'Lone Star Rising' focuses more on Johnson's record than his personality

September 15, 1991|By Paul West

LONE STAR RISING: LYNDON JOHNSON AND HIS TIMES. Robert Dallek. Oxford University. 784 pages. $30. Master politician that he was, Lyndon Baines Johnson knew it was sometimes better to be lucky than good. His rise to the presidency grew out of his legendary guile, a fierce competitive drive, bottomless ambition and seemingly inexhaustible energy. But chance also played a part.

The death of a Texas congressman in 1937 was LBJ's opening to begin climbing the ladder of national power. In that campaign, he later learned, he got the votes of Swedish immigrants who mistakenly believed that because his name was Johnson, he was one of them (he would have won anyway).

Had a Republican department store owner named Barry Goldwater not unseated Senate Democratic Leader Ernest McFarland of Arizona in the 1952 elections, LBJ might never have gained the Senate leadership platform that was central to his successful effort to transform himself from a regional politician into a figure of national importance. And historians can only speculate over whether he would have ended up in the White House at all, had it not been for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

LBJ understood the futility of resisting the hand that fate dealt him and molded his image to the contours of his times. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, Johnson promoted himself as the ultimate New Dealer. When Texas began turning conservative in the 1940s, he moved to the right. His historic embrace of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, the greatest achievement of his career, largely has obscured earlier anti-civil rights attitudes; for most of his life, Johnson marched in step with his more reactionary Southern colleagues.

He committed grievous blunders, and his errors, like the man himself, were larger than life. He was the only American president to lose a war, and his miscalculations over Vietnam brought his political life to a premature end. But he seldom made the same mistake twice. After losing a 1941 Senate race that, in all likelihood, was stolen from him, he came back to win in 1948; his infamous 87-vote victory margin was the now well-documented product of fraud by the Johnson campaign.

In "Lone Star Rising," the first of a projected two-volume biography, historian Robert Dallek traces the evolution of LBJ's career, through his election as vice president in 1960. He details Johnson's hunger for victory at any cost, no matter how small or large the stakes, from his college days to his emergence on the national scene. He reveals, for example, how Johnson illegally used his Washington contacts to obtain the service record of his 1946 primary election opponent, a political novice with no serious chance of defeating him. In the same campaign, local postmasters in Texas violated federal law by secretly working to aid Johnson's candidacy, Mr. Dallek concludes.

This evidence of LBJ's disregard for campaign laws is precisely the sort of dirt dredged up by Robert A. Caro in his celebrated, and highly controversial, multi-volume Johnson biography (although the 1946 campaign dirty tricks appear to have eluded Mr. Caro, who does not mention them). That Mr. Dallek goes to considerable lengths to catalog Johnson's shady dealings may surprise those familiar with the vigorous efforts of Mr. Dallek's publisher, and to some extent the author himself, to present his book as a counter-Caro work.

The two Caro volumes to date (which end with Johnson's arrival in the Senate in 1949) present a darkly conspiratorial view of LBJ as a man of unmatched cynical ambition and the willing agent of wealthy Texans of enormous power and greed. Mr. Caro has hinted that he will offer balancing material in future volumes. But he has been justifiably criticized for presenting a one-sided picture of Johnson's 1948 Senate campaign victory over Coke Stevenson, a hitherto obscure figure whom Mr. Caro elevated to near sainthood despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Without question, Mr. Dallek is more favorable to his subject, focusing more on LBJ's record than his personality. A four-page comparison between his book and Mr. Caro's, provided to reviewers by the publisher, offers a point-by-point guide to places where "Lone Star Rising" gives a more sympathetic description of LBJ's actions and motives.

For his part, Mr. Dallek, a UCLA history professor, dismisses Mr. Caro as a journalist and describes his own book as the first balanced assessment of the Johnson record, 18 years after LBJ's death and more than two decades after he left the White House.

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