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During the recent electoral unpleasantness in Florida, Doris Kearns Goodwin, herself a Johnson biographer and former aide, was on MSNBC talking about presidential legitimacy and voting irregularities.  Chris Mathews or Brian Williams, I can't recall which, asked if, in light of the claims being made about George W. Bush's legitimacy, we should consider Johnson an illegitimate figure because of the elections he stole.  She responded that even if LBJ stole Texas and Mayor Daley stole Illinois in the 1960 presidential election, none of that mattered because of the Civil Rights bills that Johnson subsequently passed.  Unfortunately this is a paraphrase and not a quote, but her point was that : his Civil Rights legacy wipes the rest of the slate clean.

Taking nothing away from the importance of the Voting Rights Act, there's a particular irony in the view that enfranchising 10% of the population is more important than disenfranchising 50%, but Goodwin's point is one that we hear increasingly often.  This should come as no surprise, but it should be resisted.  Without slipping into paranoia and conspiracy theories, I think it's fair to say that History, Academia, and the Press are dominated by the Left.  As a result, much of the conventional wisdom about past presidents reflects a liberal bias, and as their administrations recede in time, the prevailing view of heir administrations gradually shifts from what was thought about them at the time to an assessment based more on how closely they adhered to liberal principles.  Thus, in recent years Truman, Johnson, and Nixon have all been rehabilitated by biographers and historians of the Left, despite the fact that all three were considered failures when they were driven, unwillingly, from office.  The fundamental gist of this exercise is that no president who expanded the size and scope of the Federal Government can possibly be judged to be a failed president.

Truman, whose failure to confront the Soviet Union led to the Cold War, who failed to dismantle the failed New Deal programs that he inherited, and whose administration was plagued by cronyism and corruption, is now considered to have been a gutsy straight shooter who deserves credit for "containing" the Soviet Union and for defending the Social Welfare State against Republican predations.  Johnson--whose guns (Vietnam) and butter (Great Society) spending binge (begun by JFK, accelerated by Nixon) gave us the era of skyrocketing inflation and enormous deficits, who was personally corrupt, and who stole several elections--is now celebrated, with some justification, for the Civil Rights legislation he passed, but as Goodwin's comments reflect, is so lauded for this that the disastrous rest of his legacy is minimized.  Perhaps most remarkably, Richard Nixon--who tried accommodating (even appeasing) the Soviets and the Red Chinese, who dragged American involvement in Vietnam out for an additional 7 years, who continued the rapid expansion of the Social Welfare state, and who was the most personally corrupt person ever to hold the presidency--is now celebrated for Détente and for his advocacy of new government entitlements.  The sins of all three men have been forgiven by the Left, which chooses instead to focus on their policies of coexistence with Communism and creation of a massive Social Welfare state.

The most egregious instance of trying to rewrite Lyndon Johnson's record is Robert Dallek's hagiographies Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant, which he basically wrote as the official Democratic response to Robert Caro's devastating biography in progress, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  The edited White House tapes of the Johnson Administration, presented in Taking Charge, though the critical reaction to the book was predictably used to continue the Johnson rehabilitation, offers something of a middle view by emphasizing the Civil Rights issues without glossing over Vietnam and, most importantly, by reproducing verbatim Johnson's truly repulsive leadership style and personality.     You really need to listen to the audio tape version to get the full effect, but the Johnson who emerges is so exploitative, abusive, paranoid, and self-pitying, that he's often difficult to listen to.  From trying to humiliate people like Robert Kennedy, Sargent Shriver and Hubert Humphrey, to trying to seduce Jackie Kennedy, to trying to wheedle free haircuts from a favorite barber, in almost every conversation he reveals himself to be a reprehensible human being.

Michael Beschloss has done a commendable job of editing the tapes and his footnotes are a great help in providing context and recalling many of the nearly forgotten players in the story and the arcania surrounding issues of the day.  The tapes provide an invaluable, if disturbing, look at a president at work and a window on the profoundly dysfunctional personality of Lyndon Johnson.  The commitment he demonstrates to civil rights redounds to his credit, but pretty much everything else that they contain, dealing with both the public and private life of LBJ, raises serious questions about his fitness for the office.

Many commentators noted Johnson's uncertainty about the War, and seemed to be suggesting that the doubts he expresses somehow confer credit upon him.  The suggestion is that he was unwillingly dragged into the quagmire because of honest fears of what might happen if Vietnam was simply abandoned to its fate and/or because he thought he had to placate war-mongering conservatives.  On the contrary, Johnson's vacillating and hand-wringing help to explain how he made such a complete hash of the War.  Had he applied himself to either winning or getting out with the same determination he brought to civil rights and poverty programs, there's little doubt he could have ended the matter differently, likely better.

Additionally, there's something deeply dishonest about the tapes.  Johnson is the only participant in these conversations who knows that they are being recorded.  Therefore, there's a necessary danger then that at any given moment he is merely performing, while the person with whom he is conversing is trying to give him honest advice.  We remember the Watergate tapes today for what they revealed, but it's important to recall here that they were initially shocking by the very fact of their existence.  It was considered to be a real betrayal of trust for Nixon to be surreptitiously taping conversations ion the first place.  The Johnson tapes, and those made by FDR and others, serve to remind us that in this, as in many other things, Nixon was not so very different from his predecessors, he was just the one who got caught after the rules had changed.

On the basis of the Johnson tapes, it is hard to see how America would have been any different had LBJ run and won in 1968.  There's no evidence in these recordings that Johnson would have gotten out of Vietnam any quicker than Nixon, and, since the tapes show him to be equally devious and paranoid, it's likely that some scandal would have arisen and that his personal finances and the actions of his administration (take the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as one example) would have been equally vulnerable to the investigators' scrutiny.  In fact, the final impression one takes away from these tapes is that considering how awful LBJ and Nixon were as men, it's a miracle that the 60's and 70's weren't even more disastrous.  Perhaps it's true that God watches over children, drunks and the United States of America.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Michael Beschloss (4 books reviewed)
Michael Beschloss Links:

    -BOOKNOTES: Author: Michael Beschloss  Title: The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 Air date: July 14, 1991 (CSPAN)
    -ESSAY : Bush Faces the Greatest Test (Michael Beschloss, 9/17/01, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The End of the Imperial Presidency (Michael Beschloss, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Four More Years?  What history tells us about presidents' second terms. (Michael R. Beschloss, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Hail to the Chief Tech-heads (Michael Beschloss, Oct 23, 2000, Industry Standard)
    -REVIEW: of ON MY COUNTRY AND THE WORLD By Mikhail Gorbachev (Michael Beschloss, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War. By William E. Burrows (Michael Beschloss, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CHANGING ENEMIES: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany By Noel Annan (Michael Beschloss, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AMERICAN By Richard Brookhiser (Michael Beschloss, NY Times Book Review)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Michael Beschloss on Reaching for Glory (Fresh Air, November 29, 2002)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss on Impeachment (Fresh Air, September 14, 1998)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Michael Beschloss on Taking Charge (Fresh Air, February 13, 1998)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Michael Beschloss on At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (Fresh Air, 2/24/93)
    -INTERVIEW: CAUGHT ON TAPE :  During his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson secretly taped thousands of private conversations. These tapes, which include conversations with various public figures, from Robert Kennedy to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recently came to light. Phil Ponce discusses the content and significance of these tapes with Michael Beschloss, Presidential historian and author of Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. (October 14, 1997, NEWSHOUR TRANSCRIPT, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: Online Newshour Interview with Historian Michael Beschloss: Origins of the convention process (PBS)
    -CHAT: Presidential Crises, With Guest Michael Beschloss (Levey Live)
    -CHAT: The Final Message:  A Chat with Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss (ABC News)
    -PROFILE: The Historian as Pundit (Noam Scheiber, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Doomed to repeat: That's historians on TV, not history (Delia M. Rios, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
    -ARCHIVES: "michael beschloss" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Crisis Years by Michael R. Beschloss (Richard Ned Lebow, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)
    -REVIEW: of TAKING CHARGE: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. Edited and with commentary by Michael R. Beschloss (Alan Brinkley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Taking Charge (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Taking Charge (Gloria Cooper, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -REVIEW: of REACHING FOR GLORY: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965. Edited and with commentary by Michael Beschloss (George Stephanopoulos, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REACHING FOR GLORY (Michinko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of REACHING FOR GLORY(Mark Falcoff, Commentary)
   -REVIEW ESSAY: Brief Shining Moments:   Christopher Hitchens on Donkey Business in the White House (London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Conquerors by Michael Beschloss (Jules Wagman, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Conquerors(Rich Barlow, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945; Michael Beschloss (John Lukacs, LA Times)

Book-related and General Links:

LYNDON JOHNSON (1908-73) :
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : lyndon johnson
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA AMERICANA : Lyndon B. Johnson (Grolier)
    -Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (Austin, TX)
    -American Presidents : Life Portraits : Lyndon B. Johnson (C-SPAN)
    -Lyndon B. Johnson : Thirty-Sixth President 1963-1969 (White House)
    -IPL POTUS -- Lyndon Baines Johnson
    -Lyndon B. Johnson (The American President, PBS)
    -AUDIO EXCERPTS : LBJ in the Oval Office
    -LINKS : Lyndon Johnson (Newsweek)
    -LINKS : AITLC Guide to Lyndon Johnson (The ACCESS INDIANA Teaching & Learning Center)
    -ESSAY : Tale of the presidential tapes: A review essay. (Robert A. Divine, Political Science Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Kind Word for Lyndon Johnson (FRANK J. PRIAL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : The Fight for the President's Mind -- And the Men Who Won It (Townsend Hoopes, October, 1969, Atlantic Monthly)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Robert Caro Title: Means of Ascent: the Years of Lyndon Johnson  Air date: April 29, 1990 (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW : of THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON. Vol. I. The Path to Power. By Robert A. Caro (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE PATH TO POWER The Years of Lyndon Johnson. By Robert A. Caro (David Herbert Donald, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume II: Means of Ascent By Robert A. Caro (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of MEANS OF ASCENT The Years of Lyndon Johnson. By Robert A. Caro (Ronald Steel, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Critic's Notebook; Biography Becomes A Blood Sport (MICHIKO KAKUTANI , NY Times)
    -ESSAY : My Search for Coke Stevenson  (Robert A. Caro, NY Times, February 3, 1991)
    -LETTER TO THE EDITOR : Sidney Blumenthal on Robert Caro (March 31, 1991, NY Times)
    -BOOKNOTES : Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, by Robert Dallek (C-SPAN)
    -ESSAY : Three New Revelations about LBJ (Robert Dallek, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : The Revised LBJ  (Lewis L. Gould, Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Lyndon B. Johnson : Excerpted from an essay by Robert Dallek (Character Above All, PBS)
    -REVIEW : of  Lone Star Rising Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960 By Robert Dallek (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of LONE STAR RISING Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960. By Robert Dallek (Nicholas Lemann, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of FLAWED GIANT Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 By Robert Dallek (MICHIKO KAKUTANI , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of FLAWED GIANT Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. By Robert Dallek (Sean Wilentz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Mutual Contempt Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade. By Jeff Shesol (David M. Oshinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade, by Jeff Shesol (John Nixon, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW : of THE TRIUMPH & TRAGEDY OF LYNDON JOHNSON The White House Years. By Joseph A. Califano Jr. (Laura Kalman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of GOVERNING AMERICA An Insider's Report from the White House and the Cabinet. By Joseph A. Califano Jr.  (Nathan Glazer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE POLITICIAN The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson. The Drive for Power, From the Frontier to Master of the Senate by Ronnie Dugger (Aaron Latham, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of LYNDON JOHNSON'S DUAL WAR Vietnam and the Press. By Kathleen J. Turner (John Midgley, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DERELICTION OF DUTY : Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara,  the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. By H. R. McMaster (Ronald Spector, NY Times Book Review)

    -1996 Presidential Election Archive (Smithsonian)
    -American Presidents: Life Portraits (C-SPAN)
    -The American Presidency
    -ARCHIVES : stories on American Presidents from Atlantic Monthly
    -The Center for Presidential Studies (Bush School of Government, Texas A&M)
    -Center for the Study of the Presidency
    -The Federalist Papers
    -History of American Presidential Elections
    -Links to Presidential Libraries (CSP)
    -Mount Rushmore (Keystone, SD)
    -National Archives and Records Administration (to ensure ready access to essential evidence . . .that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience)
    -The National First Ladies' Library (Canton, OH)
    -Smithsonian : The American Presidency
    -TIME Magazine and The Presidency
    -US Constitution Online
    -The White House (Washington, DC)
    -White House Historical Association


    -REVIEW : of PRESIDENTIAL WAR POWER By Louis Fisher (Theodore Draper, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of INTERVENTION How America Became Involved in Vietnam. By George McT. Kahin (Bruce Cumings, NY Times Book Review)