Saturday, September 27, 2014

Jonathan Darman's "Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America"

Jonathan Darman is a journalist and author who writes about American politics and history. His first book, Landslide: Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, tells the story of a thousand days in the mid-1960s when two iconic presidents transformed the nation’s politics.

Darman is a former political correspondent for Newsweek. He has profiled leading figures in contemporary politics including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Eliot Spitzer and many others.

Darman applied the “Page 99 Test” to Landslide and reported the following:
From page 99:
Shortly after purchasing it for $160,000, the Johnsons rechristened it “The Elms.” “Every time somebody calls it a chateau,” Lyndon growled, “I lose fifty thousand seats back in Texas.”

The press smirked at the Johnsons’ ostentatious ambitions. (“Ormes and the Man” read the headline in Time.) But for Lady Bird, The Elms was a paradise. Free at last to take her time in decorating, she’d added Western accents to Mesta’s French d├ęcor, covering the downstairs in satin and filing the foyer with paintings of Texas landscapes and drawings of Texas birds. In the living room, she placed a cherry-red chair “that seems to say ‘Come in.’”

Her great pleasure was her garden. All her life, she had found special peace in the delicate beauty of flowers and trees. She lined the walkway to the pool with boxed English hollies. She planted zinnias, marigolds, and red, white, and pink petunias in her cutting garden. In the rich soil of Spring Valley, she had finally found a home she could love.

Now the great need of Lyndon and the nation – moving on – would require her to leave that beloved home behind.
On page 99 of  Landslide, we find Lady Bird Johnson standing in The Elms, her grand Washington home, a place that she loves and a place the she must soon leave. The Johnsons moved into the Elms shortly after LBJ became John F. Kennedy’s vice president. For Lady Bird, The Elms, a staggering Norman mansion on a large lot in the Spring Valley section of Washington, is a haven. Over twenty-five years in Washington, she and Lyndon had lived in many places. The Elms was the first one she could truly make into a home of her own. But when Lyndon is thrown into the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lady Bird has to abandon that place of special serenity for good.

One of the great pleasures of researching  Landslide was discovering the true complexity of Lady Bird Johnson. Belittled in her own time as provincial and dowdy in comparison with her glamorous predecessor, Jackie Kennedy, she can be easily dismissed today as a pre-feminist, stand-by-your man political wife, a woman who lived to serve her husband. We see a glimpse of that woman here. Lady Bird loved the Elms, she hated to leave it, but she would never think of complaining or second-guessing the necessity of leaving. For Lady Bird, Lyndon’s needs always came first.

But to view Lady Bird as simply a victim is to miss a key point about her. From a young age, Lady Bird wanted a full, exciting and challenging life and she knew that she would sometimes have to sacrifice comfort and safety to get it. Lyndon’s world of politics, a world of upheaval and risk and excitement, was the world she wanted too. On this page, we see Lady Bird feeling the demands of that life in the most painful form as she contemplates giving up a place she loves in favor of a future that will be difficult and uncertain. But it’s worth it. For Lady Bird, it always was.
Visit Jonathan Darman's website and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue