Historian examines lbj’s role in crafting the great society
Almost all of us know lyndon baines johnson was responsible for the great society changes while serving as us president but most of us by now have forgotten how extensive those reforms were. author julian e. zelizer in his new book “the fierce urgency of now: lyndon johnson, congress and the battle for the great society.” personally i had forgotten that we have lbj to thank for the passage of medicare and medicaid. most of us will remember that the great society reforms included the civil rights act, the voting rights act and the war on poverty. but lbj’s great society also included the national endowment for the arts and humanities, public broadcasting, important environmental protection legislation, immigration liberalization, and major spending for public transit. many of these programs jfk had tried to achieve during his presidency but failed. so why did johnson succeed where kennedy could not. historian zelizer examines the forces at working the white house and congress that made these changes possible as well as the interplay of civil rights activists, unions, pacs, religious groups, and the media. in his analysis, zelizer says that among many too much credit is given to johnson and not enough to congress which was very receptive to reform during when the great society was launched. he points out that the election of 1964 not only sent lbj to the white house but produced the most liberal congress since the democratic landslide of 1936 when fdr reigned in dc. on this point the author says: “we’ve been enamored with executive power and presidential power for some time. some of that comes out of the rhetoric that presidents use, and some of that comes out of the popular culture where there’s a total focus on the person in the white house. i like presidential biographies and i learn a lot from them, but i think they seriously overemphasize what the president is able to do or even was a president is responsible for.” zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at princeton, has written books on wilbur mills’s role in taxation as well as books on congressional reform, jimmy carter, and ronald reagan and is working on a book about george w. bush. he also has a weekly column on cnn.com. this background has helped the author write a fascinating account of one of the most important political periods in our nation’s history and a thoughtful explanation of how these reforms came about and the epoch forces at work that led to american taking two giant steps forward, and then another and another.