The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s

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An engaging be hind-the-scenes look at the lesser-known forces that fueled the profound social reforms of the 1960s

Provocative and incisive , The Liberal Hour reveals how Washington, so often portrayed as a target of reform in the 1960s, was in fact the era's most effective engine of change. The movements of the 1960s have always drawn the most attention from the decade's chroniclers, but it was in the halls of government-so often the target of protesters' wrath-that the enduring reforms of the era were produced. With nuance and panache, Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot present the real-life characters-from giants like JFK and Johnson to lesser-known senators and congressmen-who drove these reforms and were critical to the passage of key legislation. The Liberal Hour offers an engrossing portrait of this extraordinary moment when more progressive legislation was passed than in almost any other era in American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" This is a terrific and timely book-a riveting narrative of one of the most fascinating decades in American history."
-Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

"A valuable corrective to a lot of hackneyed thinking about the significance of the '60s."
-The New York Times

Barry Gewen
Granted, it's more fun to read about Abbie Hoffman than about Edmund Muskie, but Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Weisbrot have a persuasive case to make, and even if much of their story has been told before, their overall argument is a valuable corrective to a lot of hackneyed thinking about the significance of the '60s.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Mackenzie and Weisbrot (Maximum Danger), professors of government and history respectively at Colby College, provide an insightful and well-argued analysis of the 1960s' social, economic and policy dynamics that opened both the public and the government to great and necessary social legislation. The authors argue that the postwar movement of political power from the cities to the suburbs, the decline of conservative Southern Democrats' power in the party and the confident climate of prosperity facilitated the greatest and most far-reaching federal legislation since the New Deal. Unlike many historians of this period, Weisbrot and Mackenzie, in addition to telling of key civil rights legislation and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, also give due and detailed diligence to environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act, which defined strict rules to ensure federally owned wilderness largely remained wilderness. Throughout, the authors reveal how prosperity and a rare window of real opportunity with Democrats in power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue fueled domestic reform. (July 7)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

From 1963 to 1966, liberalism reigned in the United States, and during this brief time a breathtaking number of laws were passed, creating the enduring legacy of the 1960s, say Mackenzie (government, Colby Coll.; The Politics of Presidential Appointments) and Weisbrot (history, Colby Coll.; Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence). Their informed political history reveals how President Kennedy, a liberal work in progress, and President Johnson, "the most skilled and ingenious legislative leader, perhaps of all time," supported by the 89th and 90th Congresses and by the liberal Warren Court, passed such monumental legislation as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, and new laws to protect the environment and to expand aid to higher education. The authors show that liberalism lost public support when it could not meet its overly optimistic goals of ending poverty, healing the racial divide, and, most significantly, financing and winning the Vietnam War. By 1966, liberalism had run its course; the conservative movement gradually emerged to fill the void. This book provides a balance to the many accounts that view the 1960s as most noted for the counterculture, antiwar protestors, and sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Strongly recommended for larger public and all academic collections.
—Karl Helicher

Kirkus Reviews
The '60s were not just about the shaggy counterculture-as much was accomplished in reshaping the status quo by "the institutions of national politics and the politicians and bureaucrats who inhabited them."So write Mackenzie (Government/Colby Coll.; The Irony of Reform: Roots of American Political Disenchantment, 1996, etc.) and Weisbrot (History/Colby Coll.; Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence, 2001, etc.), who submit that the story of these often faceless civil servants is little known. Yet, they convincingly demonstrate, the '60s afforded perhaps the last time that a liberal government and a liberally inclined voting populace agreed that government could be an agent of change for social good, and that it could both lead the people and follow their will. At the beginning of the decade, note the authors, much of America was locked in a state of racial apartheid, while Dixiecrat segregationists controlled nearly three-quarters of the standing committees in Congress; women scarcely figured in politics, and not a single major corporation had a woman at its head; the environment was a mess; many cities were impoverished and crime-ridden, their white middle-class population having begun to depart for the suburbs en masse. But since the people largely trusted government, it could do something about all these things and, moreover, actually did do something. Mackenzie and Weisbrot trace the shift of political power to younger liberals such as Philip Hart, Eugene McCarthy and Dan Rostenkowski through the workings of the Democratic Study Group, a party within the Democratic Party that "allowed its leaders to . . . galvanize a liberal coalition onsignificant pieces of legislation." So thorough was the shift that Lyndon Johnson would quietly complain that "John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste." During the years 1963-66, the liberals forced significant progress in almost every aspect of American life. Yet, as the authors suggest, it was the failings of the Johnson administration-particularly the Vietnam War-that eventually ended the liberal moment. Apart from a good, sturdy narrative history, there are useful lessons here for political activists and progressives.
The Barnes & Noble Review
A few blocks southwest of the United States Capitol, on a site bounded by Independence Avenue, South Capitol Street, C Street S.W., and First Street S.W., sits the Rayburn Office Building. It is named for Sam Rayburn, the taciturn Texan whom most historians consider the greatest speaker of the House of Representatives to ever serve the institution, and as a sign of respect, it houses an oil painting of Rayburn, a marble sculpture of Rayburn, and a bronze statue of Rayburn. Rayburn deserves the tribute. During the New Deal, he shepherded the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, to passage. He mentored Lyndon Johnson and was close to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it was a small, virtually unknown change he made to the rules of the House that ranks as his greatest accomplishment.

Rayburn would later call the effort to expand the Rules Committee "the worst fight of my life." It was also, as G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot argue in The Liberal Hour, the most important. Without it, the incredible legislative achievements of the 1960s would have been stillborn in the House of Representatives, wrapped in a parliamentary choke hold applied by southern Dixiecrats. The game was as easy as this: Each bill that goes to the House floor requires a "rule" that sets the time allotted for debate and the types of amendments that can be considered. The rule is decided by the Rules Committee in a hearing. And the chairman, Howard Smith, could simply decline to set a hearing date. That didn't kill the bill so much as preventing it from ever enjoying life. "It was a legislature run like an oligarchy," say Mackenzie and Weisbrot.

When John F. Kennedy was elected to office, he summoned Rayburn to Florida to steel the speaker for a simple proposition: expand the Rules Committee. Enlarge it from 12 members to 15 members and stock it such that the forces of progress enjoyed a working majority. The vote was close, and hard, but it was won, and it set the stage for all that followed.

The next few years were some of the most remarkable in American history. They brought us the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. The Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (That's right. You can thank Lyndon Johnson for Julia Child.) They created the country's legislative architecture as we know it. The question is how.

American politics, after all, is not a friendly place for the progressive reformer. We may not be a center-right nation in our attitudes, but we labor under a system of government that is surely conservative in its outcomes. As Mackenzie and Weisbrot argue, "Periods of great policy upheaval are rarities in American history. The American system of governance is by nature conservative. It is a collection of traps and catches designed to hamper majorities, to slow the process of change, to favor the status quo. Most of the time, inertia is the most powerful force in government. Those who succeed change have to succeed at dozens of potential veto points. Those who seek to prevent change usually have to succeed at only one."

But for a single remarkable decade, those who would seek to prevent change couldn't even manage that. Mackenzie and Weisbrot argue that that is what made the '60s such a unique and transformative instant in our nation's history. "The whirligig of protest, counterculture, youthful rebellion, drugs, sex, and rock and roll may have shaped the tone and many of the images of the era. But, in the sharper focus of historical distance, it is now clear that many of the lasting effects of the 1960s had their roots in the liberal agenda and practical politics, mostly legislative policy making." Government worked, in other words, and that meant the sentiments of the moment were woven into the legal fabric of the country.

But if Mackenzie and Weisbrot identify one of the eras oft-neglected heroes -- the legislature -- they don't quite tell a clear story as to how it overcame its inertia and emerged as such a champion. There was the triumph on the Rules Committee, of course, though they don't delve deeply into the drama of that close vote. There was the considerable skill of Lyndon Johnson and his important partnership with Everett Dirksen, the leader of the Senate Republicans. There was the rise of television, "around which a nation gathered to collect its information and observes it politics," and whose capacity to focus public attention on a single agenda nationalized issues that would have been regional, like race and poverty, and regionalized issues that would have been local, like consumer protections and the fog of pollution. There were the social movements that put pressure on the legislators and the Keynesian theories that led experts to advice presidents to spend ever more.

Change, however, is rarely monocausal. It's human and messy and contingent. But it happens, and when viewed in the broad sweep of history, it even happens with a sort of regularity. Towards the book's end, Mackenzie and Weisbrot bring up Arthur Schelsigner's theory that the pattern of American change is best described as a cycle that pairs short bursts of progress with long periods of stasis. "Reform energies build slowly and flower in the short spaces between periods of conservative dominance. Humans cling to sameness. What is natural is consistency, to do this year what one did last year, perhaps with incremental changes...Even when those routines are imperfect, tolerating their imperfections is often easier than trying to change them. But over time, the burdens of imperfection accumulate and fester and then become unbearable. This is the moment when reform pressures build, when the forces of the status quo can no longer defeat them, when change explodes."

If that is an apt description of the chaotic and unpredictable process by which reform occurs, however, it is of relatively little use to those who mean to manufacture it in their own time. It is good to have great men and a ripe moment and ready ideas, of course, but it is hard to know when such an alignment has occurred. Indeed, as Mackenzie and Weisbrot show, it was hard to know that the '60s were such a moment. Kennedy was a comparative newcomer, and Johnson was a southern conservative who'd often opposed civil rights legislation. But the moment beckoned, and the participants proved surprisingly able to harness it. Part of their genius was to realize that if the moment were to turn into an era, then they needed to understand that their enemies were not merely those who preferred the status quo but also the legislative system that was so accustomed to inertia. Modern reformers would do well to absorb the lesson. --Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein is a staff writer at The American Prospect.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143115465
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

G. Calvin Mackenzie is the Goldfarb Family Professor of Government at Colby College, and has written or edited more than a dozen books on American government and public policy. A Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, he holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and was the John Adams Fellow at the Institute for United States Studies in London. He was also a soldier with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam

Robert Weisbrot is the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at Colby College. He is the author of numerous books, including Freedom Bound: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence.

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Table of Contents

The Liberal HourIntroduction
1. America in the Postwar Years
2. Politics and the Liberal Arc
3. The Federal Colossus
4. Free At Last
5. To Protect the Planet
6. The Hour of Maximum Danger
7. A TVA in the Mekong Valley
8. The End of the Liberal Hour
Conclusion: The Durable Decade


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