Essential Books on Lyndon Johnson
There are countless books on Lyndon Johnson, and it comes with good reason, upon being sworn in as America’s thirty-sixth President following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he began building out his vision of “A Great Society” for the American people.
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the height of political power, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Lyndon Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s extraordinary and insightful biography draws from meticulous research in addition to the author’s time spent working at the White House from 1967 to 1969. After Johnson’s term ended, Goodwin remained his confidante and assisted in the preparation of his memoir.
In Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, she traces the 36th president’s life from childhood to his early days in politics, and from his leadership of the Senate to his presidency, analyzing his dramatic years in the White House, including both his historic domestic triumphs and his failures in Vietnam.
Indomitable Will by Mark K. Updegrove
Nearly fifty years after being sworn in as president of the United States in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Baines Johnson remains a largely misunderstood figure. His force of personality, mastery of power and the political process, and boundless appetite for social reform made him one of the towering figures of his time. But he was one of the most contradictory and paradoxical of presidents as well.
intent on fulfilling the promise of America, Johnson launched a revolution in civil rights, federal aid to education, and health care for the elderly and indigent, and expanded immigration and environmental protection. As president, he was known for getting things done. But at the same time, Johnson’s presidency – and the fulfillment of its own promise – was blighted by his escalation of an ill-fated war in Vietnam that tore at the fabric of America and saw the loss of thirty-six thousand US troops by the end of his term.
Through original interviews and personal accounts from White House aides and cabinet members, political allies and foes, and friends and family – from Robert McNamara to Barry Goldwater, Lady Bird Johnson to Jacqueline Kennedy – as well as through Johnson’s own candid reflections and historic White House telephone conversations, Indomitable Will reveals LBJ as never before.
Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
It was during these years that all Johnson’s experience – from his Texas Hill Country boyhood to his passionate representation in Congress of his hardscrabble constituents to his tireless construction of a political machine – came to fruition. Caro introduces the story with a dramatic account of the Senate itself: how Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun had made it the center of governmental energy, the forum in which the great issues of the country were thrashed out. And how, by the time Johnson arrived, it had dwindled into a body that merely responded to executive initiatives, all but impervious to the forces of change.
Caro anatomizes the genius for political strategy and tactics by which, in an institution that had made the seniority system all-powerful for a century and more, Johnson became Majority Leader after only a single term – the youngest and greatest Senate Leader in our history; how he manipulated the Senate’s hallowed rules and customs and the weaknesses and strengths of his colleagues to change the “unchangeable” Senate from a loose confederation of sovereign senators to a whirring legislative machine under his own iron-fisted control.
This volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson also demonstrates how his political genius enabled him to reconcile the unreconcilable: to retain the support of the southerners who controlled the Senate while earning the trust – or at least the cooperation – of the liberals, led by Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey, without whom he could not achieve his goal of winning the presidency.
The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson by Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Califano takes us into the Oval Office as the decisions that irrevocably changed the United States were being crafted to create Johnson’s ambitious Great Society. He shows us LBJ’s commitment to economic and social revolution, and his willingness to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. This gem among books on Lyndon Johnson uncorks his legislative genius and reveals the political guile it took to pass the laws in civil rights, poverty, immigration reform, health, education, environmental protection, consumer protection, the arts, and communications.
President Lyndon Johnson was bigger than life – and no one who worked for him or was subjected to the “Johnson treatment” ever forgot it. As Johnson’s “Deputy President of Domestic Affairs” (The New York Times), Joseph A. Califano’s unique relationship with the president greatly enriches our understanding of our thirty-sixth president, whose historical significance continues to be felt throughout every corner of America to this day.
Mutual Contempt by Jeff Shesol
Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy loathed each other. Their antagonism, propelled by clashing personalities, contrasting views, and a deep, abiding animosity, would drive them to a bitterness so deep that even civil conversation was often impossible. Played out against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s, theirs was a monumental political battle that would shape federal policy, fracture the Democratic party, and have a lasting effect on the politics of our times.
Drawing on previously unexamined recordings and documents, as well as memoirs, biographies, and scores of personal interviews, Jeff Shesol weaves the threads of this epic story into a compelling narrative that reflects the impact of LBJ and RFK’s tumultuous relationship on politics, civil rights, the war on poverty, and the war in Vietnam.
The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
The Path to Power reveals in extraordinary detail the genesis of the almost superhuman drive, energy, and urge to power that set LBJ apart. Chronicling the startling early emergence of Johnson’s political genius, it follows him from his Texas boyhood through the years of the Depression in the Texas hill Country to the triumph of his congressional debut in New Deal Washington, to his heartbreaking defeat in his first race for the Senate, and his attainment, nonetheless, of the national power for which he hungered.
We see in him, from earliest childhood, a fierce, unquenchable necessity to be first, to win, to dominate – coupled with a limitless capacity for hard, unceasing labor in the service of his own ambition. Caro shows us the big, gangling, awkward young Lyndon – raised in one of the country’s most desperately poor and isolated areas, his education mediocre at best, his pride stung by his father’s slide into failure and financial ruin – lunging for success, moving inexorably toward that ultimate “impossible” goal that he sets for himself years before any friend or enemy suspects what it may be.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President by Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek’s brilliant two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson has received an avalanche of praise. Now he has condensed his two-volume masterpiece into what is surely the finest one-volume biography of Johnson available. Based on years of research in over 450 manuscript collections and oral histories, as well as numerous personal interviews, this biography follows Johnson, the “human dynamo,” from the Texas hill country to the White House.
We see LBJ, in the House and the Senate, whirl his way through sixteen- and eighteen-hour days, talking, urging, demanding, reaching for influence and power, in an uncommonly successful congressional career. Then, in the White House, we see Johnson as the visionary leader who worked his will on Congress like no president before or since, enacting a range of crucial legislation, from Medicare and environmental protection to the most significant advances in civil rights for black Americans ever achieved. And we see the depth of Johnson’s private anguish as he became increasingly ensnared in Vietnam.
Taking Charge by Michael R. Beschloss
Lyndon Johnson’s secretly recorded tapes offer us the only chance we are ever likely to have to eavesdrop on an American President from his first moments in office until the end. This universally acclaimed volume captures LBJ’s private passions and bedrock beliefs as he takes command after John Kennedy’s assassination; makes his first fateful decisions on civil rights, poverty, and Vietnam; and runs against Barry Goldwater for President. Michael Beschloss’s observations and annotations enhance our understanding of Johnson, his era, and his lasting impact on American politics and culture.
The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career – 1958 to 1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassin’s bullet to reach its mark.
For the first time, in Caro’s breathtakingly vivid narrative, we see the Kennedy assassination through Lyndon Johnson’s eyes. We watch Johnson step into the presidency, inheriting a staff fiercely loyal to his slain predecessor; a Congress determined to retain its power over the executive branch; and a nation in shock and mourning. We see how within weeks – grasping the reins of the presidency with supreme mastery – he propels through Congress essential legislation that at the time of Kennedy’s death seemed hopelessly logjammed and seizes on a dormant Kennedy program to create the revolutionary War on Poverty.
Caro makes clear how the political genius with which Johnson had ruled the Senate now enabled him to make the presidency wholly his own. This was without doubt Johnson’s finest hour, before his aspirations and accomplishments were overshadowed and eroded by the trap of Vietnam.
Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
Here, Johnson’s almost mythic personality – part genius, part behemoth, at once hotly emotional and icily calculating – is seen at its most nakedly ambitious. This multifaceted book carries the President-to-be from the aftermath of his devastating defeat in his 1941 campaign for the Senate – the despair it engendered in him, and the grueling test of his spirit that followed as political doors slammed shut – through his service in World War II (and his artful embellishment of his record) to the foundation of his fortune (and the actual facts behind the myth he created about it).
The culminating drama – the explosive heart of this necessary installment to the ever-budding list of books on Lyndon Johnson – is Caro’s illumination, based on extraordinarily detailed investigation, of one of the great political mysteries of the century. Having immersed himself in Johnson’s life and world, Caro is able to reveal the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson was not believed capable of winning, which he “had to” win or face certain political death, and which he did win – by 87 votes, the “87 votes that changed history.”
The Man Who Killed Kennedy by Roger Stone
Consummate political insider Roger Stone makes a compelling case that Lyndon Baines Johnson had the motive, means, and opportunity to orchestrate the murder of John F. Kennedy. Stone maps out the case that Johnson blackmailed his way onto the ticket in 1960 and was being dumped in 1964 to face prosecution for corruption at the hands of his nemesis attorney, Robert Kennedy. Stone uses fingerprint evidence and testimony to prove Kennedy was shot by a long-time Johnson hitman – not Lee Harvey Oswald.
Johnson would use power from his personal connections in Texas, from the criminal underworld, and from the United States government to escape an untimely end in politics and to seize even greater power. Here, in one of the most popular books on Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, you will find out how and why he did it.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Lyndon Johnson, check out our list of The 15 Best Books on President John F. Kennedy!