Lyndon B. Johnson The American Presidents Series: The 36th President, 1963-1969

The American Presidents

Charles Peters; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

Times Books




224 Pages



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Few figures in American history are as compelling and complex as Lyndon Baines Johnson, who established himself as the master of the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and succeeded John F. Kennedy in the White House after Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963.

Charles Peters, a keen observer of Washington politics for more than five decades, tells the story of Johnson's presidency as the tale of an immensely talented politician driven by ambition and desire. As part of the Kennedy-Johnson administration from 1961 to 1968, Peters knew key players, including Johnson's aides, giving him inside knowledge of the legislative wizardry that led to historic triumphs like the Voting Rights Act and the personal insecurities that led to the tragedy of Vietnam.

Peters's experiences have given him unique insight into the poisonous rivalry between Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, showing how their misunderstanding of each other exacerbated Johnson's self-doubt and led him into the morass of Vietnam, which crippled his presidency and finally drove this larger-than-life man from the office that was his lifelong ambition.


Praise for Lyndon B. Johnson

“This book is a rare gem of cogency and insight by one of America’s most original thinkers on politics and government. In one slender volume, Charles Peters captures every relevant part of LBJ’s life, breaks important new ground with fresh reporting, and offers peerless historical context. It’s hard to believe for a book so short, but this is the finest one-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson yet written.”—Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
"Tired of waiting for Robert Caro to wrap up his mammoth, multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson? If so, Charles Peters's sleek little number on the 36th president may ease your restlessness. Peters knows this material both as an insider (he worked on the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, who picked Johnson as his running mate) and as a longtime observer (he went on to found and edit the Washington Monthly)."—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post
"A slim but penetrating biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). Washington Monthly founder Peters . . . paints a mostly unpleasant portrait of a fiercely ambitious climber who lacked any inhibition when it came to lying, cheating, bribing and betrayal. Though he doesn't conceal the 36th president's ugly traits or his role in the fiasco in Vietnam, the author also stresses that, along with Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson produced the greatest reform legislation of the 20th century. The son of a Texas legislator, Johnson grew up fascinated with politics. He learned the ropes in FDR's Washington before winning election to the House in 1937. He lost the 1941 Senate election due to his opponent's cheating, but he learned enough to cheat his way to victory in 1948. Although an enthusiastic New Dealer, he joined the nation's move to the right after World War II and became an equally enthusiastic Southern conservative. Accepting the obscure job of majority leader, Johnson fashioned it into a powerful office that streamlined the Senate's moribund procedures and gave him national fame as a political wizard. Young senator John F. Kennedy rejected his staff's opposition to choose him as running mate in 1960, believing correctly that Southern votes would determine a very close race. As president after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson displayed his genuine concern with poverty and injustice and, unlike later presidents, the political skill to do something about it. Before delivering a painful account of Johnson's disastrous involvement in Vietnam, Peters makes it clear that the 1964-65 civil-rights, voting-rights and Medicare legislation represent dazzling humanitarian achievements. With the final volume yet to appear, Robert Caro's magnificent biography is the standard-bearer, but Peters delivers a splendid short version." —Kirkus Reviews
"In the only hostile entry thus far in the American Presidents series, Elizabeth Drew questioned Nixon’s moral fitness to be president. Given Lyndon Johnson’s early election-stealing and sycophancy in New Deal Washington, later boorish and cruel treatment of subordinates, constant womanizing, and sense of inferiority that made him unreasonable about Vietnam—all of which Peters admits without hesitation—many may ask the same about Nixon’s immediate predecessor. Not Peters, who cuts Johnson so much slack for being a consummately skilled political maneuverer—the majority leader’s majority leader, as it were—that he is wont to think that, but for Vietnam, Johnson would be considered one of the greatest presidents. After all, Peters points out, LBJ’s domestic legislative achievement is second only to FDR’s. And there, for critics, is the rub. They feel that, while LBJ’s domestic goals were laudable, the laws he bullied through to meet them were deeply flawed and sowed the seeds of entitlement politics. Peters doesn’t acknowledge that such a critique exists. He convinces us, however, that the challenges Johnson faced required a great president."—Ray Olson, Booklist
"[Peters] draws on his experiences to provide insight as he sketches the life and times of Lyndon Johnson (1908–73), relying mostly on standard Johnson biographies. Peters describes Johnson's Texas childhood, his years in Congress, his frustrating years as Kennedy's vice president, and the triumphs and failures of his presidency (1963–68). The author identifies LBJ's successes (civil rights legislation and his Great Society domestic programs) as well as his failures (an abusive temper and escalating the Vietnam War) and concludes that Johnson's mixed legacy will be a subject for ongoing historical interpretation . . . This book is aimed at general readers who want a brief account of this controversial President but don't want to delve into such excellent biographies as Robert Caro's three-volume (and counting) The Years of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Dallek's two-volume Lyndon Johnson and His Times. Its intended audience will not be disappointed with this fast-moving story."—Karl Helicher, Library Journal

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Early Life

When Lyndon Baines Johnson entered this life on August 27, 1908, rural America was a vastly different place than it is today. Although motor cars had begun to appear in cities, the horse and buggy provided the only means of transportation in the countryside. Passenger trains traveling over a rail network much more extensive than today's did give many rural Americans access to cities and the business, cultural, and educational opportunities they offered. But there was no train service to Hye or Stonewall, the tiny communities between which was located the farm on the

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  • Charles Peters; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

  • Charles Peters is the author of Five Days in Philadelphia and How Washington Really Works, among other books. He is the founder of The Washington Monthly, that he edited for thirty-two years, following a career in politics and government which included serving in the West Virginia legislature, working on John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign, and helping to launch the Peace Corps. He lives in Washington, D.C.

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov