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The Penguin Press



The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society

Edited by Scott Moyers

A majestic big-picture account of the Great Society and the forces that shaped it, from Lyndon Johnson and members of Congress to the civil rights movement and the media.

Between November 1963, when he became president, and November 1966, when his party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded the most transformative agenda in American political history since the New Deal, one whose ambition and achievement have had no parallel since. In just three years, Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; the War on Poverty program; Medicare and Medicaid; the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities; Public Broadcasting; immigration liberalization; a raft of consumer and environmental protection acts; and major federal investments in public transportation. Collectively, this group of achievements was labeled by Johnson and his team the “Great Society.”

In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian Zelizer takes the full measure of the entire story in all its epic sweep. Before Johnson, Kennedy tried and failed to achieve many of these advances. Our practiced understanding is that this was an unprecedented “liberal hour” in America, a moment, after Kennedy’s death, when the seas parted and Johnson could simply stroll through to victory. As Zelizer shows, this view is off-base: In many respects America was even more conservative than it seems now, and Johnson’s legislative program faced bitter resistance.

The Fierce Urgency of Now animates the full spectrum of forces at play during these turbulent years, including religious groups, the media, conservative and liberal political action groups, unions, and civil rights activists.

Above all, the great character in the book whose role rivals Johnson’s is Congress—indeed, Zelizer argues that our understanding of the Great Society program is too Johnson-centric. He discusses why Congress was so receptive to passing these ideas in a remarkably short span of time and how the election of 1964 and burgeoning civil rights movement transformed conditions on Capitol Hill. Zelizer brings a deep, intimate knowledge of the institution to bear on his story: The book is a master class in American political grand strategy.

Finally, Zelizer reckons with the legacy of the Great Society. Though our politics have changed, the heart of the Great Society legislation remains intact fifty years later. In fact, he argues, the Great Society shifted the American political center of gravity—and our social landscape—decisively to the left in many crucial respects. In a very real sense, we are living today in the country that Johnson and his Congress made.



The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian E. Zelizer’s account of wins and losses in the Johnson years, combines history with political science, as befits our data-happy moment. The information comes at us steadily—there are useful facts on almost every page…The emphasis falls instead on the high, and sometimes low, workings of legislative government …This patient no-frills approach offers illuminations that a more cinematic treatment might not. And if Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, at times betrays the head-counting instincts of a House whip, well, head-counting is the nuts and bolts of congressional lawmaking.”Sam Tanenhaus, The New Yorker

“Insightful…Zelizer briskly dispels nostalgia for a time when politics were supposedly easier, asserting that ‘this period of liberalism was much more fragile, contested, and transitory than we have usually remembered.’…[Zelizer’s] fundamental point is that it’s always a struggle to enact bold legislation, which becomes possible in historical moments created by much broader forces than the political genius of a few individuals….[An] intelligent, informative book.”—Washington Post

“[An] authoritative new history…Although The Fierce Urgency of Now expertly illustrates both the breadth and the limitations of presidential power, Zelizer resists telling the story of the Great Society as Johnson’s biography. History doesn’t always come in the form of a tight narrative with a compelling hero, and it doesn’t here.”Chicago Tribune

“Political context does, indeed, matter. And the Democratic landslide of 1964, which brought to Washington the most liberal class of elected officials in decades, clearly greased the wheels for Mr. Johnson’s Great Society.… The lesson Lyndon Johnson had learned… should command the attention of all ‘president-centric’ historians — and the political pundits who think that Barack Obama can break the partisan gridlock in Congress by simply emulating the ‘treatment’ employed by our nation’s 36th president.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A sort-of-liberal president faces an intransigent, obstructionist Congress: We mean Lyndon Johnson, of course, and the class of 1966. Zelizer, a lucid writer, doesn’t need to cherry-pick to line up parallels with today…A smart, provocative study.”Kirkus

“Zelizer paints Johnson as a flawed—opportunistic, domineering, ambitious—yet impressive leader, who took advantage of a perfect storm of legislative and governmental conditions to push through an unprecedented number of projects and achievements; a president who gambled greatly while his party and a liberal majority were in ascendancy and won accordingly…His focus on the conflict between conservative and liberal factions is even more timely in today’s climate. Zelizer writes with an expert’s deep understanding of the subject.”Publishers Weekly

Author Q&A


Johnson often scoffed at the perception that he had extraordinary human skills that enabled him to move his colleagues. Indeed, he had lost some of his ability to directly shape this process when he moved from Capitol Hill to the White House. As president, he had to rely on legislators to do for him much of the legislative work he had once done for himself. About his power, he once complained, “The only power I’ve got is nuclear . . . and I can’t use that!”

The key to the success of the Great Society had less to do with the popularity of liberalism or the power of Johnson than with the changes between the summer of 1964 and the November elections that created unusually good conditions in Congress for passing bills. In other words, we need a less Johnsoncentric view to understand how this historic burst of liberal domestic legislation happened. We need to ask not only what Lyndon Johnson did that was so special but what legislative conditions existed that allowed someone with Johnson’s skills to succeed.

During this critical period, the power of the conservative coalition was diminished, first by the actions of the civil rights movement, which in 1963 and 1964 placed immense pressure on legislators in both parties to pass laws that would benefit African Americans, and subsequently by the 1964 elections, which gave liberals the huge majorities they needed to prevent conservative committee chairmen from thwarting their domestic policy aims in Congress. Not only did liberal Democrats have the votes necessary to pass bills and kill filibusters, but Republican moderates, a sizable force in their party, were running as fast as they could from all positions that might allow Democrats to brand them as right-wing extremists in the wake of the ultraconservative senator Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in the presidential election.

Johnson deserves his share of credit, but less for being a skilled politician who could steamroll a recalcitrant Congress than for taking advantage of good legislative conditions when they emerged. Moreover, Johnson’s success with domestic programs resulted from a risky political maneuver he undertook in 1964 and 1965 to maintain momentum for his legislation. Resisting all the opposition he faced from White House advisers and legislators, Johnson escalated American involvement in Vietnam. There were many reasons why he ended up listening to the hawks and embarking on a disastrous war, including his general agreement with the domino theory of communism, but one of the most important was a political calculation that a liberal Democratic president had to be hawkish on foreign policy in order to be successful.

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