History Thread: Julian E. Zelizer’s The Fierce Urgency of Now (2015)

Few presidents’ reputations have vacillated so wildly as Lyndon Johnson’s. When he died in 1973, he was excoriated for his role in escalating the Vietnam War, a symbol of the Establishment (dubbed “the Creeping Meatball” by Abbie Hoffman) hated only marginally less than Richard Nixon. His crude personality was regularly contrasted with the graceful John F. Kennedy (an insecurity Johnson himself harbored), to the point where many accused Johnson of a hand in Kennedy’s death. Liberals snickeringly repeated anecdotes about his crude personal style, including staff meetings held on the toilet and labeling his little Johnson “Jumbo,” or mocking him as Landslide Lyndon for his narrow, fraud-enhanced election to the Senate. Conservatives blamed him for stoking the unrest of the ’60s, framing his achievements as encouraging lawlessness and forfeiting personal responsibility. Many from both parties would agree with his 1964 opponent, Barry Goldwater, who attacked Johnson as a “wheeler-dealer” who’d “slap you on the back today and stab you in the back tomorrow.”

In more recent decades, at least for those to Goldwater’s left, the pendulum has swung the other way. Biographers Robert Caro (hardly an admirer, it should be said) and Robert Dallek, in books widely read by pundits and history buffs, portrayed Johnson as the ultimate politician. Crude though he was, LBJ was a man of uncommon skill, drive and ability to twist arms and bend people to his will. Liberals laud Johnson’s extraordinary passage of bills in the first two years of his term, cementing such beloved progressive programs as the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, his War on Poverty and other idealistic initiatives. Some historians even consider Johnson one of the best postwar presidents, treating Vietnam almost as a regrettable footnote. This extends to politicians like Sheila Jackson Lee, a fellow Texan who rightfully said that Johnson’s “domestic accomplishments in the fields of civil rights, education, and economic opportunity rank among the greatest achievements of the past half century.”

Johnson “treats” Abe Fortas

There’s some truth to these characterizations, of course. Johnson rivals Nixon as a “tragic hero” of American politics, a man capable of greatness undone by personal insecurity and a pointless war in Vietnam. Few would dispute the accomplishments he oversaw, and in many cases personally spearheaded; he took Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and cemented it into a program of far-reach reform which thus far has largely survived decades of conservative attacks. His embrace of Civil Rights, after decades as a run of the mill segregationist, was as sincere as it was baffling to his contemporaries; his empathy for the downtrodden, hewn during a career teaching disadvantaged Mexicans in Texas, overcame racial prejudice and frustration with the Civil Rights Movement’s demands to affect more change than any American president since Lincoln. Indeed, the breadth of Johnson’s vision and the effectiveness of his “treatment” (a brutal, hands-on cajoling of politicians, lobbyists and staffers) has, in the hands of pundits and politics buffs, become a standard against which modern politicians are measured – and always found wanting. If only we had Lyndon Johnson, the lament goes, Democrats could pass the Green New Deal, universal healthcare or possibly the abolition of the Republican Party.

Julian E. Zelizer’s The Fierce Urgency of Now offers a different perspective on Johnson’s presidency. While Johnson was an unusually forceful personality and a skilled Senate Majority Leader, he recognized as well as everyone that Congress, with its coalition of conservative Republicans and reactionary Southern Democrats, was a serious roadblock to any liberal initiatives. It took a unique combination of historical circumstances to affect his agenda: Kennedy’s assassination, which made many conservatives reluctant to oppose the Civil Rights Act Kennedy had proposed soon before his death; Johnson’s landslide reelection over Barry Goldwater in 1964, giving LBJ both an overwhelming public mandate and unassailable majorities in Congress; the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders and progressive organizers, whose pressure galvanized public support and pressured politicians to act.

Thus Johnson, with help from the “fabulous” 89th Congress, passed an unprecedent collection of liberal legislation: the Voting Rights Act, expanding Social Security and Medicare, instituting efforts at urban reform and environmental action, and others (like a universal healthcare initiative) that came tantalizingly close to success. These hard-won victories transformed the United States forever, adding heft to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and expanding the social safety net for millions. Unfortunately, this fecund period proved short-lived, as a resounding Democratic defeat in the 1966 midterms, increasing backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and liberal “permissiveness,” a Republican Party hardening against Civil Rights and the quagmire of Vietnam sapped Johnson’s political capital. By the last years of his presidency, Johnson struggled to pass even token reforms, such as a “civil rats” bill to fund extermination programs, as he seemed unable to control race riots or win the war in Vietnam.

Zelizer’s book relates these legislative battles with astute judgment and clarity. His Johnson is more human-sized than the larger than life figure from Caro and Dallek’s books. LBJ’s liberalism in this telling is certainly sincere, and he displayed both arm-twisting, bullying behavior and stirring rhetoric. His comment that “there are no problems which we cannot solve together, and there are very few which any of us can settle by himself” is as pithy a statement of liberalism as ever uttered; his speech announcing the Voting Rights Act, proclaiming “We shall overcome” in tones that reduced hardened reporters and Civil Rights activists to tears, was as moving as any peroration by the Kennedys. He was also the tough operator who could tell his mentor-turned-opponent, Georgia segregationist Richard Russell, “Dick, you’ve got to get out of my way. I’m going to run over you. I don’t intend to compromise.”

Johnson and Everett Dirksen

All of this will be familiar to politics buffs from previous tellings of the Johnson Treatment. But Zelizer shows that Johnson’s behavior often failed or backfired; Russell was unmoved by his protege’s bluster, while other opponents like Robert Byrd found “the Treatment” merely redoubled their resolve. Johnson’s real skill came in backroom dealing, cutting bargains with politicians in flawed compromises (such as removing provisions from the Voting Rights Act that more liberal politicians lamented) often labeled “selling out” when done by other presidents.

Even in Zelizer’s revisionist telling, however, it’s possible to appreciate that Johnson possessed a unique force and willingness to tackle legislation that Eisenhower and Kennedy only talked about. Martin Luther King, who later broke with Johnson over Vietnam, admitted that the President possessed an “amazing understanding of the depth and dimension of the problem of racial injustice.” If he used racist language in private (“When I appoint a n***er to the [Supreme Court], I want everyone to know he’s a n***er,” he supposedly said of Thurgood Marshall), if he looked the other way at J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps of King and other Civil Rights leaders, Johnson nonetheless viewed racial equality as a moral imperative that Americans could no longer ignore.

Zelizer also profiles the figures surrounding Johnson, in colorful cameo portraits. Liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Adam Clayton Powell and others who pressed Johnson to move faster on Civil Rights; conservatives like Russell, who’d viewed Johnson as a “soldier” for his segregationist agenda and now treated him as a cordial enemy; Strom Thurmond, who switched parties in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and Howard Smith, the “Tyrant of the House” who regularly bottled up progressive legislation in committee. Zelizer also demonstrates that many Republicans, even self-proclaimed conservatives, still took the “Party of Lincoln” moniker seriously; Everett Dirksen, the prickly Senate Minority Leader, proclaimed desegregation “an idea whose time has come” and castigated Goldwater for voting against the Civil Rights Act. This did not, however, extend to Johnson’s welfare program; and the fragile coalition collapsed as Republicans found political capital in slowing, or fighting anti-racist measures.

Thus, Fierce Urgency offers an astute, nuanced depiction of the different power structures at play, in and outside Washington, which affect the political climate and limit the capacity for change. It also demonstrates that as much as modern progressives yearn for a new LBJ to force similar reforms through an intransigent Congress, he or she would need circumstances largely impossible to replicate today. Even Johnson, with his congressional supermajority, a saner conservative opposition and unparalleled political skill, couldn’t pass everything. One wonders if he even could move Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy.