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MERLE MILLER fell in love with Lyndon Johnson when he wrote this book. Lyndon: An Oral Biography is a collection of hundreds of interviews conducted by Miller or dredged from the files of the Johnson library. Miler has attempted a portrait of the man and his accomplishments by seeking out friends, family and aides--and the result is a paean to Lyndon Johnson, American folk hero. Johnson, from all accounts, was an overwhelmingly powerful and dominant man, who prided himself on his ability to manipulate people and situations. Some emanation of Johnson's spirit has gotten at Miller via these interviews, and not only manipulated but seduced him.
Unlike Studs Terkel, who presents interviews with a single individual to explain an issue, Miller uses fragments of interviews from several people to explain a particular event. With a few exceptions, Miller avails himself only of interviews that are sympathetic to Johnson, that provide excuses for Johnson's gaffes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Miller's presentation of the discrepancies in Johnson's claims of sympathy for Blacks and his early congressional voting record.
Political expediency is Miller's chief defense for Johnson's countless votes against anti-lynching and anti-discrimination bills. He writes, "But whatever his interest in the welfare of the Black people and Mexican-Americans, Lyndon knew that in Texas you did not translate that into legislation...So whenever a federal anti-lynching law came up, Lyndon voted against it, and whenever an anti-discrimination provision appeared in any bill, he voted against it." Miller then continues this defense by presenting a lengthy interview with a former congressional colleague who claims that, despite his voting record, Johnson never made anti-Black speeches like other Southern politicians.
MILLER'S APOLOGIA extends throughout the book. With Vietnam Miller never explores the careful coverup of the war's financing; instead he marshals statements from Johnson advisers explaining how they "anguished" over the decisions to escalate the war. The chapter on Vietnam is particularly frustrating, for Miller presents a few fascinating insights and then fails to elaborate on them. Former aide Harry MacPherson tells how Johnson was completely oblivious to the demands and concerns of the militant left, how he didn't even understand them. According to MacPherson Johnson was always asking. "What in the world do they want?"
Miller here presents the central tragedy of Johnson and the war--the master politician, after so many years of being attuned to the subtleties of electoral opinion, suddenly lost touch with the nation's growing disillusionment over the war. Miller throws the MacPherson interview out as if it were one more bit of gossip, just another interview, instead of using it as a focal point to organize some interpretation of Johnson's failures.
This is not to say that Johnson's interviews and bits of gossip are not interesting as isolated bits of historical trivia; many are funny and revealing. But strung together they provide only a fragmented and incomplete view of Johnson's life. At their best these anecdotes do provide insight--but less about Johnson than about the individual being interviewed.
The interviews Miller compiled with Hubert H. Humphrey are especially revealing, portraying a vice president overshadowed and intimidated by his superior. Humphrey tells Miller about a humiliating episode at the 1964 Democratic convention when Johnson forced him to dress up in a cowboy suit and ride horses with Johnson for all the photographers. Humphrey presents himself as the eternally loyal soldier, even when the association with Johnson proved politically harmful. Of the 1968 election, Humphrey says, "Most people were dead wrong" that Johnson hurt his campaign--that in fact the president had been "an asset."
Miller also provides some insight into the depth of Johnson's dislike for Robert Kennedy. Johnson, according to several interviews, was madly jealous of the younger Kennedy, always fearing that he was plotting to reclaim his assassinated brother's title. According to aide John Roche, Johnson's envy knew no bounds, and he recalls that Johnson never forgave his favorite aide Bill Moyers for being photographed dining with Kennedy the day after he resigned as Johnson's press secretary.
It is these tidbits that make this book absorbing reading. But Lyndon: An Oral Biographycan only be viewed as a montage of unconnected remembrances of the president. It offers no interpretation and much bias: it falls far short of the label biography
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