This is truly an astounding, superbly compiled, book. Now, years later, we finally know the truth: Lyndon B. Johnson was not merely a tragic president who stuck to his guns and fought a war he mistakenly believed he could win (with various political restrictions on the military).
He was, this book proves beyond a shadow of a doubt in its lively transcripts of his secretly taped phone conversations, a tragic president who stuck to his guns and fought a war he firmly believed would be LOST no matter WHAT.
He didn't want to lose, but he didn't want to be the one to pull out, so he got in deeper and deeper, losing sleep and agonizing all the way -- and the consequences to his administration and the country were catastrophic.
There are a slew of reasons why you should read (or gift) this amazing book.
The main one: true, it does give you perhaps more than you wanted to know about LBJ (but I don't care WHAT some reviewers have said: I LOVE the many sections where he is flirting with and flattering Jackie Kennedy!)...but if you read it you get a clear idea of how a president operated -- and many parts of this book are so dramatic and gripping, they read like a movie script. In fact, I can see the Oliver Stone movie now.....
Historian Michael Beschloss makes it seem easy when you read it, but transcribing and annotating (so you know through footnotes what LBJ is referring to when he talks and get some historical context..and know when LBJ is spinning) these conversations taped between 1964 and 1965 could not have been easy. Yet, he gives you the meat and you get to "know" how LBJ thinks and, politically, works.
It shows Johnson, warts and all, as a man who could have been one of the top presidents because of his skills, will and sincere desire to serve. But it also shows a highly conflicted, contradictory, at times paranoid and highly depressed man. On the night of his monster landslide 1964 election he is angry and "down," steaming over Bobby Kennedy's influence, lack of political deference and possible future machinations. As he presses and manipulates to get his Great Society legislation passed, he's secretly leaking negative info on election opponent Barry Goldwater, keeping the lid on information regarding his number one aide's role in a sex scandal. He talks of victory in Vietnam, but repeatedly tells politicos and his wife that there is absolutely no way the U.S. can ever win, and he is tormented by his terrible choice and unwanted role. He wants to help the poor and the blacks, but will talk a little more "southern" if he has to while talking to someone who doesn't quite agree with him to make them think he's on their wavelength.
The famous Gulf of Tonkin resolution? Even Johnson believed it may not have happened. But he took the resolution in Congress and ran with it -- using it to justify the war he knew he the U.S. could not win.
In Feb. 1965 he told a Senator "a man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain't no daylight in Vietnam. Not a bit."
If you went back and contrasted his public pronouncements with what he was saying privately, it would be shocking: pep talks to the country (and troops) to the contrary, he never felt we could win. Meanwhile, he kissed J. Edgar Hoover's you-know-what to keep Hoover on his side (actually, they had been neighbors in Washington and Johnson had carefully wooed Hoover for years) in his battle against Goldwater, Kennedy and others.
Not all of the book is about the sad, deceitful slide into Vietnam. Many of the transcripts deal with his election campaign, domestic legislation etc....but by the end of this fast-moving volume Vietnam is devouring LBJ alive as it did the country -- and the innocence and joy of the early 1960s.
I read this book rather quickly. It was an INCREDIBLE experience. Read it and you'll be a very sad fly on the wall in the White House.