Books Gift Guide


Books Gift Guide

The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson: Volumes 4-6: Toward the Great Society, Feb. 1, 1964-May 31, 1964

edited by Robert David Johnson, Kent B. Germany, David Shreve, and Guian A. McKee; general editors: Ernest May and Timothy Naftali.
W.W. Norton & Co., 3,536 pp., $175.

When the first three volumes of the transcribed LBJ recordings were published in 2005, historian Eric Foner (writing in The New York Times) found them fascinating in detail and limited in scope. Foner concluded that the transcripts (primarily of the president's nonpersonal phone conversations) might be "the least revealing way of understanding the currents that tore apart American politics and society and with them the presidency of Lyndon Johnson," because they so narrowly expose "the insular world presidents inhabit."

That's not entirely fair: LBJ's Rolodex may have been confined, as Foner complains, to "the power elite," but the transcripts, as heroically edited by a phalanx of scholars from the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, reflect as well Johnson's broad range of policy preoccupations, tactical experience, and pragmatic political knowledge that will be fascinating not only to historians but to any advanced student of politics in action. (Playwrights may well be equally intrigued; only David Mamet or Harold Pinter would be able to approach the range of Johnson's verbal legerdemain.) Much of the volumes' bulk is in fact editorial connection and narrative.

In these four months, Johnson is settling into policy matters; establishing his partly real, partly public-relations "war on poverty"; lobbying intensely over pending civil rights legislation; and of course following the dismal "progress" of his inherited Vietnam War. But my current favorite moment is domestic – his irritation (expressed to adviser George Reedy) at the press corps' obsession with his unnewsworthy personal movements while at Johnson City: "They're a pretty bunch of chickenshits." And so they were.

Also recommended in Politics ...

Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch's Assault Against America's Fundamental Rights by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose (Random House, $24.95), Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Knopf, $25.95), The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, $27.95).

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LBJ, The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson: Volumes 4-6: Toward the Great Society, Feb. 1, 1964-May 31, 1964

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