Sunday, August 5, 2012

" Indomitable Will" by Mark K. Updegrove (2012)

This is an unusual biography in that it is more of a “talking” history of the man by the people who knew him best. The book is written by Mark Updegrove; who is the Director of the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas; so you do have to take that into account. It is, however, very candid on most subjects. In some ways, as in LBJ’s relationship with his wife, there is new material here that is of great interest in understanding a man who may have been one of our country’s most complex Presidents.

As with any biography, particular attention should always be paid to the author, as well as any relationship he may have with his subject. That said, I did find this to be a pretty fair portrait of President Johnson; unflinching in any credit due him for things both good and bad during his time in office.

As I said earlier, one of the more interesting parts of this book dealt with LBJ’s relationship with his wife Lady Bird; born Claudia Alta Taylor; and her behind the scenes support of her husband as President. Although aware of his philandering nature, she was secure enough on her own to simply disregard it. And, at the same time she would critique his speeches and act as a sounding board for him during his 5 years in the White House. Mr. Updegrove does a wonderful job of giving her credit for her efforts. He paints a new portrait; more accurate than any previous; of Lady Bird as she really was.

Some of the behind the scenes maneuvering by both the Soviets and the Americans on the eve of the Israeli 6 Day War in 1967 were of special interest. The Soviets, after having instigated the whole thing with Syria and Egypt to make war on Israel, realized that the situation was moving too quickly and attempted to put a stop to it. The Americans, on their side, wanted Israel to wait and be attacked, thus taking the high road. Instead, Israel, acting unilaterally, pre-empted the attack by Syria, Egypt and Jordan with an attack of her own, slicing through the opposing armies and capturing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Jerusalem in the process. These territories are still in dispute today, with Israel having held them as an example of the consequences of being attacked by her neighbors.

If you’ve ever seen the “Andy Griffith Show” where the Soviet and American negotiators meet in Sheriff Taylor’s kitchen for a summit, you will enjoy the account of the “Glassboro Summit”, in which the President met with Premier Kosygin in the living room of Glassboro State College President Dr. Robinson’s home in New Jersey. The setting was similar to the way it was portrayed on the “Andy Griffith Show”, worn furniture and all. In this atmosphere, the two world leaders were able to bond over talk of their grandchildren; Johnson had just become a grandfather; much as Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat would later do at Camp David.

The book is basically an oral biography in that most of it is taken up by the quotes of the people involved in the incidents the author writes about. When he writes about a typical cabinet meeting, it is done with quotes by the people who were there, and who have gone on record with these recollections. This gives the book a sense of immediacy, as if you are being spoken to by the participants, rather than just reading about distant events. Harry Truman was portrayed in just such a way by Merle Miller in “Plain Speaking”, which is still one of my favorite Presidential autobiographies.
President Johnson was not the greatest foreign policy leader we have ever had, but domestically he was the most far reaching. His completion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; which began with President Kennedy; would have been enough for one administration to tackle, but Johnson went further, giving the law its teeth with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation went beyond mere words; it ensured that there would be no more obstacles for blacks to overcome in order to vote. That act did more to help change the politics of this country than anything since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It empowered a whole demographic to exercise their rights for the first time.

Under Johnson’s Presidency, and with his instigation, the minimum wage rose from $1.25 per hour to $1.60 per hour, a 28% increase for the lowest paid of Americans. While walking through the White House and seeing a group of tourists in the hall, he was asked about that increase. His response was eloquent; he told the visitors that the law was for “that little charwoman who scrubs the floor at that hotel”, and “the waitress that’s got three kids at home, that goes in there in the morning before daylight to be ready to serve coffee when they drop in at six o’clock, and usually stays until dark.”

It is easy to remember President Johnson for the Vietnam War, social disorder here at home, and a myriad of other problems. This book focuses more on some of the better things which grew from that Presidency. Sometimes, when we look back, it is easiest to remember the turmoil. But, it is also equally important to remember the steps which were taken in the right direction, if only to inspire the leaders of the present and future to further heights.

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