Suddenly everybody is writing about Lyndon Johnson—Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Joseph Califano: holding the late President’s lanky carcass up to the light, prodding and poking to see what the man was made of.

The political pathologists differ among themselves. Caro, in two volumes, with two more due, has virtually nothing good to say about his protagonist. Dallek takes a more spacious view: the late President, for all his faults, attempted or achieved much that was good. And Califano, who was Johnson’s chief domestic policy adviser and a principal architect of the Great Society? You might be surprised. As first-person accounts go, this one scores high for detachment. Califano sought “to give firsthand testimony on the man and President I saw, ‘with the bark off,’ as he used to say when he wanted me to tell him something cold with no punches pulled.”

How else is it possible to talk usefully about Lyndon Johnson and his times (a necessary enterprise given the long shadow LBJ casts from the grave)? He must have been one of the three or four most maddening public figures who ever lived—shifty, conniving, bullying, but almost supernaturally good at what he did; “brave and brutal,” as Califano puts it, “compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive, with a shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of his allies and adversaries. He could be altruistic and petty, caring and crude, generous and petulant, bluntly honest and calculatingly devious—all within the same few minutes.” His whole administration was in some sense a paradox. He sought radical change at home while fighting—half fighting, really—a foreign war; concerning which he tried to deceive the American people, who turned on him. He overreached. This was his tragedy.

Lyndon Johnson cries out for a Shakespeare to give him life. Well, character delineation is not what Joe Califano got into politics for. But within the constraints imposed by ideological attachment to, and personal intimacy with, the subject, he performs with distinction. This is an honest book. That is no light compliment, given the subject matter.

The graphic personal details we have come to expect in any account of Lyndon Johnson are here: the nation’s chief magistrate displaying a boil on his rump, brushing his teeth while bucknaked, fuming when the hired help wandered out of phone range. All of which is interesting, even though it’s not the thing we need most to know about Johnson. The thing we need most to know is what Johnson thought he was doing when he revolutionized American life without the voting public’s having invited him specifically to do so. Califano doesn’t provide all the answers, but he demonstrates in detail the compulsiveness of the Johnson political style.

LBJ was an inveterate and consummate meddler. Everything was his, and the federal government’s, business. His solution for a perceived problem was a law or program. “There will never be enough for this man,” Califano describes himself as musing in those days; “he adopts programs the way a child eats rich chocolate-chip cookies.”

Ever wonder how we got saddled with those child-proof caps on aspirin bottles? Califano tells the story. “[M]y son Joe had swallowed a bottle of aspirins and I had rushed him to Sibley Memorial Hospital,” where the President tracked down his counselor. “After offering to help, Johnson said he’d always worried about children getting into medicine bottles and hurting themselves. ‘There ought to be safety caps on those bottles so kids like little Joe can’t open them.’ That prompted the proposal for the Child Safety Act, which Congress eventually passed in 1970.”

The second session of the 89th Congress, which adjourned in October 1966, passed 97 of the 113 major measures the President had requested. Johnson had a song written to celebrate its achievement: “We salute you. Congress, for a job well done / Making our Society a Greater one.”

“At times,” Califano comments, Johnson “lost sight of the fact that laws were not an end in themselves.” Small wonder, because Johnson was bent on “social and economic revolution, nothing less.” This candid observation raises a correlative question Califano doesn’t really answer: how much of all this political hyperactivity, this revolutionary enterprising, stemmed from genuine social commitment, and how much of it from little-boy longing for approval? The question is central to any appreciation of what America became through the whirlwind ministrations of Lyndon Johnson. Califano underscores the fervor with which Johnson proposed and worked for his goals. But there are holes in the account. Johnson’s supposed attachment to civil rights, his desire to end, as he put it, “this God-damn discrimination against Negroes”—where are the signs and symptoms of it prior to November 22, 1963? How to account for Johnson’s anti-civil rights record in Texas politics, as detailed by Robert Caro? Where, in his senatorial career, are the hints that between those outsized ears lay the mind and conscience of a sensitive reformer? Califano takes at face value Johnson’s assertions of commitment—an unsafe thing, I’d think, in dealing with a politician the author himself describes as a master manipulator.

Califano tells us, mostly in passing, that Johnson craved affection, that he was genuinely grieved not to receive credit from the Kennedys and their admirers for carrying out, and then some, John Kennedy’s goals (including resistance to communism in Vietnam). So late as 1966, Califano writes, Johnson “still ached over the lack of appreciation from the people for his achievements and longed to find a way to gain their recognition.”

Unable to discern a philosophical thread in Lyndon Johnson’s checkered political career, one gets to wondering: was the Great Society a buck-naked bid for adulation and a place in the history books? Or a shimmering vision, the product of mature reflection? Or a bit of both? And, if both, in what curious mixture?

One has a hunch that Caro will be more interested in such questions than is Califano, whose service to the Great Society was the defining event of his life—but who, to be fair, has written a good and useful memoir. Just how do you capture a man like LBJ in one book anyway? We will never be done with him—or he with us.


[The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years, by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. (New York: Simon & Schuster) 398 pp., $25.00]