Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote “Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream” before she married and became a Goodwin.
Readers who find an early edition of the book published in 1976 will see she was simply Doris Kearns — the young woman who worked in Johnson’s White House and who was a contributor to the work on his post-presidential memoir.
In September, Goodwin released her latest work, “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian writes about the leadership qualities of four American presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Johnson.
She has written best-selling books about each of these presidents in the past. But the Johnson book was her earliest and the one that made a name for her as a top-notch chronicler of historical biography.
In “Lyndon Johnson & The American Dream,” she writes from meticulous research, in-depth thought and insight provided by numerous hours of access to Johnson during his last years in office and the years between leaving the White House in early 1969 until his death Jan. 22, 1973.
It is a towering achievement that feels as if it has not lost a whit of impact since its release 42 years ago.
Johnson is a president who cared nothing for books or Shakespeare, but in this book, he towers over the events of his life like a king from a Shakespearean tragedy.
A politician who masterfully consolidated unlikely allies and outfoxed opponents into passing the sweeping legislation he wanted for civil rights, health care, etc.
But one who could not manage the escalating war in Vietnam.
A president with the arrogance to believe he could simultaneously be the first in war and the first in peace. And in trying to balance his “Great Society” with the Vietnam war, Johnson failed to manage either.
The achievements of his “Great Society” legislation faltered as his attention was constantly averted to Vietnam, and in Vietnam, he failed to display the leadership that allowed him to repeatedly get the legislation he wanted from Congress.
Goodwin provides insight into Johnson that is remarkable. He was candid in interviews with her. As he spent a lifetime mastering politics, he possibly wanted to persuade her to see the world his way as he had successfully done in Congress and the White House for decades.
But Goodwin does not write a starry-eyed bromide of Johnson, his life, politics and times. She writes a hard-hitting book — one that still reverberates more than 40 years later.
When it became obvious in 1968 that he likely would not win the nomination for another term as president, Johnson stepped aside. To save face, he said he was not seeking reelection so he could focus full time on his presidential duties.
Though Johnson is a tragic figure here, his decisions and escalating events render his era as a national tragedy.
In Shakespeare, when the tragic hero falls, the land and its people are restored. But when Johnson decided against running again, the war raged for years after his presidency.
Johnson’s “fall” did not heal the land. He was gone from the national stage but his decisions continued to shake the nation.