Monday, July 20, 2015

"Lyndon B. Johnson" by Charles Peters: A Review

History has gradually taken a kinder view. The title of the last volume of Robert Dallek's biography of Johnson, Flawed Giant, expresses the verdict increasingly adopted by scholars. It seems likely that history will rank Johnson in the group of presidents just below the top tier of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Of those in the next tier, which certainly includes Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson most resembles Jackson, another crude frontiersman whose noble stand against Nullification was marred by his terrible treatment of the Cherokee Nation. (159)

It is a personal goal of mine to read at least one serious biography on every President of the United States (you can find the completed books and their reviews below). While surveying the biography section of our local library I came across Charles Peter's biography of President Lydon B. Johnson and thought it worth the investment.

Peters's biography is part of the American Presidents's series which offers a short, but serious biography on each of the forty-four Presidents. From my experience, the volumes in this series are excellent. I would consider Peters's work among the the weaker of biographies.

First, the good. Peters is successful in accomplishing what this series seeks. It is a biography that explores just the facts. Little interaction with debates, opinions, etc. is offered. This is not an academic work where the author praises him/herself for discovering new papers that sheds new light on the subject. Peters's tells us the story of LBJ. This fact alone makes it (and the rest of the series) a great place for those new to LBJ to start.

Yet the above quote is why I consider Charles Peters's biography flawed. Johnson, regardless of the liberal spin, does not belong in the second-tier of Presidents. It is true that he was clouded by Camelot. He is also unfortunately lumped in with the narrative of his successor: Richard Nixon. LBJ was a strong armed politician as much as Nixon was a crooked on.

It is true that Johnson offers a legislative record unlike most presidents. This, however, does not make him a great president. Passing laws is not to be praised if they are poor laws and Johnson passed many of them. I am in agreement with Calvin Coolidge that it is better to veto bad laws than to pass good ones. Yes the Civil Rights law ought to be praised, but LBJ's Great Society and War on Poverty should not be. Peters is wrong when he proclaims:
If there was a failure of the Great Society, it was a failure to face underlying problems. Medicare, by doing nothing to reform the fee-for-service system, left in place a major contributor to the ever-escalating cost and inefficient delivery of health care. Johnsons's education bill failed to confront the issue of teacher quality, which only grew in importance as bright women found opportunity in other professions and as too many teacher-training institutions continued to resist improvement. In the 1960s, however, few spoke up about these matters, and not enough have spoken since to bring about the reforms that are needed. If there is blame, it is far from being Lyndon Johnson's alone. and there can be no doubt that his Great Society, whatever its flaws, has done great good for this country. (111)
I do believe there is doubt regarding the Great Society. Poverty has not decreased the way LBJ promised. It is difficult to suggest the 60s produced a better (let alone a Great) society.

Ultimately, we should see that the biography is mostly fair, but not completely without bias. The author is clearly a fan of the late President but does avoid writing a hagiography. So in short, Peters's offers the LBJ story even though it has its flaws.

For more biographies on the Presidents:
President Barack Obama - "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama: A Review
President George W. Bush - "Decision Points" by George W. Bush
President Bill Clinton - "The Natural" by Joe Klein: A Review 
President George H. W. Bush - "41" by George W. Bush: A Review
President Ronald Reagan - "Ronald Reagan" by Dinesh D'Souza 
President Gerald Ford - "Gerald R. Ford" by Douglas Brinkley: A Review
President Richard Nixon - "The Greatest Comeback" by Pat Buchanan: A Review
President Lyndon B. Johnson - "Lyndon B. Johnson" by Charles Peters: A Review
President John F. Kennedy - "Killing Kennedy" by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard: A Review
President Dwight D. Eisenhower - "Ike: An American Hero" by Michael Korda: A Review
President Calvin Coolidge - "Coolidge" by Amity Shlaes" A Review
President Abraham Lincoln - "Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage"
"The Preacher and the Presidents" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: A Review
"The First Family Detail" by Ronald Kessler: A Review
"Double Down" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann: A Review

American Experience Documentaries:
Woodrow Wilson: An American Experience
Dwight Eisenhower: An American Experience
Richard Nixon: American Experience
Jimmy Carter: An American Experience
Ronald Reagan: An American Experience
George HW Bush: An American Experience  
Clinton: An American Experience

For more:
"Rawhide Down" by Del Quentin Wilber: A Review
Coolidge: Men Do Not Make Laws
"Watergate": A National Geographic Documentary
"Saving Ronald Reagan" Documentary
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