The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How LBJ’s ideas outlived the political coalitions that achieved them

(Charles Tasnadi/AP Photo)
Placeholder while article actions load

It’s amazing to recall how much was accomplished in the first two years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. There was the bipartisan coalition that produced the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. There was Medicare and Medicaid, dramatic overhaul of American immigration policy, Head Start, Food Stamps, aid to education, and so much more.

The door virtually slammed shut with the 1966 midterm election. Yet as Princeton historian Julian Zelizer recounts in his new book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now," these Great Society programs outlived the political coalition that conceived and enacted them. I caught up with him to discuss that turbulent time. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Harold Pollack: One of the most striking things in your book is the contrast between presidents Kennedy and Johnson. LBJ emerges as the more committed, energetic, and intelligent practitioner of liberal social policy. JFK comes off as the more wary, diffident, and ineffective leader in domestic policy. Have I gotten that right?

Julian Zelizer:  I start the book with JFK. Until 1964, the conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans really controlled power on Capitol Hill. I wanted to capture the reality that Kennedy--regardless of how committed he was—worked as president within this system…

That said, I did come away finding LBJ to be a pretty liberal guy. He was ambivalent on civil rights legislation for much of his career.  There were moments he was hostile to organized labor before becoming president. But overall he was a product of the New Deal… He was committed to the idea that government should help with issues of inequality and even racial justice. I think he had more of that in him than John F. Kennedy. I think Johnson lived and breathed these ideas ever since he came to Washington in the 1930s. That was who he was. His goal as president was to expand the New Deal into new areas of American life. I am different from some scholars who are still more suspicious of Lyndon Johnson, as many liberals were at the time. I believe the commitment was genuine.

Pollack: It reminds me of Robert Caro’s comment: “Power reveals.” When Johnson was in the position to actually legislate and be president, he moved in an emphatic liberal direction in domestic policy.

Zelizer: Yes, he did. In contrast, Kennedy was more reluctant. Kennedy was not against civil rights-- I think in the end, he agreed with the ideas coming from the Civil Rights Movement--but it was very clear from the archives that he was not ready or willing to make civil rights legislation a priority. He believed it was going to sidetrack other issues, like the tax cut he was trying to get or Medicare.

To be fair to Kennedy, I wanted to capture that he faced this incredibly difficult situation. He was not being paranoid. Many of his advisers were telling him if you send a civil rights bill to Congress--even if you were totally in favor of this thing--it's going to get killed and it's going to tie up your whole presidency.

Pollack: Speaking of civil rights, I suspect that many Americans steeped in current politics will be surprised to see that an earlier generation of Republicans was so important in goading the Kennedy administration on civil rights. Credible Republicans including Gerald Ford, John Lindsay, and Nelson Rockefeller were almost to the left of President Kennedy on civil rights, actively competing for African-American votes. Do you think that the Republican role in this Civil Rights Act has been forgotten or under-emphasized?

Zelizer: It deserves attention. I think, it's important in three ways. The first is this liberal wing of the Republican Party, the Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller wing. They were pretty liberal on civil rights. They came from a region where they had to be, and they believed in it. They were an ongoing moral force behind pushing for legislation from Capitol Hill.

The second way in which Republican proponents of civil rights were important  had to do with mid-western legislative leaders, including Everett Dirksen, Senate minority leader, or William McCulloch who was a very important House Republican on the judiciary committee from Ohio. Dirksen was relatively in favor of civil rights. McCulloch was very much in favor of it. They used their leadership positions at key moments, both in 1964 and 1965, to help move the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through the House and Senate.

Dirksen played this huge role in both debates and ultimately brokered a compromise that ended the southern filibuster against civil rights in 1964 and in 1965. He actually negotiated with Attorney General [Nicholas] Katzenbach a voting rights bill that was pretty much all set before all the marches in Selma took place. That leadership role was really important. Without them, the southern Democrats would have had a lot more leverage through procedures like the filibuster.

Finally, there was this partisan competition that worked in favor of these bills. The Johnson administration had privately been working out a voting rights deal with Dirksen in February 1965. The framework of a bill was in place, but Johnson was still hesitant about sending this to the Hill. He wanted to wait until the end of 1965 because he was focused on other programs like education and Medicare. After the violence in Selma, the nation was outraged, there were many more congressional liberals who said: “If you don't pass a bill, we're just going to propose something on our own, Mr. President.”

Many Republicans started to do that, too. Johnson didn't want the bill to move forward without him, and he certainly didn't want Republicans to claim all the credit for an idea he ultimately believed in.

That partisan competition was quite important and had favorable effects. It would change by 1966 and '67. By then, many Republicans were no longer on board as Johnson sought to deal with issues like open housing. Republicans like Dirksen were no longer willing to really help the administration. Gerald Ford, who was the House minority leader, was openly attacking the president.

It was a short window when Johnson had this Republican support on civil rights. Nor was it simply a “natural” part of the GOP in this era. Republicans, like everyone else, were under intense grass roots pressure in states and districts from civil rights activist to do something. Their support was still really instrumental to the successes of 1964 and 1965.

Pollack: This partisan competition was so different from the debate over health reform.

Zelizer: Absolutely. I would note two things that explain some of the Republican willingness to work with the Democrats on civil rights. One is the Civil Rights Movement has this immense impact on public opinion. The marches—and the violent response to the marches--really had their effect. This made it hard for many Republicans to simply stand up and say: “I'm going to be like this southern Democrats and still say no.” Politicians realized that that was no longer possible.

The other important thing was the 1964 election. This vastly increased the liberal majority on Capitol Hill. LBJ decimated Barry Goldwater by depicting him as a right wing extremist who couldn’t govern. Many Republicans in 1965 didn’t want to be Barry Goldwater. They wanted to show their constituents and the nation that they were different. That actually created some incentive for Republicans--for a short period--to go along with some liberal programs.

Pollack: It's amazing how short that period really was. Why didn't the Democrats get more credit in 1966 and 1968 for their remarkable legislative achievements that survive to this day, which Republicans essentially accepted?

Zelizer: Well, when I wrote the book, it really started with my focus on the period from Johnson taking over to 1965. I soon became aware that the 1966 midterms, where Democrats retained control of Congress but the conservative coalition, regains much of the power it lost in 1964. It's a key moment. Johnson, for all his magic and for all his political wizardry, wouldn't be that effective anymore.

Racial backlash in key states and cities was part of the story. 1966 was the year Johnson sent his Open Housing Bill. Many northerners--Democrats, not just Republicans—were no longer happy with the president.

Another part of Johnson’s diminishing stature was Vietnam. Even though we write and think a lot about the anti-war movement, the initial blow to Johnson on Vietnam came from the right. Republicans were attacking Johnson in 1966 for being too weak on Vietnam: He wasn't using force effectively. He wasn't willing to bomb hard enough. This became a big theme for the Republicans. Finally, the cost of the war, the budget and fears of the deficit become big issues that Republicans run on in 1966. Southern Democrats and Republicans in 1968 force Johnson to start cutting domestic spending if he wants to keep paying for his domestic programs.

Then, there is the reality that policy successes aren’t always politically beneficial. Sometimes, they're going to cost you at the ballot box.

After the 1964 Civil Rights Bill passed, Bill Moyers found Lyndon Johnson looking gloomy and forelorn. Moyers asked why he was so gloomy after a major victory. Johnson replied: “I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come….” Yet the Great Society programs themselves, most of them, remain key parts of American political life.

Pollack: A final question: You're writing this history book about the Great Society, in some ways, this is very familiar terrain. Were there any real surprises for you as you dug in the archives to write this book?

Zelizer: A few. One surprise was that Lyndon Johnson was a more limited political leader than we usually remember. I've written a lot about him. I’d always considered him, of all the presidents, the one who knew the tricks and the techniques to really make things go. But as I wrote the synthesis of the whole period, and really looked at the timing of everything from start to finish, rather than in slivers, I started to see how Congress was the driving force. I've written a lot about the role of Congress. But until I put it all together, I never realized some of the limits. Nor had I given enough credit to the way in which huge majorities and massive grass roots pressure were instrumental to the legislation of this period. I came to question the ways in which we compare Johnson’s accomplishments to what President Obama and others weren't able to do in very different political conditions.

With the Civil Rights Movement creating overwhelming pressure on Capitol Hill for a bill and the election of 1964 creating massive Democratic majorities, liberal majorities that were going to push these ideas through. In the second half of the book, meaning from the 1966 midterm elections to the end, everything closed down. When conditions in Congress changed, Johnson just couldn’t get much significant legislation anymore.

Another theme which surprised me--it's something that grows out of what historians are writing--was the sheer limits of liberalism in the 1960s. It's been a tradition in historical writing to treat this decade as the culmination of liberalism. In some ways, I had subscribed to that. Recently historians have been trying to uncover the power of conservatism, not in the age of Reagan but in the age that came before, to understand the foundations of conservatism that we have today. As I delved into Congress in this '63-'68 period, I saw the immense power of this conservative coalition, even if they lost that power for a short time….

Pollack: As you tell it, one of Johnson’s great talents was to recognize the need for speed. He was constantly aware of how brief his window of opportunity really was.

Zelizer: I always tell people, if anyone was aware of the limits of presidential power and unhappy with the myths surrounding LBJ, it was Johnson himself. There is a story in the first hours of his presidency. Soon after Kennedy’s death, Bill Moyers finds him with a notepad on which Johnson scribbled down a schedule for the next few years. He was basically outlining that he had this brief window of opportunity, if things went well in the election of '64, to get bills through….

His awareness of the limits of his own power, and the speed with which he was going to have to work: that ultimately was one of his greatest tools. It helped him to move as big as he could early on, and to be very respectful of congressional leaders, and allow them to move a lot of things. He understood the cost of not doing that.