The Liberal Hour: An Interview with G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot
Mr. Liebers is an HNN intern. This interview was conducted by email.
G. Calvin Mackenzie is The Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of Government at Colby College and author or editor of more than a dozen books. Robert Weisbrot is Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History also at Colby College, and specializes in Modern American history, the Presidency of John F. Kennedy and the Cold War.
(All responses are collaborative efforts between the two authors.)
When was the "liberal hour" and what made that period politically distinct?
The liberal hour crested in the early to mid 1960s, during the last year of John Kennedy’s presidency and the first years of Lyndon Johnson’s. The liberal hour witnessed a rush of social legislation that included two sweeping civil rights laws, Medicare and Medicaid, Aid to Education, tougher environmental regulations, the War on Poverty, and much else. It coincided, too, with the ongoing iconoclasm of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, which expanded individual rights for even the most marginal members of society.
Does your political approach to the era accommodate social and cultural historians who have spilled ample ink on the influence of the 60s counterculture? Do you think there is a mythic quality about those involved in the counterculture that obscures truth-seeking?
We share the view of cultural historians, to a point. We believe that the 60s counterculture contributed to an emphasis on pluralism and individual rights that reinforced reform causes. But we believe that political officials, in conjunction with a range of experts, intellectuals, and journalists, provided the decisive engine of change in public policy whose effects are with us still.
The sweeping legislative agenda pushed by Kennedy and Johnson, though successful to an extent, failed to completely live up to its promise. Was there a political consequence that the liberals paid for extending government as they did?
They paid dearly, not alone for failing to live up to expectations but for raising expectations to a level beyond anyone’s ability to fulfill. President Johnson, for example, did not simply inaugurate anti-poverty programs. Rather he declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” The inevitable disillusionment when the promised Utopia failed to materialize tended to discredit much more than individual programs. It made government planning, funding, and regulation suspect, a mindset exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s insistence in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.”
One question that comes out of this book is the nature of social change and how it proceeds. Political Historian Jeremi Suri suggests that an analysis of social movements, international political forces and intellectual trends all play a role in policy making. Does he have a point, or does social change usually represent political opportunism?
Opportunism is a constant of human nature, but it unfolds politically in a context of social movements, international forces, and intellectual trends. Consider the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. President Kennedy called for a sweeping bill in 1963, at a point when his sense of crisis at last outweighed his persistent caution. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, understood that passage of Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill was essential to his own reputation among liberals. “Without this,” he added in a postscript on the political stakes, “I’d be dead before I could even begin.” Johnson’s ability to court Republican as well as Democratic legislators, slathering some with flattery and others with pork, crucially stoked the bill’s momentum. Charting this political opportunism still leaves ample room to recognize the vital role played by black protesters and their white allies in awakening the nation to the evils of segregation and the horrors of violent repression. One can acknowledge, too, how international pressures quickened national resolve to end Jim Crow. Demands for black rights gained force as competition with the Soviet Union for the favor of emerging nonwhite nations made racism a damaging embarrassment for a people claiming to represent democratic values of freedom and equality. The preoccupations of the Cold War thus spurred Americans to achieve at home the ideal of liberty on which it based its assertions of moral superiority abroad. Not least, contemporary scholarship (Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma) and literature (James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time) consistently conveyed that America’s supreme challenge was to purge its centuries-old racist heritage and embrace fully the American creed of equal rights and opportunity.
Is there one story in particular that you would like to share with the readers that you came across during your research that surprised or entertained you?
When I began this project, I “knew” that Lyndon Johnson, for all his legislative wizardry, was a comparative simpleton in foreign affairs, prone to bluster, dogmatic in supporting anti-Communist intervention, inclined toward military solutions, and lacking Kennedy’s restraint, sense of nuance, and openness toward dissent. But after reading Johnson’s private remarks in such volumes as Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, both edited by Michael Beschloss, I was astonished by the depth and persistence of Johnson’s feeling against intervention in Vietnam, going back to the first months of his presidency. Johnson was responsible for a tragedy in Vietnam, but he generally moved in concert with expert and public opinion in committing grudgingly, by anguished stages, to an air war in 1964 and a ground war in 1965.
The enterprise of coauthoring a book seems daunting. Do your views on the subject lineup pretty neatly?
The key was that our approach aligned neatly. Our abiding concern was to pass muster with each other on facts and logic, and this made for a fruitful collaboration regardless of our respective beliefs at the inception of the project.
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