Q&A: "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society"

Jan 07 2015
By B. Rose Huber
Source Woodrow Wilson School

During his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson launched what is now known as "the Great Society," a set of domestic programs and initiatives aimed toward eliminating poverty and racial injustice. Similar in scope to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agenda, the Great Society addressed such national interests as education, medical care, transportation and more.

In only three years, Johnson spearheaded initiatives like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the War on Poverty, Medicare and Medicaid, and more. These achievements live on today, and the heart of the Great Society legislation remains intact nearly fifty years later.

Taking a big-picture view, Professor Julian Zelizer examines the forces that shaped the Great Society – from Johnson himself to members of Congress to the media – in his new book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." We discussed the new book with Zelizer for our Q&A series below.

Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 and professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Q. What made you write this book?

Zelizer: This is one of the most transformative moments in American public policy. I wanted to understand how and why Congress – which is so often dysfunctional – was able to produce such a huge burst of domestic programs and initiatives within a short time such as Medicare and Medicaid, Civil Rights and Voting Rights, Head Start, the War on Poverty, federal education assistance, immigration reform, environmental protections and more. 

Q. What are the key takeaways of your book?

Zelizer: Too often we tend to explain this moment as a product of President Lyndon Johnson's mastery of legislative politics. As Johnson understood, there are tremendous limits to presidential power. The truth was that he enjoyed political conditions – such as a massive civil rights movement and huge liberal majorities on Capitol Hill – 

that allowed him to move bills forward between 1964 and 1966. Activists and voters produced those majorities. At the same time, the window for success was limited and, after the 1966 midterm elections, all of Johnson's political magic didn't do much good. 

Another important lesson is that the 1960s was not a "liberal era." The forces of conservatism were extremely strong, including in Congress, so the puzzle really should be why was anything able to get through during his time in office. 

Q. What are the policy implications?

Zelizer: The most important policy implication is that we can't rely on presidents to produce moments of legislative breakthrough. In general, Congress is often resistant to great policy change. Grass roots activists and voters are the people who have the power to change conditions on Capitol Hill. Another implication is that, within a short window, moments of liberal reform can produce lasting effects that live longer than the coalition which created them. Although the decades that followed Johnson's presidency have been known as the conservative era in Congress, the truth is that most of the Great Society remains intact. 

"The Fierce Urgency of Now" was published in January 2015 by Penguin Books. For more information, click here.

In the News

Below are news clips featuring "The Fierce Urgency of Now."

The New York Times, "The Man or the Moment"

Washington Post, "The power of Lyndon Johnson is a myth"