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Building the Great Society

Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House

by Joshua Zeitz

Hardcover, 400 pages, Viking , List Price: $30 |


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Building the Great Society
Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House
Joshua Zeitz

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Book Summary

The author of Lincoln's Boys presents an analysis of the Johnson administration that reveals how the legendary Great Society programs were actually put into practice, profiling major figures in the liberal reforms of the 1960s while warning readers of the consequences of dismantling at-risk programs ranging from Medicare to Head Start.

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Excerpt: Building The Great Society

Chapter 1

Put the Ball Through the Hoop

Seated behind his desk in the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson appeared pensive and subdued when, on the evening of Thursday, November 28, 1963, he delivered brief remarks to the nation. It was 6:15, and LBJ was only in the sixth full day of his presidency. "Tonight, on this Thanksgiving, I come before you to ask your help, to ask your strength, to ask your prayers that God may guard this Republic and guide my every labor," he began. "All of us have lived through 7 days that none of us will ever forget. We are not given the divine wisdom to answer why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be, what is to be for America, for the world, for the cause we lead, for all the hopes that live in our hearts." Reading with deliberate care from a prepared text, the president acknowledged what was surely on every American's mind: "A great leader is dead; a great Nation must move on. Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose."

The day before, LBJ had delivered his first speech before a joint session of Congress-a solemn and widely acclaimed address in which the new president pledged to pick up the mantle from John F. Kennedy and secure passage of the New Frontier's sweeping but stalled policy agenda, including a major tax cut that Kennedy's advisers believed would stimulate the economy; aid to primary and secondary education; and hospital care for seniors. Dozens of LBJ's former colleagues from Dixie sat in stone-cold silence as Johnson affirmed to stirring applause that "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law."

Now, on Thanksgiving, Johnson doubled down, asking his countrymen to join him in prayer "for His divine wisdom in banishing from our land any injustice or intolerance or oppression to any of our fellow Americans whatever their opinion, whatever the color of their skins—for God made all of us, not some of us, in His image. All of us, not just some of us, are His children."

For most Americans, Thanksgiving week marked the start of the holiday season. For Lyndon Johnson, it signaled the beginning of an intense, yearlong sprint to prove that he could break the logjam, achieve the New Frontier, and surpass it beyond even the wildest expectations of John Kennedy's supporters. It would be no easy lift.

"I think the Congress looks more powerful sitting here than it did when I was there in the Congress," Kennedy remarked roughly a year before his death. For well over two decades, a coalition of conservative southern Democrats and northern Republicans had stymied the expansion of domestic policies first established during the New Deal era. In the Senate, an institution that the journalist William White once dubbed "the South's unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg," conservatives made frequent use of the filibuster to prevent social welfare and civil rights legislation from coming to a vote, while in the House powerful southerners kept such measures forever bottled up in committee. Now, in a sharp rebuke to Kennedy's promise of dynamic action and national rejuvenation, the conservative coalition had all but ground the government to a halt. Not only did the House and the Senate refuse to take up key New Frontier measures. They also refused to pass eight of twelve routine appropriations bills, thus leaving whole parts of the government unfunded and operating on a continuing resolution that set spending at the previous year's levels.

Congressional Quarterly deemed the state of affairs "unprecedented," while Walter Lippmann, the dean of American journalism, bemoaned the "scandal of drift and inefficiency" that had beset Washington. "This Congress has gone further than any other within memory to replace debate and decision by delay and stultification. This is one of those moments when there is reason to wonder whether the congressional system as it now operates is not a grave danger to the Republic." Yet as Harry Truman famously asserted, the buck stopped with the president. A week before Kennedy's assassination, the columnist James Reston noted "a vague feeling of doubt and disappointment about President Kennedy's first term. . . . He has touched the intellect of the country, but not its heart. He has informed but not inspired the nation. He is the most popular figure, but he has been lucky in his competition. . . . [H]is problem is probably not how to get elected but how to govern."

Such was the state of affairs when Lyndon Johnson entered the White House.

LBJ first came to Washington as a young congressional staff member in the early 1930s before returning to Texas in 1935 to serve as state director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a marquee New Deal jobs project. Two years later, and against all odds, he won a special election to Congress at age twenty-eight. An ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson established a more liberal voting record than most southern Democrats with whom he served in the House. Though he consistently opposed legislation to abolish the poll tax and to make lynching a federal crime, he joined northern Democrats in supporting expanded rights for organized labor, greater administrative oversight of business and industry, and funding for public works. Notably, he continued to do so long after most of his southern Democratic colleagues forged an informal alliance with northern Republicans to oppose the Roosevelt administration. On the strength of his New Deal credentials, FDR strongly backed Johnson in a special election to fill an unexpired Senate seat in 1941. LBJ most likely won the primary (in Texas, as throughout the South, the only vote that mattered), but party rivals stole it from him in a brazen display of election-night ballot fraud. Though in the coming years he aligned himself more closely with his state's oil and gas interests, when he ran a second time for the Senate in 1948, Johnson was once again recognized as the liberal option. After achieving a razor-thin primary victory over the conservative former governor Coke Stevenson-this time, it was likely LBJs allies who stole the election-Johnson drifted rightward during his two terms in the Senate, in part out of recognition that Texas was moving strongly in that direction and in part to curry favor with the chamber's powerful southern chairmen, most notably Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia. Johnson delivered his maiden floor speech in opposition to civil rights, turned against former New Deal allies who now stood accused of communist loyalty, and, in his time as Democratic leader after 1953, cooperated closely with the Eisenhower administration. Many of the liberals in his caucus came to despise LBJ, particularly after he neutered their civil rights bill in 1957. They correctly perceived that he wanted to pass a weak bill in order to make his prospective presidential candidacy in 1960 palatable to northern Democrats but unobjectionable to his fellow southerners. On the day that he assumed office, very few people knew what to make of Lyndon Johnson. Was he simply a pragmatist who, deep in his heart, remained an ardent New Dealer? Or was he a southern conservative who would betray John Kennedy's unfinished legacy?

If Johnson's belief system was a matter of wide speculation, few observers doubted his keen understanding of Congress. LBJ knew that conservative Democrats, in loose cooperation with Republicans, had willfully manufactured a bottleneck of important legislation to form a bulwark against Kennedy's civil rights bill. Only when liberals capitulated and withdrew the Civil Rights Act would southern Democrats consent to bring Kennedy's tax stimulus to a vote and fund the many government initiatives-including bridges, highways, post offices, and defense projects-that their more liberal and moderate colleagues hoped to deliver to hometown constituents. Johnson knew the playbook because, as a freshman senator, he had helped to write it. As long as conservatives could hold the government hostage, much as they had in 1949, when they successfully fought back Harry Truman's civil rights agenda, they could forestall consideration of Kennedy's New Frontier agenda, including civil rights legislation that lay dying on the Hill.

It took LBJ less than a day to spring into action. In a series of phone calls before and after Thanksgiving 1963, the new president highlighted the imperative of using his political capital to clear the logjam; then, and only then, would members of Congress feel at liberty to bring civil rights and other New Frontier measures to a vote. In the meantime, however, he would keep up the pressure. On Saturday, November 30—just over a week after assuming the presidency—LBJ asked the former Treasury secretary Robert Anderson, a Republican and outspoken fiscal conservative, to intervene with Howard Smith, the chairman of the Rules Committee, which had broad authority to prevent legislation from proceeding to the House floor. Johnson reminded Anderson that "this country is not in any condition to take that kind of stuff . . . and that's going to hurt our people. And it's going to hurt the conservatives." Anderson agreed to speak with Smith and to convey the president's willingness to support a seldom-used measure—a discharge petition—to bypass Smith's committee altogether and bring the legislation directly to the full House.

Playing the other side just as artfully, Johnson placed a call to Dave McDonald, the president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and a member in good standing of the liberal coalition. "They've got to petition it out," the president instructed. "That means we got to get 219. We'll start at about 150 Democrats; that means we got to get 60, 70 Republicans." The president spoke with the passion of a true believer ("we've been talking about this for 100 years. And they won't give us a hearing on this thing, so we got to do something about it") and implored McDonald to fire up his union's formidable lobbying operation—not only to support the discharge petition in the House, but also to move the tax and appropriations bills through committee.

Before and after the Thanksgiving holiday, Johnson repeated these conversations time and again, at once lining up support for a discharge petition in the House while affirming the need to clear the logjam of tax and spending bills before making a final push on civil rights in the Senate. Among those who understood the president's strategy was Senator George Smathers, a conservative Democrat from Florida who ultimately opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but who represented a faction of the southern caucus that was disinclined to grind all government to a halt indefinitely over civil rights. The "sooner we can get a civil rights bill over with," he told Johnson, "get that part of it ended and out of the way, the better off the South's going to be, and the better off the North's going to be, and the better off everybody's going to be. And they wouldn't hide behind the tax bill—and hide behind a lot of other bills, just on the pretense of being against them when the real fact is they're against the civil rights bill."

Without prompting—and without the knowledge that LBJ had been making a similar case to his economic advisers for several days—Smathers suggested that the president make a concerted effort to woo Harry F. Byrd, the deeply conservative chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. If Johnson were willing to indulge Byrd's obsession with fiscal discipline and bring the 1964-1965 federal budget under $100 billion, then the chairman might allow the tax cut to clear through his committee. "Wish you'd feel Byrd out," LBJ agreed, "and give me a pretty good, full report." Unknowingly, George Smathers would help set in motion a chain of events whose consequences would be far reaching.

The strategy that Lyndon Johnson developed in the first week of his presidency had a profound but highly calculated effect. The pressure that his supporters placed on Howard Smith—and the chairman's realization that a discharge petition, if successful, would permanently undermine his authority—persuaded the cantankerous Virginian to allow the Civil Rights Act to reach the House floor. Beginning with outreach from Smathers, LBJ simultaneously courted Harry Byrd until the patrician senator effectively agreed to swap budget cuts for a tax stimulus. With major economic legislation now cleared through Congress, the president had paved the way for passage of long-awaited civil rights legislation.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, some of Johnson's advisers cautioned him that presidents should not spend valuable capital on hopeless causes. "Well," he purportedly replied, "what the hell's the presidency for?"

LBJ ultimately brought his budget under $100 billion, pushed Kennedy's tax cut through Congress, and secured passage of the Civil Rights Act-all by late June 1964. He accomplished these measures while also declaring an "unconditional war on poverty" and creating the blueprint for the Great Society—the most ambitious domestic agenda since the New Deal. Though LBJ's early success owed in part to his mastery of legislative strategy, equally fundamental were efforts by advocacy groups-religious and lay alike-on behalf of civil rights and social justice legislation. Above all, Johnson benefited from a deep well of public support in the wake of Kennedy's assassination. The president's approval ratings, which fluctuated between 70 percent and 77 percent throughout the spring, owed at least as much to the country's determination to lock arms with its new leader as to LBJ's policy and political triumphs.

Unlike most of his predecessors, LBJ did not enjoy the benefit of a transition period to build the team that would help him, in turn, build his vision. Instead, he had little choice but to improvise on the spot—to pull a trusted friend like Jack Valenti along with him to the White House or entreat old hands from his House and Senate days to join him on a new and unfamiliar journey. These handicaps notwithstanding, in that first year of seemingly unrestrained activity and accomplishment—from the time of Kennedy's death to his own election to the presidency in late 1964—Johnson assembled an ad hoc staff that defied the expectations of even the most cynical Washington hands. They were a "coalition government" of Kennedy and Johnson men—a "strange amalgam of Austin and Boston, of cool, brainy Easterners and shrewd, folksy Texans, of men who had always been fiercely loyal to him and men who had fought and belittled him before the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic convention," according to Charles Roberts, who covered the White House for Newsweek. "It is some kind of tribute to Isaiah and the LBJ Way that the transition went as smoothly as it did."