Flawed Giant–the monumental concluding volume to Robert Dallek’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson–provides the most through, engrossing account ever published of Johnson’s years in the national spotlight. Drawing on hours of newly released White House tapes and dozens of interviews with people close to the President, Dallek reveals LBJ as a visionary leader who worked his will on Congress like no chief executive before or since, and also displays the depth of his private anguish as he became increasingly ensnared in Vietnam. Writing in a clear, thoughtful, and evenhanded style, Dallek reveals both the greatness and the tangled complexities of one of the most extravagant characters ever to ascend to the White House.In the opening pages of Flawed Giant, readers meet a downtrodden politician whose greatest ambition–the presidency–is tantalizingly close but seemingly out of reach. JFK’s elder by almost 20 years, Johnson was a reluctant and unenthusiastic vice president. When he finally realized the office, his satisfaction there was marred by his difficulty in reconciling his deeply held beliefs and political expediency. In this sequel to the critically acclaimed Lone Star Rising, biographer Robert Dallek concentrates on Johnson’s White House years. In addition to expertly covering the major events of Johnson’s presidency, Dallek probes lower-profile episodes that help expose Johnson’s character. His agonizing search for a vice president in 1964 is one such example–in order to salve his ego, Johnson was adamant that he should win reelection without a Kennedy on the ticket and resisted both the Democratic party and Robert Kennedy right up until the convention.
Dallek is skilled at laying bare the man’s complicated and even contradictory nature. At diplomacy, Johnson often seemed like a loud, brash American, yet successful trips to Southeast Asia and Africa as vice president prove his occasional adroitness in this area. One of Johnson’s Achilles’ heels, it seems, was paranoia; a firm believer in the fact that knowledge is power, Johnson rarely communicated his true intentions or feelings, even to his closest confidants or cabinet members, until the last. And he secretly tape-recorded thousands of conversations with people at all levels of government. Dallek avers that Johnson’s impenetrability is the reason why much of his action on Vietnam defies explanation. And the dark cloud of the war now largely obfuscates Johnson’s impressive congressional record. Careful to neither vilify nor deify his subject, Dallek devotes large sections of the book to both Vietnam and Johnson’s major accomplishments in the area of reform and funding for programs such as civil rights, Medicare, clean air and water, the NEA, public broadcasting, and food stamps.
This engrossing biography is peppered throughout with snippets of its subject’s trademark: colorfully idiomatic speech that brings him vibrantly to life. Based upon exclusive interviews with Lady Bird Johnson and Bill Moyers, as well as recently released papers and transcripts, Dallek’s biography is a major contribution to the collective understanding of this man whose passions had a major impact on American society.