Realistic Ambitions

tags: LBJ, Great Society

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is the editor of Dissent. His latest book is War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918.

American liberals might view the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson as a modern version of the Icarus myth. On the wings of huge Democratic majorities in Congress and his own ferocious ambition, LBJ signed into law more extensive and progressive reforms than any president in history save Franklin D. Roosevelt, his quasi-paternal model for mastery both at home and abroad. To mention just the highlights of the Great Society requires a rather lengthy sentence: the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Fair Housing acts; Medicare and Medicaid; federal aid to schools and colleges; a complete overhaul of the discriminatory immigration law; Head Start; environmental protection; creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and public broadcasting—and, perhaps most remarkably, both a vow to abolish poverty and a modest program to launch that utopian mission.

Yet by the fall of 1966, the Great Society was beginning its plummet to earth. Attacks from right and left had cut deeply into Johnson’s popularity, which at the start of his tenure in 1963 had risen as high as 75 percent. The right responded to anti-racist legislation with fears about black crime and militancy, while the left protested vehemently against the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Less than two years later, Johnson, always as insecure as he was aggressive, announced he would not run for reelection in a contest he feared he would lose. Liberals have never soared so high again.

This oft-told story has the power to reassure as well as to demoralize. Fifty years later, one may doubt whether America will ever see a surge of progressive lawmaking like this again. Yet if liberal politicians can stay inside the boundaries of the politically possible and avoid making promises they cannot keep, LBJ’s example suggests, then they have a decent chance of vanquishing the right, if not of utterly transforming American society. But was LBJ’s hubris the main reason the Great Society had such a thrilling rise and such a rapid fall? To explain a historical shift so momentous, one has to look further than the flaws of the individuals who participated in it, to the state of the country and its place in the world.

In his new book, Building the Great Society, Joshua Zeitz is content to refresh the familiar narrative that LBJ’s failures and successes were largely born of personality. What he adds is a tight, mostly admiring focus on the indispensable labors of the talented staffers and advisers who served the president. To a man (and all were male), they were, according to Zeitz, “as pragmatic as Johnson himself—attuned to the workings of political power, skilled in the art of throwing a sharp elbow or building an administrative empire, and hungry for position and prominence.” Some of those he describes—Bill Moyers, Richard Goodwin, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—are known to anyone who cares about the history of the period. Others, like Horace Busby and George Reedy, did just as much to shape legislation and assure its passage but have barely rated a mention in other studies of the Johnson presidency.

Zeitz argues that the neglected figures tended to be realists. Idealists like Moyers and Goodwin wanted to move as far and fast toward creating a racially egalitarian, essentially social-democratic order as the president and Congress would allow. Others, like Busby, who had been at LBJ’s side since his days as a representative from Dixie and then as a risk-averse leader of the Senate, cautioned against making promises, such as ending poverty, that the administration could not possibly deliver. “The politics of the extremes is what the typical American expects you to break away from,” Busby told his boss a month after he became president. “If you can do so, you can broaden the Democratic Party base as it has not been broadened in two decades.” Zeitz credits the sober-minded aide with understanding that a “liberalism grounded in identity politics would be the undoing of the Democratic majority.” As it turned out, broad-based policies such as Medicare and Medicaid did more than the anti-poverty program itself to improve the lives of poor Americans. ...

Read entire article at New Republic