The civil rights laws and social programs initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s transformed U.S. society. Although they were highly controversial at the time, laws establishing Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, help to those in poverty, consumer and environmental protection, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and many other programs remain in place today. Though President John F. Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation shortly before his death, it was his successor, Johnson, who was able to get the legislation passed and move on to other aspects of what became known as the Great Society. Most of the credit for the achievements has gone to Johnson, who is lauded for his vision and the “political magic” he perfected as majority leader in the Senate. Historian Julian E. Zelizer acknowledges that LBJ‘s political acumen was essential to the legislative successes, but his enlightening new book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, offers a brilliantly documented and nuanced look at the many other people and factors that led to the passing of the Great Society legislation. The title of the book is taken from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
The author deftly explores two myths that have often distorted the history of the period. The first is that the 1960s was the apex of American liberalism. It was not. Even in the 1930s, New Deal legislation was compromised as Congress was dominated by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans who rejected liberalism. This continued to be the case going forward. The major difference in 1964-65 was the makeup of Congress that included, for a very short period, huge liberal majorities and bipartisan cooperation. In 1966, LBJ noted, “I am willing to let any objective historian look at my record. . . . FDR passed five major bills in the first 100 days. We passed 200 in the last two years. It is unbelievable.”
The second myth concerns Johnson’s use of presidential power. As president, he had to rely on legislators to do much of the work he used to do himself. LBJ once said, “The only power I’ve got is nuclear . . . and I can’t use that.” Despite his carefully planned strategy with Congressional leaders, at times even LBJ was surprised at developments in Congress. Another part of the picture is the decision he made in 1964-65 to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He felt that a liberal Democratic president had to be a hawk on foreign policy to be successful. But eventually he was caught between liberals who supported his domestic policies but opposed the war and conservatives who did not like his domestic policies while at the same time felt he was not doing enough to defeat communism abroad. Protests against the war and a budget crisis made it clear that the nation could not have both guns and butter.
Zelizer’s authoritative account of the era’s political landscape never slows down. It is particularly strong as he writes of the debates and strategic and tactical maneuvers by the administration and legislators of both parties. His portraits of powerful political players such as Howard Smith of Virginia and Carl Perkins of Kentucky in the House and James Eastland of Mississippi and Everett Dirksen in the Senate are vivid and insightful. Johnson benefited greatly from public pressure that led to passage of the 1964 civil rights bill and election victories in the fall. His years in Congress had taught him that when you have power, the best move is to maximize your advantages. On the day after he was elected in 1964, Johnson was on the phone helping to make sure that the Democrats took every possible step to capitalize on their election victories.
Anyone who wants to understand how the Great Society legislation came to be and why the heart of it remains intact will want to read this important book.