LBJ: Architect of American Ambition
By Randall B. Woods, Free Press, hardcover, $35.
Too often Lyndon Baines Johnson is reduced to caricature. He was the larger-than-life personality — from Texas, of course — whose in-credible ambition took him all the way to White House. His crude manners and political calculations concealed a true commitment to social justice, and the tragedy of Vietnam shattered his potential and reputation.
Historians attempting to transcend that caricature often simply underscore it, by producing outsized biographies that magnify every mythic tal-ent and fatal flaw. After all, it takes a big book to tell the story of such a big man, especially one as misunderstood as Johnson. Robert Caro fa-mously needed three huge volumes just to cover the period from Johnson’s birth through his Senate career. (An upcoming fourth installment may finally finish things, if the author doesn’t die first.)
So, relatively speaking, the new LBJ biography by Randall Woods, while imposing at more than 1,000 pages, is practically an executive summary. It is also meant somewhat as a corrective to Caro’s portrayal, which was considered harsh by Johnson’s close-knit Texas coterie.
Woods is a history professor at the University of Arkansas who specializes in the Cold War and the Vietnam War. (I took his Cold War survey course as an undergraduate.) He wrote the definitive biography of J. William Fulbright, which won several history prizes and was nominated for a Pulitzer.
A native Texan himself, and with so much knowledge of the Johnson era, Woods clearly relished the opportunity to turn his attention to LBJ’s life. He benefited from recently released White House tapes and documents, and the real strength of the book comes about 430 pages in, after Johnson assumes the presidency upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The narrative picks up speed as Woods relies on transcripts, diary entries and recollections to show how LBJ engaged his new job with vigor and purpose.
“Johnson made it plain that he was going to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire on civil rights,” Woods writes before quoting Johnson: “Now you’re either for civil rights or you’re not … you’re either the party of Lincoln or you’re not … By God, put up or shut up.”
Those who have read the Caro series or other Johnson biographies won’t find much they didn’t already know until they reach Woods’ ac-count of the presidential years. In that sense, he beat Caro to the punch.
All in all, it is an excellent — if sympathetic — comprehensive biography, and by accomplishing that in one volume, it is a service to the genre.