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LBJ book captures president in full stride

By Steve Kraske

Knight Ridder Newspapers

During his years as president, Lyndon Johnson often awoke in the middle of the night to call the White House command post in the Situation Room.

His purpose in those dark, anxious moments was to learn whether anymore young Americans had died in Vietnam.

"What about our planes -- any of them back -- in Vietnam?" he asked the duty officer at 2 a.m. on May 20, 1965. Told that none of them had returned, LBJ had a request.

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"You let me know if we lose any. Whatever time of night it is."

Yet this was the same president, Michael Beschloss shows in his illuminating new book based on LBJ's secret Oval Office recordings, who recognized early in the Vietnam conflict that he could not win the war, no matter how many soldiers he sent into combat.

"I don't believe they're ever going to quit," Johnson confides to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in mid-1965 about the North Vietnamese. "And I don't see any plan for a victory -- militarily or diplomatically."

Listening to these revelations, even years later, made the hair rise on the back of his neck, Beschloss has said. Readers of "Reaching for Glory" may be struck the same way. Eavesdropping on LBJ's private calls in the weeks and months before he dramatically escalated the war can be an exercise in abject frustration. Johnson fails to heed his own words, and it's maddening.

His wife, Lady Bird, recalls her husband once saying that he faced a choice of a huge death toll or getting out of the war in disgrace.

"It's like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing or jumping out," Johnson said. "And I don't have a parachute."

This is the second of three planned books on Johnson's secret recordings. LBJ is, Beschloss notes, the only president in history to record portions of his administration from the first month to the last. What emerges is a compelling day-to-day portrait of a president in full stride. In 1964-65, LBJ is racing to pass key elements of his "Great Society" program before he begins to sink under the weight of Vietnam.

And Johnson is prescient enough to understand that Vietnam eventually will cripple his presidency.

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Beschloss' first LBJ book, "Taking Charge," published in 1997, was equally successful in documenting the tragic beginning of Johnson's presidency. That book's first conversation is of the new president talking to Rose Kennedy about two hours after her son was assassinated in Dallas. Included in the transcript are the anxious words of White House operators attempting to patch the two together.

It is riveting stuff.

Before his death in 1973 at 64, LBJ had insisted that the tapes remain sealed until 2023. But after Congress in 1992 ordered that all records pertaining to the 1963 Kennedy killing be made public, the director of the LBJ Library went further and made public all the Johnson tapes.

Beschloss, an astute historical commentator often seen on PBS, does an expert job of editing these tapes and providing historical context. He manages this task with an economy of words -- often just a sentence or two -- that gives the reader a quick background for understanding the significance of each conversation.

He had much to work with. LBJ is every bit America's consummate politician, a larger-than-life figure who worked ceaselessly to mold public opinion to fit his own needs.

His emotions run the table. He becomes paranoid as the ravages of Vietnam begin to eat away at his power. He is triumphant as his legislative victories begin to rival those of Franklin Roosevelt's.

Reading the conversations in raw, unfiltered form is gratifying in unexpected ways. LBJ talks and talks and talks. Listening, clearly, is not high on his agenda.

Even though they were unaware of Johnson's secret taping system, most members of LBJ's inner circle come off in a good light. You sense their eagerness to give the president their best advice whether Johnson was listening or not.

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The most sympathetic figure that emerges from these pages is Johnson's wife, who appears in excerpts from her own tape-recorded diary. Lady Bird worries continuously about her husband's health and well-being but draws the line at how far she'll go to protect LBJ from bad news.

In an April 1965 entry, she talked about her husband's standing request to be called any time an American was killed in Vietnam.

"He can't separate himself from it," Lady Bird said at the time. "Actually, I don't want him to, no matter how painful."

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