The steady re-examination and reinterpretation of our 36th president is one of the most interesting developments in the shifting world of political history and biography. There are new and often very good books all the time about the Roosevelts, Kennedy and, more often now, Reagan, but the story of the big, drawling Texan is simply a political historian’s dream.
The fact that LBJ biographer Robert Caro is about to release the fourth volume of his massive and nearly life-long work on Johnson was, in and of itself, a significant news story. The book, Passage to Power, is out May 1 and covers the Kennedy assassination and deals with the fact that the ambitious then-vice president had all but given up aspirations to sit in the Oval Office. Caro has another volume still to come. To mark the release of the book, Caro has written a piece in The New Yorker and the magazine has collected seven different pieces Caro has written over the years about Johnson. The collection amounts to soul food for the political junkie.
Meantime, another fine new book on Johnson’s presidency is just out. Indomitable Will by Mark Updegrove – he’s the director of the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin – tells the story of Johnson’s Shakespearean presidency through oral histories of those, LBJ included, who lived the experience.
Dozens of other books have been written about Johnson and Robert Dallek’s two volume treatment remains among the best. There will be more.
During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson was loathed by many for what some saw as his unsophisticated manner and for having inherited the presidency that John Kennedy’s should have held much longer. Others came to despise Johnson for his escalation of the war in Southeast Asia or his vast expansion of the social safety net in the guise of Johnson’s Great Society. Still, Johnson remains one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century politics. Rarely has there been a better politician in the White House. Rarely has there been a more effective senate majority leader. Johnson’s impact on his moment in time survives years after his death and for anyone who loves politics and the American story will find the new volumes and many of the old fascinating reading. Put another way, you cannot begin to understand the politics of the United States in 2012 – the economy, health care, foreign policy, race – without an appreciation for the life and times of Lyndon Johnson.