Doris Kearns Goodwin has written one of the greatest Presidential bios in recent history, A Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln. The book was so influential that Barack Obama read it as he began his transition into the White House for his first term. She has also written about the Roosevelts. But Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is unusual for both bios in general and for Goodwin’s work as it comes direct from the source itself.
Goodwin served as an aid in the Johnson White House shortly before LBJ’s famous speech in which he announced that he “would not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination by my party for another term as your President.” Goodwin won her job, ironically, for what some would consider a faux pas in asking Johnson tough questions. Johnson appreciated the honesty (though not the sentiment) and eventually hired Goodwin, then a graduate student at Harvard, to work on his memoirs.
More than forty years after Johnson’s death, she paints a stark portrait of a man caught between his ambitions and his ideals. This was played out starkly during LBJ’s tenure in his conflicting attempts to create the Great Society and prosecute the Vietnam War. Goodwin reveals that Johnson had already passed his peak by the time he assumed the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He was uniquely skilled for the US Senate, where he could use a combination of charm, intimidation, and horse trading to move legislation along. This works brilliantly in the confines of the Capitol. As the leader of a nation, it sometimes faltered, a lesson our current president should heed as he prides himself on being a deal-maker.
Goodwin portrays Johnson as a shrewd politician, a surprisingly progressive Texan, a sharp businessman, and a man in need of affection. Despite his need to dominate any situation, he himself admitted he would not have been as successful as he was without the intelligence and moderating influence of his wife, Lady Bird. Bird was herself a shrewd business woman and reigned in some of Johnson’s tendencies toward crude behavior.
What is most poignant was the toll Vietnam took on Johnson. As horrific as the situation became while it spun out of control, Johnson spent many sleepless nights in the White House map room asking for how “his boys” were doing. Other biographers have suggested LBJ had suffered a heart attack during this period that may have led to his decision not to seek a second elected term.
Because Goodwin spent a lot of time at the Johnson ranch after the president retired, she saw first hand what happens to a man who spends his life acquiring and wielding power, then leaves the center of that power. Johnson spent his final years unsure what to do and how to handle life away from politics, but he seemed to come alive when he needed to tackle a problem, such as a broken pump where parts were delayed. Then his talents of persuasion came to the fore, and Johnson was happy to move things along.
Goodwin wrote this particular biography mainly because Johnson had given up on his memoirs. He had written a volume of his presidential years, but stopped after that. During his lifetime, he complained bitterly that Eastern intellectuals (including Goodwin, as much as he liked her) wanted to rewrite history in their image and take away credit. While Goodwin shows Johnson and most of his warts, but she also gives Johnson the voice he felt he never had about his life story.