The Fierce Urgency of Now (Hardcover)
Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society
Penguin Press, 9781594204340, 384pp.
Publication Date: January 8, 2015
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Between November 1963, when he becamepresident, and November 1966, when his party wasrouted in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnsonspearheaded the most transformative agenda inAmerican political history since the New Deal, one whose ambition and achievement have had noparallel since. In just three years, Johnson drovethe passage of the Civil Rights and Voting RightsActs; the War on Poverty program; Medicareand Medicaid; the National Endowments for theArts and the Humanities; Public Broadcasting;immigration liberalization; a raft of consumer andenvironmental protection acts; and major federalinvestments in public transportation. Collectively, this group of achievements was labeled by Johnsonand his team the Great Society.
In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian E. Zelizer takesthe full measure of the entire story in all its epicsweep. Before Johnson, Kennedy tried and failedto achieve many of these advances. Our practicedunderstanding is that this was an unprecedented liberal hour in America, a moment, afterKennedy's death, when the seas parted andJohnson could simply stroll through to victory.As Zelizer shows, this view is off-base: In manyrespects America was even more conservative thanit seems now, and Johnson's legislative programfaced bitter resistance. The Fierce Urgency of Nowanimates the full spectrum of forces at play duringthese turbulent years, including religious groups, the media, conservative and liberal political actiongroups, unions, and civil rights activists.
Above all, the great character in the bookwhose role rivals Johnson's is Congress indeed, Zelizer argues that our understanding of theGreat Society program is too Johnson-centric. Hediscusses why Congress was so receptive to passingthese ideas in a remarkably short span of time andhow the election of 1964 and burgeoning civil rightsmovement transformed conditions on CapitolHill. Zelizer brings a deep, intimate knowledge ofthe institution to bear on his story: The book is amaster class in American political grand strategy.
Finally, Zelizer reckons with the legacy of theGreat Society. Though our politics have changed, the heart of the Great Society legislation remainsintact fifty years later. In fact, he argues, the GreatSociety shifted the American political center ofgravity and our social landscape decisivelyto the left in many crucial respects. In a very realsense, we are living today in the country thatJohnson and his Congress made.