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One of the Truly Great Biographies
on 31 October 2006
Even those addicted to the soap opera of politics would admit that not all political 'personalities' really deserve a biographic trilogy by a skilled writer. Lyndon Baines Johnson lived a life that would almost be better suited to Greek tragedy than political biography: raised in poverty, and after a dubious election found his way to Congress whereupon his ambition lead him to become a New Dealer and acolyte of Sam Rayburn, the then-speaker of the House.
After promotion to the Senate after another bruising election campaign, LBJ set about waking up this august house from its non-partisan slumber. Through bullying, intimidation, a certain dose of charm and any other tactic available to him, LBJ passed more legislation than anyone since Franklin Roosevelt.
Thanks to his presidency, Liberalism scaled new heights: its war on poverty formed LBJ's 'Great Society' and radically reduced the back-breaking poverty that many in the US still silently suffer from; his civil rights legislation put an end to the political apartheid that blighted many areas of the South; and his rhetoric created a climate in both Houses that embraced social change.
However, to misquote Mandeville, private vice can equal public virtue. Johnson was a bully to his wife, a tyrant to his staff on many occasions, and was obscenely crude and unstatesmanlike.
Perhaps this hubris, this taunting of the political gods, was the reason that he couldn't bring himself to play it smart rather than tough over Vietnam. His passion, and his talents, were directed at domestic reform, and it was a nationalist movement in a faraway Southeastern country that was to see the death of reform liberalism and the Democrats as the US's majority party. After being beaten by the unlikely victor of the New Hampshire primary, Eugene McCarthy, who had been running on an anti-war platform, Lyndon Baines Johnson withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination for the President of the United States of America. His statement would serve as epitaph for the liberalism that he held so dear. His vice-president, championed in the Senate by LBJ from his first inauspiciously radical days in that conservative chamber, had the moral purity that LBJ lacked, but not the political skills to put the 1968 genie back in the moderate liberal bottle. The mainstream majority had seen enough. LBJ's life was a Greek tragedy, and Robert Caro has done us the service of making one of the great political careers into the biography that it so richly deserved. In so many ways this isn't just a biography of a man, but of an age, a politics and a political institution that exists no more but whose legacy lives on.