integrity and that her book would contain criticism as well as praise and thus be more believable. Whatever his motivations, LBJ’s conversations with Doris Kearns have resulted in the most significant book yet written about the Johnson years.

Since the primary material for the book is derived from the notes Kearns took during her conversations with Johnson, it dwells more on his thoughts and motivations than on the details of his career. He told her of his childhood, his dreams and his fears, so Kearns has attempted to provide a psychological interpretation of their impact on his personality and ambitions. One gets the impression that the author is never very comfortable in her role as a psychoanalyst. As a result, these efforts are the least convincing parts of the biography. The fact that LBJ was never seriously constrained by the truth while telling a story casts further doubt on the validity of the data on which the analysis is based.

Kearns is much more sure-footed when she draws on her professional background in analyzing the dynamics of the governmental institutions in which Johnson operated. In tracing his political career from congressional secretary through Director of the Texas National Youth Administration, member of the House of Representatives, Senator, Vice-President and finally President, the author uses Johnson as a case study to illustrate the characteristics of each position and to demonstrate how his talents and personality matched or clashed with the institutional environment. By use of this device, Kearns is able to expand this biography into a commentary on the interaction of leadership, institutional momentum, and the forces of history. She summarizes these observations in an “Author’s Postscript,” which in many ways is the most fascinating part of her book.

Psychologically, Johnson’s personality and drives may have been formed in the tension between his father and mother. Rebekah Johnson was a melancholy woman who sought to compensate for an unhappy marriage and a father whose bright prospects were never realized and whose death destroyed her ambitions of being a great novelist by driving her son to seek outstanding intellectual and cultural achievements. She sought to manipulate him by granting or withholding her love in response to his behavior. As a result, he continually sought to perform good deeds and expected love in return. This found its highest expression in his “Great Society” programs, and his greatest disappointment resulted when the American people failed to express their love for him after he had given them so much.

His mother’s demands for intellectual and cultural achievement were counterbalanced by a father who considered such pursuits unmanly. Sam Ealy Johnson was a crude, hard-drinking local politician. Much of Lyndon’s vulgarity and interest in politics can be traced to the model his father provided. According to Kearns, the mismatch between his mother, who loved to discuss the “higher things,” and a father whose idea of pleasure was to sit up half the night with his friends drinking beer and telling stories, created a great tension which prompted Johnson to seek to control his environment. Control of one’s environment requires power, and his pursuit of power encompassed a wider and wider world as he moved up the political ladder.

The author also attributes Johnson’s lifelong devotion to the politics of consensus to his early...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. May 30, 1976, p. F7.

Commentary. LXXII, August, 1976, p. 75.

Horn Book. LII, December, 1976, p. 652.

New Statesman. XCII, October 8, 1976, p. 484.

Spectator. CCXXXVII, October 16, 1976, p. 20.

Village Voice. XXI, March 29, 1976, p. 42.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXXVII, June 4, 1976, p. 10.