Presidential historian and media commentator Michael Bechloss again provides insight into the psychology of President Lyndon Johnson in "Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965" (Simon & Schuster, 475 pages, $30).
It's the second book in a trilogy that uses Johnson's previously unreleased private tapes to catalog the tumultuous daily events at the White House.
This volume covers recordings made during 1964 and 1965, the era of an escalating Vietnam War, race riots in the South and the passage of Johnson's Great Society legislation that created Medicare and other important laws.
"Reaching for Glory" depicts a wary, frightened Johnson who suspected even his closest aides of disloyalty. He was suspicious also of right-wing interests inciting race riots and communists backing anti-war demonstrations: "So the kids are running up and down parading, and most of them are led by communist groups."
The book also shows Johnson unable at times to withstand the stress of his position, suffering bouts of depression and physical ailments at points of high crisis.
Besides Johnson's human shortcomings, "Reaching for Glory" portrays a potent leader, one who tailored his strategy to the individual to achieve his desired end.
To some, he was a sweet-talking father figure; to others, a hard-nosed politician who would stop at virtually nothing to get his way. Johnson was also a clairvoyant leader who predicted the backlash against the Vietnam War and his Great Society programs, and the inevitability of racial unrest.
"Reaching for Glory" is powerful in the sense that Bechloss offers little of his own interpretation of events. Instead, readers are left to decipher Johnson's meanings and motives for themselves. Presenting conversations in chronological order shows the different faces of Johnson and gives the reader a sense of urgency as events unfold. Bechloss supplies many footnotes to clarify Johnson's often heady and sometimes cryptic references.
At more than 400 pages, "Reaching for Glory" is not a breezy read. But with a bit of effort, the studious reader can gain a valuable glimpse into presidential politics and the psychological burden of being a world leader.