Book Review:

Reaching for Glory — Lyndon Johnson's White House Tapes, 1964-1965

Reviewed by Joseph B. Rosenberg

Reaching for Glory — Lyndon Johnson's White House Tapes, 1964-1965
by Michael Beschloss
Simon and Schuster – 2001

It is with a heavy heart and profound sense of sadness that I read this latest compilation of tapes from the LBJ collection. There is an old axiom that the White House magnifies the character of each president. For Wilson it was his stubborn nature that did him in; Harding his cupidity, Nixon his venality; FDR 's compassion helped a nation weather two crises; Truman's plain speaking common sense brought the beginnings of integration, the rebuilding of Europe and a turn way from direct armed conflict with the Soviets. The White House took LBJ, who was our last Progressive and had consummate political skills, and turned him into a tragic figure because he wanted to be loved by everybody and he couldn't do that when confronted with Vietnam.

This book shows how at first Johnson thought that pulling out of Vietnam would hurt him with Bobby Kennedy, whom he correctly saw as his main rival for re-election in 1968, by "abandoning" an anti-communist war that JFK started. Then, as he became more entrenched and the war expanded and Kennedy opposed the war his brother started, LBJ's stubborn nature took hold and he resisted any meaningful attempt to disengage until his April 1, 1968 announcement that he was seeking "no wider war" and that he was not running for reelection.

However, on a darker side, it was a war Johnson had to endure because it got him into the White House in the first place. Let's look for a moment at who benefited from the JFK "hit." The list includes the CIA, the military, the Mob and the business friends of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Texas-based businesses who had invested in LBJ were all over Vietnam once he escalated the war. I believe they consorted with all those whom the Kennedys, Jack and Bobby, offended; the anti-Castro Cubans and their CIA handlers, Mafia chieftans who did business with Joe Kennedy and felt they were double-crossed, military men who thought JFK wimped out at the Bay of Pigs and in the Missile Crisis, cold warriors who did not like his attempt to halt the arms race, segregationists who did not like the Kennedys' support of civil rights, and LBJ patrons who saw their chance of owning a President go south as the Bobby Baker scandal was heating up under the prodding of RFK amid speculation LBJ would be dumped in 1964.

His tapes reveal LBJ knew the war in Vietnam was futile. As seen in this book, his advisors, like Thomas Mann on the Dominican Republic, were more anti-Soviet, anti-Castro hardliners than Kennedy's. LBJ weathered all sorts of domestic crises like escalating racial tensions, and the arrest of Walter Jenkins, to win overwhelming re-election in 1964. Still, he had Vietnam as his albatross and his majority support diminished as he clung to the military's plans for increasing escalation.

In the earlier book of tapes, Taking Charge, there is some humor and relief from the gloom, and you see a rounder, fuller man. In these tapes, for which Mr. Bechloss does a wonderful job of commentary and providing context, the tension increases as LBJ gets more and more into fighting an unpopular war on two fronts, domestically and in foreign policy.

Lyndon Baines Johnson had a vision for this country that far outshines that of all of his predecessors, yet because of Vietnam he remains our most tragic President. Unfortunately, that conflict remains both his legacy and that of our world.

May LBJ and our other KIAs rest in peace.

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This story was published on March 2, 2002.