The Great Tactician LBJ Knew He Would Have Less Than Two Terms to Enact His Great Society Reforms

By Altschuler, Glenn | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 18, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Great Tactician LBJ Knew He Would Have Less Than Two Terms to Enact His Great Society Reforms


Altschuler, Glenn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NOW"

By Julian E. Zelizer

Penguin press ($29.95).

A few months after he became president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson told Bill Moyers, his speech writer and adviser, that he had precious little time to enact his legislative agenda. "In an ideal world," Mr. Johnson explained, a president would have two, four-year terms. "I won't make it that far, of course, so let's assume we have to do it all in 1965 and 1966, and probably in 1966 we'll lose our big margin in Congress. That means in 1967 and 1968 there will be a hell of a fight."

Mr. Johnson got it exactly right. In 1964, '65, and '66 he drove through Congress the most far-reaching set of reforms since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Mr. Johnson's Great Society accomplishments included civil rights and voting rights bills, Medicare and Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Head Start, the War on Poverty, and the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In the 1966 midterm election, the Democratic Party lost seats. And in 1968, Mr. Johnson announced that he would not seek re- election as president. Majority leader of the United States Senate in the 1950s, Mr. Johnson was a masterful legislative tactician.

His command of the rules and the culture of the House and Senate, the strengths, weakness, and hobbyhorses of his colleagues, and his ability to coax, convince, and coerce them to vote his way, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, acknowledges, were crucial in getting so much landmark legislation passed.

That said, Mr. Zelizer maintains that personality and political savvy are not enough to control Congress. In "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society," Mr. Zelizer suggests that Mr. Johnson deserves credit less for steamrolling bills through "a recalcitrant Congress" than for "taking advantage of extremely good legislative conditions when they emerged."

The "liberal hour" during which The Great Society was born, he argues, was characterized by political pressure from progressive grass-roots interest groups and social movements and huge Democratic majorities in the House (295 Democrats and 140 Republicans) and Senate (68 Democrats and 32 Republicans) in 1965 and 1966. …

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