I finished reading INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE PRESIDENCY (2012) by Mark K. Updegrove last night. It took me a while to work through this one for two reasons. One, I started reading it prior to my recent surgery and my recovery from that took much longer than expected, thus limiting my reading time for this book The other reason is that this is one of those books that I read aloud in it's entirety to my lovely wife Judy. Our tradition is that I read aloud to her while she cooks our dinner, then we eat and I clean up the kitchen upwards. It's a nice division of labor and it allows us to enjoy many great books together.
INDOMITABLE WILL, as the title indicates, covers President Johnson's years in the White House, from the moment he was thrust into the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, through his election to the office in 1964 to his final decision not to run again in 1968 and the final passing of power to President Richard Nixon in 1969.
Updegrove tells the story primarily through the voices of the people closest to Johnson in his administration as well as Lady Bird and LBJ himself. There are several transcriptions of recorded phone conversations between LBJ and cabinet members, congressmen, staff members and others. It all makes for some fascinating insight into this incredibly complex man whom many consider to be the consummate politician of the 20th century.
LBJ introduced dozens of major pieces of legislation that were eventually passed by Congress and signed into law. His domestic accomplishments are staggering in their depth and breadth. The laws that he helped bring into being rung profound and permanent changes in American society. His Great Society program included many pieces of legislation that affected millions of Americans in largely positive ways.
But LBJ's downfall was the war in Vietnam. As much as he accomplished domestically, he was mired in a "no-way-out" situation in Southeast Asia that carried a tremendous cost of blood and treasure. If he had somehow managed to find the oh-so-elusive "peace with honor" and end the conflict in Vietnam, maybe he would have run for a second term in office. But the truth is that his health was already failing him and he most likely wouldn't have survived a second term.
Love him or hate him, Lyndon Johnson is a fascinating, complex figure in America history. His legacy divides clearly into two arenas: the great things he accomplished domestically and the costly tragedy of the war in Vietnam. It's been said more than once by other historians that Johnson, both the man and his administration, carry an air of Shakespearean tragedy. I agree with that assessment. Judy and I both thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I look forward to reading more about LBJ in the future. INDOMITABLE WILL is highly recommended.
As Paul Harvey used to say, this next is partly personal. One of my mother's best friends was Liz Carpenter who was Lady Bird's press secretary. My mom and Liz grew up together and remained fast friends through out their lives despite the fact that Liz was a yellow dog Democrat and my mother was a rock-ribbed Republican. When our family took a trip to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1964, Liz arranged for us to have a private tour of the White House which included a visit to the Oval Office. I got to sit in the presidents' desk chair. Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, President Johnson met us and posed for a photograph with the Campbell family. My mother and father were no fans of LBJ. They supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Still, you have to put personal politics aside when you're standing outside the White House with the President of the United States. The office demands respect regardless of what you think of the man occupying it.
One of the blessings of my life was that, thanks to my mother, I got to know Liz Carpenter quite well over the years. I visited her at her Westlake Hills home quite often, interviewed her for a story when I was freelancing for a local magazine, escorted her to several book related events and always enjoyed being with her and listening to all of the great stories she had to share. She was witness to an incredible amount of American history and she was always kind, gracious, warm and friendly whenever we spent time together. When my mother passed away in 2003, Liz came to the funeral service and we spoke together for several minutes. That may have been the last time we spoke. I truly treasure those memories and give thanks to my mother for having the good sense to make Liz Carpenter a lifelong friend for both of us.