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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A historian with research focusing on U.S. foreign relations and modern American politics, Kyle Longley was named director of the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas in July 2018. In addition to LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval, he is author of In the Eagle's Shadow: The United States and Latin America; Senator Albert Gore, Sr.: Tennessee Maverick; and, The Morenci Marines: A Tale of Small Town America.
BIOGRAPHY/ POLITICS & GOVERNMENT
Cambridge University Press
Hardcover, 978-1-1071-9303-1, (also available as an e-book), 374 pgs., $29.99
February 22, 2018
Reviewed by Dr. Chris Manno
Longley’s narrative LBJ’s 1968 is so compelling from page one that by chapter three the reader has to stop to remember that it’s not actually about President Lyndon B. Johnson. Rather, the text is a riveting and, in many places horrifying, account of the year 1968 as Johnson wrestled with, in his own words, “that bitch of a war on the other side of the world” while struggling to lead a nation torn apart by antiwar and civil-rights protests and riots.
This tumultuous history plays across Johnson’s face in the reader’s mind like an old newsreel, sad but relentless. The president’s anguish along with the nation’s torment are visceral and, owing to Longley’s comprehensive research, direct quotes and firsthand accounts, seamlessly woven into a claustrophobic portent of inescapable disaster, which Johnson most surely felt.
In beautifully precise but simply crafted prose, Longley has achieved a comfortably readable balance between narrative and descriptive details that thrusts the reader into the oval office, the White House family quarters, and the situation room.
A procession of cabinet members, Pentagon officials, and presidential advisors confer, negotiate, and disagree as Johnson tries unsuccessfully to extricate his presidency from the quagmire of war and social upheaval. They stumble through the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, to the North Vietnamese assault on the U.S. Marines in Khe Sanh, to the unforeseen all-out assault that was the Tet offensive, and watch Johnson reel from foreign policy blows, yet rise from the mat to fight on.
At home, a hostile Congress smells failure and weakness as both parties stake out territory in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. Johnson battles threats from his own party as his old nemesis Robert Kennedy challenges him for the nomination, and peacenik Democrat Eugene McCarthy trounces the sitting president in the first primary. At the same time, Richard Nixon and the Republicans paint LBJ as weak and ineffective, hanging Vietnam like an albatross around his neck.
Clearly, Johnson is under siege from all sides, while his closest advisors vacillate in disarray, at his and one another’s throats over both blame and strategy. At the center of the whirlwind, Johnson quietly weighs his own personal bombshell, one that clashes with the advice of Lady Bird and his most trusted inner circle.
The comparison most appropriate to LBJ’s 1968 would be the HMS Titanic: we all know the story, know the characters are doomed, but still can’t not watch, still pore over the smallest details hoping to make sense of the tragedy in a way no one could at the time of the disaster. Longley gives us both sides of the devolving story — the president’s-eye view and that of the nation — in factual, autopsy-worthy gory detail. From that emerges a new, more sympathetic picture of battered, rough-hewn Lyndon Johnson, as well a stark, historically impeccable account of one of the worst years in late twentieth-century American history.
In the final analysis, Longley offers a mixed postmortem of Johnson, with equal parts self-inflicted wounds and intractable, un-survivable circumstances. Perhaps LBJ himself summed it up best at Thanksgiving late in 1968, saying, “Americans looking back at 1968 may be more inclined to ask God’s mercy and guidance than to offer him thanks for his blessings.” That, from the tall Texan given to bold, provocative speech, is an understatement.
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Chris Manno , a commercial pilot, is the author of the story collection Blood and Remembrance and the award-winning Texas novel East Jesus. He holds a doctorate in English from Texas Christian University and teaches writing at Texas Wesleyan University.
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