Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America: An Analysis
Fernlund starts off his biography of Johnson by defining the years 1932 to 1968 as the Age of Johnson[footnoteRef:2]â€”a title not commonly seen for the time period stretching from the internecine wars to the height of the Cold War. From the beginning, therefore, it becomes clear that Fernlundâ€™s purpose in writing the book is not to rehash old material or regurgitate the same old facts about LBJ but to rather to depict the man in a new lightâ€”as larger than life, in factâ€”so that one cannot think of this time period without thinking about how it reflected on him and he reflected on it. This paper will discuss the aim of Fernlund, how well he executes his purpose, whether his treatment of his subject is too narrow, too broad or appropriately detailed, how well the book is organized, and the qualities of the authorâ€™s focus. [2: Kevin Fernlund, Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2012), xii.]
The main purpose of Fernlund in writing this book is to present Johnson in a new and refreshing lightâ€”and the first point that Fernlund wishes to make in his biography is that LBJ became the man he was because he came from Texas.[footnoteRef:3] The region had such a profound impact on his mind that without Texas, Johnson would not have been Johnson. He was a product of the Lone Star state more than anything. By emphasizing place, Fernlund attempts to fill a gap in the way history has chosen to remember the 36th president. LBJ is so often associated with two thingsâ€”the assassination of Kennedy and the Vietnam Warâ€”or one thing if wishes to be terse: the Cold War. In either case, these associations are characteristics of high-stakes politicsâ€”and what Fernlund does is to take the reader out of that world of espionage and political maneuvering and drop him squarely in the domestic sphere of rural Texas. Fernlund describes Johnsonâ€™s pedigree by describing his ancestors and how they were tied to the land, how populism impacted their lives. This is not the typical Johnson biography for that reason: it adopts a familiar, compassionate, domesticated perspective that disconnects the immediate present from the accumulated years of knowledge and information one has gathered about LBJ from various sources. Fernlund wipes the slate clean and begins his story anew as though it were being told for the first time. By tying LBJ and his family to the land and showing how politics was a natural fruit of the populism that flowed through their veins, Fernlund succeeds in his aim to give a new LBJ to the readerâ€”and it works. The only drawback, of course, is that Fernlundâ€™s purpose does not lend itself to minute scrutiny but rather to broad generalizations and a general characterization of Johnson rather than a bare bones expose of the controversial figure. In so far as Fernlund only intends to show how LBJâ€™s liberal tendencies were there from the beginning, evinced by his joining of the liberal Protestant church as a teen at home in Texas rather than the conservative Protestant church,[footnoteRef:4] and how the larger world stage handcuffed him in terms of putting his liberal values to work in a globally meaningful way. [3: Ibid 3.] [4: Ibid 12.]
The broad topic that Fernlund gradually explores in the book is never explicitly defined, so there is no sense of urgency or directness in what Fernlund is doing. Rather, he begins by painting broad strokes like a painter and then sets about filling in the details that matter to his overall thesisâ€”which is that LBJ was a man from Texas, that he had liberal ideals, and that these were only imperfectly implemented throughout his career because of larger issues that he inherited, namely the Cold War. The problem with this approach is that Fernlundâ€™s book comes as an uncritical homage to LBJ and his ideals instead of a hard-hitting examination of the president who succeeded to the White House after one of the most chilling and notorious assassinations in the history of the world. JFKâ€™s murder ranks right up there with the assassination of Caesar by the Roman Senatorsâ€”and to examine Johnson in the quaint manner in which Fernlund does, by coloring him in the light of FDRâ€™s â€œfour freedomsâ€ rather than in the blood of the first Catholic president in American history, is to look uncritically at the past and to rely on somewhat superficial and sentimental expressions for oneâ€™s characterizations. The four freedoms were an attempt at â€œthe strengthening of democracy,â€ Fernlund tells the reader.[footnoteRef:5] The critical biographer could easily describe them in much different terms. Fernlundâ€™s aim, however, is to effect a down-home, folksy appreciation of Americaâ€™s past and LBJâ€™s role in shaping it. Fernlund succeeds in that aimâ€”but it is not one that every reader is going to be satisfied with. Fernlund supports his thesis and interpretation by relying on such â€œgreatest ageâ€ characterizations, depicting the political talking points of the past as high-minded ideals and accepting them at face value as being reflective of an America that existed more in the abstract world of imagination than it did in reality. [5: Ibid 49. ]
However, the authorâ€™s treatment is too broad and superficial in the sense that it does not drive under the pat political expressions of the past to find the hard, pragmatic truths of politics. It is as though Fernlund were completely innocent of the Machiavellian nature of politics. He plays up Johnsonâ€™s affinity for FDR and portrays LBJ as being a man for whom the â€œfour freedomsâ€ were a code or creed inscribed on his very heart.[footnoteRef:6] Yet, Fernlund drops hints of LBJâ€™s Machiavellian nature in his campaign to become U.S. Senator, a seat he won for the first time in 1948. He suggests that it is quite possible that Johnson was â€œstealing votes in South Texasâ€ to counter the theft of votes by his opponent in east Texasâ€[footnoteRef:7]â€”but there is no critical evaluation of Johnsonâ€™s knowledge of or role in the rigging of the primary election, which he won by 87 votes. Instead, Fernlundâ€™s tone is sympathetic and commiserating: he describes LBJ as â€œworse for wearâ€ following the tight election, as suffering from the suspense of it all.[footnoteRef:8] [6: Ibid 50. ] [7: Ibid 70.] [8: Ibid 70.]
At the same time, Fernlund gives a great many details that a student of history who is unfamiliar with Johnsonâ€™s story will appreciate. The theme may be broad and superficial, but the telling of the life of LBJ is detailed and specific enough that the reader will not mind the theme. Fernlund selects all the right details of Johnsonâ€™s life to help bring out the themeâ€”just as a master painter selects all the right colors, employs all the right shading, use of light and perspective to achieve the desired effect. Fernlund highlights certain aspects of Johnsonâ€™s life that help to put the man in a light that works with Fernlundâ€™s thesis: thus, for example, he describes Johnsonâ€™s first Cold War speech in Congress as an idealistic promotion of the concept of America as â€œa great arsenal of democracyâ€â€”right in line with Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and so on.[footnoteRef:9] Fernlund never misses an opportunity, however, to characterize LBJâ€™s politics in terms of the liberal values cherished from his earliest days as a young boy in Texas. For LBJ, the Cold War was a way to turn â€œfederal dollars into western development.â€[footnoteRef:10] This kind of glib characterization may be true, or it may be notâ€”but to leave the matter at that without inspecting it in more detail is to leave out a great deal of history. This is why, after all, the book is so short. A deep down, nitty gritty biography of Johnson would be ten times as longâ€”and that would also be beyond the aim and purpose of Fernlund, whose ambitions are small and quaint. His aim is not to provoke controversy but rather to give a fresh, sympathetic take on a man who may already be one of the most controversial in American history. Fernlund controls the material effectively and never seems out of his depthâ€”but at the same time he never seems to leave the shallow end of the pool. [9: Ibid 72.] [10: Ibid 83.]
The book is organized chronologically and takes the reader all the way from before Johnson was born to his death. It is thus fairly straight-forward in its presentation of history and facts, starting off at the beginning, moving through the middle years, and ending at the end. Other historians have chosen to view the man by leaping right into certain moments of his political life as though there were nothing to explain about the man prior to his taking office. Fernlund does not do that: he is quite efficient in the way in which he approaches his subject and the reader obtains a good sense of the manâ€™s life by the end of the book, even if it is only examined from a sympathetic rather than critical perspective.
Overall, Fernlundâ€™s perspective is on society, events, policies and individuals. He examines the intersectionality of Americaâ€™s race issues, Americaâ€™s economic issues, and Americaâ€™s foreign and domestic policy issues. He looks at how Johnson was shaped by them and how he helped to shape them in turn. Fernlund focuses on issues because issues, he asserts, were what mattered to Johnsonâ€”such as the â€œdisproportion of poor blacks to middle class blacksâ€ that was just one of the many problems that Johnson had to face and try to solve.[footnoteRef:11] Ultimately, Fernlund finds the silver lining of Johnsonâ€™s career and brings the book to its close by describing LBJâ€™s role in getting NASA going. It is an accomplishment right in line with Fernlundâ€™s aim to make Johnson look like an inspired leader and visionary from Texas. [11: Ibid 110.]
Fernlund, Kevin. Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America. Oklahoma: University of
Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2012. 192 pp.
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