The National Catholic Review
Bentley Anderson

Living in an age of partisan politics, one has need of a reminder that there was a time when cooperation and compromise defined our country’s political life. Irwin and Debi Unger call us back to examine that period of our country’s history in LBJ: A Life. Not a sentimental or romanticized presentation of our 36th president, LBJ recounts Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable career as a politician, legislator and chief executive. Emerging from the shadows of the Vietnam era, Johnson now needs to be evaluated in light of his attempts to improve the lot of many Americans, especially its minority populations, under the banner of the Great Society.

Irwin and Debi Ungerhe is a Pulitzer Prize-winner and she a researcher and writerpresent a standard biographical narrative of Johnson from birth to death: life in the hill country, Texas education, New Deal bureaucrat and congressman, senator, vice president and president. They present an ambitious and driven man who desired to accomplish a lotas much in order to find love and acceptance as to compensate for a sense of inferiority. They also find a man motivated to act for altruistic reasons. This desire to do good derived from Johnson’s experience of the Great Depression, during which, as chairman of the Texas National Youth Administration and a New Deal congressman, he saw what the government could do to help those who could not help themselves. This experience influenced his legislative agenda when he later became senator and president.

Johnson’s political success, the authors argue, was based in part on his ability to seek out mentors and patrons who could further his careersuch as Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and President Franklin D. Roosevelt; but his mentors and patrons also recognized that L.B.J. had the ability and talent to succeed. His political success was not without elements of controversy, and the Ungers do not shy away from addressing Johnson’s questionable political and financial dealings. They contend that L.B.J. did not know to what extent fraud was involved in his 1948 "landslide" senatorial race (Johnson won by the slim margin of 87 votes), and they argue that L.B.J. did not use his political connections to influence the Federal Communications Commission to award his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, a television licensethe source of much of the Johnsons’ wealth. Other historians, especially Robert Caro, have already brought this information to light, and have not been so kind to the Johnsons when evaluating their actions.

Lyndon Johnson sought to accomplish much through political cooperation and compromise. He had to be adept in the art of compromise, the Ungers point out, as he represented a conservative state but harbored progressive-liberal tendencies. He could not achieve his political and legislative goals, he once told a colleague, if he were voted out of office. The chapter on the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 highlights Johnson’s ability to finesse the legislative system and assuage his Texas constituency in order to obtain the desired legislation.

As president, Lyndon Johnson’s legislative agenda rivaled that of his model and predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt. L.B.J. wanted to advance American society to a higher level of existence, where all citizens could benefit from the prosperity of the age. The Great Society was the new vision of the United States, and in this new world order poverty would be eliminated. Johnson’s War on Poverty programs would empower the poor, enabling them to lift themselves out of their impoverishment. Community Action programs, food stamps, Head Start and the Model Cities Act were some of his initiatives for overcoming need and want. While the authors point out that the accomplishments of Johnson’s anti-poverty programs have been mixed, they fail to evaluate them in any detail.

What Johnson should be remembered for above all, the Ungers argue, was his commitment to civil rights. No president since Lincoln, they contend, did more for African-Americans than Johnson. They point out that L.B.J. knew the political price he and his party would pay for dismantling the Jim Crow society. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson told his aide, Bill Moyers, "I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life and yours." The following year he signed the Voting Rights Act.

The Ungers present a balanced view of the impact Vietnam had on Johnson, his domestic agenda and the country at large. They see a man caught between the desire to remain loyal to America’s allies and the knowledge that a protracted war would defeat his Great Society initiatives. Eventually Johnson convinced himself that he could afford "guns and butter." He did not seek another term as president, though, deeming that would be in the best interest of the country and would help bring an end to the conflict in Southeast Asia.

The passage of time allows individuals and society to examine past events in a new light; the significance of a person’s life and contribution to society can be viewed in a broader context. It is the task of historians to undertake such efforts. Researching and writing a biography can be a daunting task, as the author has to delve into the life and times of the subject. The Ungers have done this up to a point. They have examined the works that others have written concerning Johnson and have drawn heavily from them (e.g., Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising and Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream), but they fail to convince the reader that their biography says something new about their subject. LBJ: A Life is a sympathetic presentation of a controversial politician who rose from a lower socio-economic background to reach the pinnacle of political powerone who did not forget where he came from and tried to do what was best for his fellow Americans.

Bentley Anderson, S.J., is a graduate student of U.S. history at Boston College.