INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ in the Presidency. By Mark K. Updegrove. Crown. 384 pages. $27.
Lyndon Baines Johnson must be one of the most misunderstood and underrated presidents in U.S. history. Certainly that is what is suggested in Mark K. Updegrove’s prodigious research into LBJ’s six momentous years in the White House.
The author, a historian and director of the LBJ Library, tells the story from the shattering start of Johnson’s presidency to its surprising end through the use of actual quotes from those who knew Johnson well, and from recorded phone calls.
It is these voices that give the book its compelling immediacy and authenticity.
Along with the remarkable feat of gathering a formidable collection of opinions from some of the most important players in government during those turbulent years, the author’s interwoven narrative provides continuity.
On Nov. 27, 1963, just five short days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress. He spoke of JFK’s dreams of a better nation for all and of his words of 1961: “Let us begin” and “Let us continue.”
And continue Johnson did, even as he competed with an ever-present Kennedy mystique and antagonism.
During his presidency, LBJ passed bills of momentous importance to the nation: civil rights, Medicare, immigration reform, the Voting Act, educational reforms, the Great Society social reforms, the minimum wage hike and the continuance of the space program. The list is long.
Updegrove shows that it was Johnson’s enormous dedication, gifts for persuasion (often rough) and grasp of the uses of power that pushed them all through.
And yet, through all these triumphs, the chaos of Vietnam hovered, waiting to throw the country into turmoil.
The Vietnam War was the one thing his indomitable will could not solve.
We learn that despite Johnson’s often overbearing personality, there was a certain nobility in his character.
His time in office had all the elements of a Greek tragedy. And one is left with an awesome respect for a man who gave “everything that was in me.”
Reviewer Frances Monaco, a writer based in Charleston