Friday, May 15, 2015

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle For the Great Society
by Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin Press. 2015 370 pp. Non-fiction

In the legislative session immediately following the landslide election of 1964, Congress enacted a slew of legislation in order to advance LBJ's Great Society program, ending years of political stalemate and obstruction. Looking back, this achievement is often ascribed to the towering personalities of the time, President Johnson most of all. In this book, the author takes to task our flawed historical memories of these events and attempts to consider politics in a more realistic light. Instead of focusing on individuals, their particular gifts of persuasion, such as Johnson's infamous Treatment, or nebulous attributes such as leadership, the author contends that the political climate and landscape were much more influential in getting Great Society legislation enacted. It was not so much Johnson's leadership and mastery of the legislative process that got his agenda passed as the overwhelming size of the liberal majority in Congress, the crushing defeat of Goldwater and public pressure applied by civil rights groups and the media. When political fortunes turned and the conservatives regained much of their losses in the 1966 midterms, the liberal agenda faltered accordingly. There is an implicit comparison to the Obama administration and his critics who complain that the persistent political deadlock and partisan vituperation are due to the president's inability or unwillingness to reach across the aisle, demonstrate leadership, etc. Individuals matter and each person's gifts and foibles play their role, but success or failure of any political agenda are determined by circumstances and the relative strength of the political coalition pursuing that agenda.


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