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

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

by Julian E. Zelizer


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

A majestic, big-picture account of the Great Society and the forces that shaped it
Between November 1962, when he became president, and November 1966, when his party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded the most transformative agenda in American politics since the New Deal. In just three years, he drove the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the War on Poverty, and Medicare and Medicaid, among a raft of other progressive initiatives. Dubbed the Great Society, it was an agenda whose ambition and achievement have never been matched, and it remains largely intact fifty years on. In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian E. Zelizer takes the full measure of the story in all its epic sweep. He provides unprecedented insight into the battles that raged inside Congress and the administration, and examines the often bitterly divided forces at play in the country—from religious groups and civil rights activists to labor unions and the media—during the tumultuous years when our political sights were set on the ideal of a Great Society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143128014
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/22/2015
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 787,449
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at New America. He is the author of numerous books on U.S. political history, including Jimmy CarterArsenal of Democracy, and Governing America.

Read an Excerpt

Lyndon Johnson hated being vice president. He was at heart a legislator who had been relegated to the sidelines of legislation. For almost three years he had watched John F. Kennedy fumble most of the big domestic issues of the day, either because the president was unwilling to take on the toughest challenges of the moment, or because he was too afraid of the political fallout, or because he knew he lacked the ability to win the legislative battles he faced on Capitol Hill. At the time of Kennedy’s death, most of his major domestic initiatives—including civil rights, a tax cut, federal assistance for education, and hospital insurance for the elderly—were stalled in Congress or had not yet been introduced there. Kennedy and his advisers had made a conscious decision to keep Lyndon Johnson out of their inner circle, despite his extensive experience on Capitol Hill, for fear that his well-known thirst for power would cause problems for the president.

At 4:00 a.m. on November 23, 1963, the day after Kennedy’s assassination gave him the presidency, Johnson reclined on his bed, his top advisers arrayed around him for an impromptu meeting. He mapped out a grand vision for his team. The new president told Jack Valenti, Bill Moyers, and Cliff Carter, with “relish and resolve,” according to Valenti, “I’m going to get Kennedy’s tax cut out of the Senate Finance Committee, and we’re going to get this economy humming again. Then I’m going to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which has been hung up too long in the Congress. And I’m going to pass it without changing a single comma or a word. After that we’ll pass legislation that allows everyone anywhere in this country to vote, with all the barriers down. And that’s not all. We’re going to get a law that says every boy and girl in this country, no matter how poor, or the color of their skin, or the region they come from, is going to be able to get all the education they can take by loan, scholarship, or grant, right from the federal government.” After pausing to catch his breath, almost as if exhausted by his own ambitions, the president concluded, “And I aim to pass Harry Truman’s medical insurance bill that got nowhere before.”

Jack Valenti’s recollection of that moment perfectly portrays the Lyndon Johnson who had suddenly become the nation’s leader. He was a creature of Congress, a legislator by character and long experience, who was determined to push through a transformative body of laws that would constitute nothing less than a second New Deal.


Excerpted from "The Fierce Urgency of Now"
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Copyright © 2015 Julian E. Zelizer.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Challenges of a Liberal Presidency 1

Chapter 2 Deadlocked Democracy 11

Chapter 3 New President, Same Old Congress 61

Chapter 4 Legislating Civil Rights 85

Chapter 5 How Barry Goldwater Built the Great Society 131

Chapter 6 The Fabulous Eighty-Ninth Congress 163

Chapter 7 Congressional Conservatism Revived 225

Chapter 8 The Triumph of Austerity Politics 263

Chapter 9 The Endurance of the Great Society 303

Acknowledgments 325

Notes 329

Illustration Credits 355

Index 357

What People are Saying About This

author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time - Ira Katznelson

With dramatic flair, Julian Zelizer's deft pen illuminates how, against odds, the Great Society became possible when a Texan president broke the South's logjam on civil rights. Written by a rare historian who gives Congress its due, this incisive account of lawmaking during the short-lived liberal moment of the mid-1960s creatively embeds the play of legislative affairs within large and demanding features of American politics and society. The legacy, he shows, has been profound.

From the Publisher

Sam Tanenhaus, The New Yorker
The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian E. Zelizer’s account of wins and losses in the Johnson years, combines history with political science, as befits our data-happy moment. The information comes at us steadily—there are useful facts on almost every page…The emphasis falls instead on the high, and sometimes low, workings of legislative government …This patient no-frills approach offers illuminations that a more cinematic treatment might not. And if Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, at times betrays the head-counting instincts of a House whip, well, head-counting is the nuts and bolts of congressional lawmaking.”

The Washington Post
“Insightful…Zelizer briskly dispels nostalgia for a time when politics were supposedly easier, asserting that ‘this period of liberalism was much more fragile, contested, and transitory than we have usually remembered.’…[Zelizer’s] fundamental point is that it’s always a struggle to enact bold legislation, which becomes possible in historical moments created by much broader forces than the political genius of a few individuals….[An] intelligent, informative book.”

Chicago Tribune:  
“[An] authoritative new history…Although The Fierce Urgency of Now expertly illustrates both the breadth and the limitations of presidential power, Zelizer resists telling the story of the Great Society as Johnson’s biography. History doesn't always come in the form of a tight narrative with a compelling hero, and it doesn't here.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Political context does, indeed, matter. And the Democratic landslide of 1964, which brought to Washington the most liberal class of elected officials in decades, clearly greased the wheels for Mr. Johnson’s Great Society.… The lesson Lyndon Johnson had learned… should command the attention of all ‘president-centric’ historians — and the political pundits who think that Barack Obama can break the partisan gridlock in Congress by simply emulating the ‘treatment’ employed by our nation’s 36th president.”

A sort-of-liberal president faces an intransigent, obstructionist Congress: We mean Lyndon Johnson, of course, and the class of 1966. Zelizer, a lucid writer, doesn't need to cherry-pick to line up parallels with today…A smart, provocative study.”

Publishers Weekly
“Zelizer paints Johnson as a flawed—opportunistic, domineering, ambitious—yet impressive leader, who took advantage of a perfect storm of legislative and governmental conditions to push through an unprecedented number of projects and achievements; a president who gambled greatly while his party and a liberal majority were in ascendancy and won accordingly…His focus on the conflict between conservative and liberal factions is even more timely in today’s climate. Zelizer writes with an expert’s deep understanding of the subject.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Way - Robert Schenkkan

In this astonishing book, Julian Zelizer takes this extraordinarily important but immensely complicated time in American history and makes it both clear and wildly entertaining. Here were political titans battling not just over legislation but literally to remake America, and at the heart of it all, was the charismatic, contradictory Lyndon Baines Johnson. In his superb re-visiting of the Johnson Presidency, Zelizer demolishes old myths and gives us new insights into this turbulent past which has so sharply defined our present day.

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