The incessant TV ads are abundantly clear: the men running for the Presidency want the job, badly.
They want to tackle unemployment, healthcare, oil and taxes. They’d willingly assume responsibility for our side of world affairs and the global economy. Both men want the job, but just one of them will be elected.
Then there are the men in history who’ve become President at least once without that process. In Mark K. Updegrove’s Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, you’ll read about one who was surprisingly ambiguous about it.
“Lyndon is a good man in an emergency.” That thought kept press secretary Liz Carpenter going in the hours after John Kennedy was assassinated. Despite the animosity (some say hatred) between JFK’s brothers and Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Johnson left Texas, President Johnson landed in Washington, and some were relieved for it.
Twelve hours later, LBJ was back in Texas with his aides. They didn’t know it then, but he’d already made plans for his Great Society.
Lyndon Johnson’s childhood surely steered him toward a life in office.
Johnson grew up near Johnson City, Texas, on a hardscrabble ranch with no running water or electricity. His father, an “outgoing” man who didn’t tolerate racism or unfairness, went into politics before Lyndon was born. Young Lyndon idolized his father and heeded his actions. As an adult, the future President was also deeply affected by the poverty and inequality endured by the children of migrant workers.
Days after becoming President, Johnson set to work. He was a man who didn’t want to mull over plans; he’d done that already. Never known for his patience, he wanted results immediately and, generally speaking, when he gave others the “Johnson Treatment,” requests usually were met.
Throughout his presidency, Johnson did “what Jack Kennedy was never willing to do.” He signed into law the Civil Rights Act. He gave the country Medicare, Upward Bound, Head Start, voting rights, open housing and better education programs. These social programs are “on the books today because of President Johnson.”
But his presidency remains, in other books, overshadowed by Vietnam.
Tired of politics already?
Me, too, but I was absolutely mesmerized by this political biography.
Through interviews and oral histories, Updegrove takes everything you thought you knew about LBJ, and scrambles it.
Yes, Updegrove shows the well-known Johnson: crude and stubborn, impulsive and demanding. But he also shows a thoughtful, compassionate Johnson who desperately wanted to do right for America, and who always saw something good in every human.
The people Updegrove uses to tell this story were privy to the President’s thoughts and emotions. They saw Johnson wrangling with the issues, and they watched him come to both joyous and painful conclusions. That personal look at a complex man, and the peek at America’s past, is priceless.
This is a historian’s delight, and if you’re a Boomer or a political-watcher, I think you’ll like it, too. Before November comes around, Indomitable Will is a book you should certainly elect to read.
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