In these placid times filled with pseudo-scandals, the political era of Lyndon Johnson seems like another world: thousands of kids dying each year in a divisive war; race riots exploding in Watts, Newark, Detroit and Washington, D.C.; the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the avalanche of federal programs and laws such as the Civil and Voting Rights acts and Medicare and Medicaid.
Today, LBJ is ignored by Democrats and reviled by Republicans, but his five tumultuous years in office still echo. "There's a split in Johnson's reputation that will be there forever," says historian Robert Dallek in a phone interview; Dallek has just published Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 19611973, the second and final volume of his LBJ biography. "[Johnson]'s seen as this extraordinarily competent domestic leader, but, on the negative side, there's the failed war in Vietnam that convulsed the country."
Dallek's take on LBJ is gentler than the inflammatory picture painted by his putative rival, the gifted Robert Caro, who's in the middle of his own projected four-volume Johnson bio. While Dallek lacks Caro's compelling style, the former offers assiduous research, including the first-ever extensive interviews with LBJ's press secretary, Bill Moyers, who describes Johnson's paranoia and depression as the Vietnam War spiraled ever downward.
Dallek writes that Johnson's mental state "raises questions about his judgment and capacity to make rational life and death decisions." Ultimately, however, Dallek finds that though Moyers and others privately conferred at the time about getting Johnson to see a psychiatrist, "there really wasn't that kind of disarray" in the president's thinking.
Johnson's most overlooked achievement, the biographer argues, was changing the South's status as a backwater. LBJ saw that the region's apartheid policies were "really segregating the South from the rest of America," Dallek says. "He saw the dismantling of segregation as something that would bring the South into the mainstream of America."
Johnson did so even though his unparalleled political instincts told him the results would be dire for his party. After LBJ signed the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964, Moyers asked the president why he seemed so gloomy about it. "Because, Bill," Johnson replied, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come."