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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.4 (2001) 751-753
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Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973
Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. By Robert Dallek. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; pp. xiv + 754. $15.00 paper.
As the author of this massive book, the second volume of a biography of the second President Johnson, relates, his account will not be the last word on the subject. [End Page 751] The Johnson Library in Austin holds 10,000 taped conversations between the president and government officials and other individuals during his 1963-69 presidency. It has released only one-third of the tapes. But it is the best accounting we have to date, and it is a good guess that no author will do better than Dallek for years to come. It is difficult to imagine that the remaining tapes, or any other information that can come to light, will take our knowledge much farther than the author has done.
The outlines of the giant, as Dallek describes the president, have long been known. Here one has the enormous energy, the appetite for more to do and thereby more achievements, the very real achievements (it was Johnson's purpose to do better than his great Democratic predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in measures of social and economic and political reform, and he may well have done better). Withal there were the continual self-doubts, what Dallek describes as almost a psychiatric behavior of up and down and sidewise, including the control, and sometimes very crude and cruel control, of subordinates. The crudeness could become scatological; the Dallek book is full of at first humorous use of cuss words and what used to be known as dirty words, and after a while they become downright obnoxious words--when Johnson starts a story about a boy and girl, doing this or that, the reader (and one supposes the listener 30 and more years ago) grimaces, or perhaps the listener would have done it in the presence as the tale winds down inevitably to some lewd ending, supposed to make a point. All this appears in Flawed Giant.
What the book offers for the first time is new details--the author's discoveries from listening to the tapes and from a reading, more carefully than other authors, of the now enormous and highly scattered literature. These novelties make this big book worthwhile. As President Johnson moves into this or that issue or, as he might well have put it, crisis, Dallek brings up the wondrous detail. He has a feeling for quotation, sometimes maybe too much (for he has a penchant for bracketing and in such cases the reader might better be presented with summary in the author's words). But from Johnson or the so-called wise men who surrounded this president, and from his talented assistants, the remarking and advising, the quotations are likely to be apt. They propel the reader.
Dallek has had much experience with books and is a direct, straightforward writer, not always an attribute of an academic. The visceral, sharp, unadorned remarks, the paragraphs that move straight out from their topic sentences, all this makes the book a joy to read.
It is a life and times, and the expected topics are all here, including Vietnam, the subject that became the theme of President Johnson's last months in the White House. The Johnson years began with the adjustment to the new administration after the charismatic presidency of John F. Kennedy (whoever heard of the word charisma before that time?). After endorsing Kennedy's program the president turned to his own, which was picking up from where FDR left off, the program known as the Great Society. Dallek takes the issues--civil rights, of course, and [End Page 752] Medicare, extension of Social Security, efforts to improve the cities, the attempted end of poverty--and shows how Johnson told auditors that the single issue he was concentrating on was the most important thing he ever did, that his heart and...