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Lyndon Johnson: Insights into a complex man

Generous yet hateful, big-hearted yet profane, Lyndon Johnson was among the most fascinating and confounding of US presidents.

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In little more than five years, Lyndon Baines Johnson probably did more to reform and repair American society than anyone else in history. Yet, instead of being memorialized as a hero, LBJ is more often remembered as a slimy manipulator whose good intentions were sunk in the quagmire of a needless war.

But as LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, an outstanding new biography by Randall B. Woods, reminds us, the career and legacy of this extraordinarily complex Texan can hardly be summarized in a sentence.

By turns profane and big-hearted, hateful and generous, wily and paranoid, strong and frail, LBJ faced immense pressure from within and without. Often an outsider, ever on edge, he was one of the most fascinating men to ever live in the White House.

This brick of a book – topping out at 1,007 pages – may be a hard sell. Its heft and intense detail prevent it from being a page-turner, and historians Robert Caro and Robert Dallek have already tackled LBJ's life in masterly biographies of their own. (Mr. Caro' s remarkable four-volume set isn't even finished.)

But the savvy Mr. Woods belongs in their company, thanks to his ability to blend history, politics, and human nature into a coherent and cohesive whole.

In "LBJ," Mr. Johnson comes across as an eternal seeker driven by two sometimes-conflicting goals – gaining respect and attaining social justice.

His commitment started early. As a teacher at the age of 20, LBJ fought for the rights of Mexican students to receive a proper education, forcing colleagues to treat them fairly and without prejudice. Johnson "would use the ideals that underlay the system to defeat the flaws that threatened to corrupt it," Woods writes. "It would become a pattern."

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