Sunday, March 6, 2016

JFK and LBJ: The Last Two Great Presidents


Rating: 4 Stars


I received this text as an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

While some might take issue with the title itself, I found this text to be everything I wanted it to be. This includes a better look at a much-maligned president who I feel deserves better than the treatment he has received, being in the unenviable position of assuming the presidency upon the assassination that shocked the nation.

Like so may others, I have bought into the Kennedy myth. I don't now how else to describe it but fascinating. This whole dynasty, this mystique created around this family of handsome sons and beautiful daughters - complete with scandals and cover-ups, what's not love? I say that last part a bit cheekily, because they are also a prime example of what happens when children have too much money and too little supervision. Even so, much of what I have read so far has focused more on the family and less on the politics. This is why a book like this that devotes pages to the "what ifs" had Kennedy not been assassinated was interesting. The issue of Civil Rights is addressed at length especially, and the point made that LBJ was by far the more progressive of the two in pushing through his plans to deal with that, as well as poverty, education, and the myriad of other issues that are overlooked and brushed to the side because of Vietnam.

I have to admit that until the last few years, I bought into the myth about LBJ as well, how terrible a follow-up he was, this kind of bumbling hick from Texas who was crude and rude and having affairs left and right. While some of the latter part is still true, I never really questioned the sources of the stories, until I began reading a little more about him and finding out just how much JFK and his staff did not get along with LBJ and his, and how poorly he really was treated as the vice-president of the most powerful nation on earth. Usually history is written by the victors, but when you are on the same side and battling the Kennedy mystique, I think we all know who was going to win. Among other topics covered, this book really does a fantastic job to rehabilitate LBJ and restore him to the level of respect he deserves. Until reading this, I had no idea how successful he really was in the domain of domestic policy and find it disheartening that all of that seems forgotten. I am not trying to diminish the devastation of Vietnam in any way, but I think it is worth recalling the policies enacted to benefit our country. In fact, you'd think it would be good company to be in when the book states at 57% that only FDR could claim a "comparable record of legislative success". LBJ's reforms impacted so many aspects of our country - health care, economy, education, poverty, environment, immigration. it is unfortunate that his image even needs rehabilitation. It was additionally disheartening to read things like, "By August, 1967, LBJ's rating had fallen below 40%, and his unpopularity was so acute that he had to virtually give up travelling around the country because his personal safety could not be guaranteed" (57%).

The book is incredibly well-researched, and written by a former British correspondent who covered the White House during this turbulent time. While its whole purpose is not to rehab the image of LBJ, I feel that is the most important thing it does. It's a well-written analysis of these two presidencies and all the baggage that comes with that, and I highly recommend it.

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