The Not-So-Great Society

The Not-So-Great Society

We can appreciate the positive changes LBJ’s Great Society programs brought about without downplaying their weaknesses in conception and execution.

Lyndon B. Johnson speaks at a televised press conference, 1967 (LBJ Library and Museum)

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society
by Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin Press, 2015, 384 pp.

It was in the White House swimming pool in early April 1964, presidential speechwriter and policy advisor Richard Goodwin recalled, that a naked Lyndon B. Johnson made known to his equally naked aides, Goodwin and Bill Moyers, his intention to remake American politics. Picking up the Kennedy program and doing a better job with it was “not enough,” Johnson declared while swimming. “We’ve got to use the Kennedy program as a springboard to take on the Congress, summon the states to new heights, create a Johnson program, different in tone, fighting and aggressive.” Assigned the task of assembling a “Johnson program,” Goodwin believed he had a “mandate” to generate not a laundry list of potential programs but a “concept, an assertion of purpose, a vision, if you will, that went beyond the liberal tradition of the New Deal.” It would be a “statement of national purpose, almost prophetic in dimension, that would bind citizens in a ‘great experiment.’”

He also provided it, inadvertently, with a name. In Goodwin’s telling, the “somewhat grandiloquent phrase ‘Great Society’ was not initially contrived as a summarizing caption for the Johnson administration.” Rather, it was “little more than a fragment of rhetorical stuffing” in a speech he had prepared for “a relatively trivial occasion.” But when Johnson latched onto the phrase, the press took notice. Great Society became the “embryonic” program’s name.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which deeply inspired Johnson, the Great Society has been the subject of relatively few stand-alone studies. The social movements of the 1960s, particularly those engaged in civil rights, have attracted much of the attention, as has the Vietnam War. Political historian Julian Zelizer subsumes both subjects into his account of the “battle for the Great Society,” for the accomplishments of the former—at least at the legislative level—were central to Johnson’s vision, and the latter contributed to the conservative revival that eventually stymied it. Zelizer is a fan of what Johnson, Congress, and social movements managed to bring about in a short period of time. As a whole, Great Society programs “constituted nothing short of a dramatic transformation of American government that provided a new foundation of security for all Americans” and, in the process, they “improved the lives of millions of citizens.”

Zelizer’s interest is less in defending—or even exploring—the diverse array of programs that made up the Great Society than in demonstrating how, precisely, they came to be enacted into law. He shows us in abundant and convincing detail that enacting them into law was no simple task. That point is worth underscoring, he believes, for (unnamed) historians...