The Johnson Biographies “A well-written life,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, “is almost as rare as a well-spent one. ” Even so, biography of all kinds enjoys a ready market these days. In the essay that follows, native-Texan Stephen Oates, an accomplished biographer in his own right, assesses three recent biographies of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Are they lives wellwritten? Was Lyndon Johnson’s a life well-spent?Oates answers the first question directly, and in doing so, offers an implicit answer to the second. Observer readers, many no doubt with decided opinions about Lyndon Johnson, may or may not agree; the Observe staff disagreed for example, with his harsh assessment of Ronnie Dugger’s The Politician. We encourage you to respond. Lives well-written? A life well-spent? We’d like to hear from you. \(Ronnie, by the way, excused himself from the entire H. By Stephen B. Oates Amherst, Mass. IT’S A STORY that whets a biographer’s appetite. Here is a Faustian character, as complex and unpredictable as the giant state that produced him. A prisoner of Western mythology who sees conspiracies everywhere, he rides to power on Texas oil, gas, and defense money, on the new economic forces surging out of the Southwest in his day. His rise to prominence parallels America’s own rise to globalism; and his presidency turns out to be a watershed in U.S. history, marking the climax of domestic reform begun in the New Deal and the evolution from the “constitutional” to the “imperial” President. Crude, volcanic, and compassionate, Lyndon Johnson thrusts his personality so deeply into the life of his country that times to brood, big-eared, big-nosed, huge, over the entire American political landscape.” He is an idealist, too, whose Great Society promises opportunity and abundance for all Americans, particularly the disenfranchised and disinherited. But the Great Society perishes in the accursed Vietnam War a war that Johnson converts into his conflict, his crusade against the forces of evil, his struggle against the savages on the frontier of Asia. In the end, that war tears his country apart, Stephen B. Oates is a professional biographer and a professor of history and an adjunct professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and earlier biographies of Nat Turner, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln. drives him from office, and sets in MO-tion powerful reactionary forces that twelve years later will sweep another Westerner named Ronald Reagan into the White House. The man responsible for such cataclysmic events goes back to his Texas ranch, back to the Hill Country that molded him, and devotes his last years to his memoirs, his memories, and his presidential library in Austin. Only a “true” biographer could do justice to such a life, a great storyteller who has keen insight into the complexities of human nature, who pursues Johnson through hundreds of interviews and millions of documents in the Johnson Library and other repositories, and who, with deft and vivid pen, brings the man alive in historical context, giving readers a sense of being with Johnson in the rush and tumble of his life. Such a biography would be life-writing at its best, an example of a noble literary genre whose mission \(in the words of Paul Murray was in the days he lived, a spring task of bringing to life again.” Which brings me to the books under review. In discussing them, I intend to heed Leon Edel’s complaint that critics of biography, too many of them, fall “into the easy trap of writing pieces about the life that was lived, when their business is to discuss how the life was told.” I shall confine myself to how each book tells the Johnson story, to its conception of character, narrative technique, plot development, structure and symmetry. None of the volumes, of course, offers a definitive portrait of Johnson. There is no such thing as a definitive biography. The nature of life-writing and reminiscence, the process by which one human being resurrects another on the basis of human records, memories, and dreams, precludes a fixed and final portrait of any figure. THE SLENDER BOOK by George Reedy, a close Johnson aide and presidential press secretary, does not claim to be biography. No, the author tells us, this is “an exercise in exorcism,” an attempt on Reedy’s part to understand Johnson and so to purge himself of the big, raw, powerful man who dominated his life for more than thirteen years. A set of random reflections and remembrances, Reedy’s memoir follows no chronological design and is almost conversational in style. Yet, for all its artlessness, it has much to recommend it, for the character that emerges is a complicated man who defies easy categorization. In truth, Reedy’s Johnson has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality: one face is “that of a magnificent, inspiring leader, the other that of an insufferable bastard.” The magnificent Johnson, Reedy maintains, was at heart “a New Deal populist” with a genuine sympathy for the underdog. His finest moments came when he maneuvered the censure of Joseph McCarthy in the United States Senate and the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Reedy’s Johnson, in fact, almost “single 18 JUNE 3, 1983
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