Review of Joshua Zeitz’s “Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House”

tags: book review, Joshua Zeitz, Building the Great Society

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and HNN’s senior book editor.

Today the Great Society envisioned by Lyndon Johnson as an expansion of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to make the promise of American life available to all its citizens is under attack from the administration of President Donald Trump. Seeking to repeal Obamacare, lower taxes on the wealthy, and abolish government regulation of the economy and environment, Republicans and the Trump White House are creating a business friendly atmosphere embraced by Wall Street and large corporations who insist that the benefits will eventually trickle down to the working class.

In addition, the large deficits forecast by the tax cuts have encouraged Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to call for welfare reform and reductions in spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The New Deal and Great Society vision that government could be harnessed to assure that all Americans, regardless of class, race, and gender, be assured of quality education, health care, and decent jobs within a safe environment has been abandoned by the Trump administration.

Nevertheless, many Americans continue to believe in the promises made by Roosevelt and Johnson regarding the possibilities of government action to improve the living conditions of all. In Building the Great Society, Joshua Zeitz, an academic historian who has turned to journalism as a contributing editor at Politico, has written a book lauding the goals of Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. Relying upon an immersion into the periodical literature and journalism of the mid-1960s along with the oral histories of Johnson’s advisers available at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, Zeitz fashions a sympathetic account of the Great Society that is accessible to the general reader.

Zeitz finds Johnson to be somewhat of an enigmatic character. He notes both the liberal and conservative sides of Johnson’s political career, but Zeitz concludes that the Texas politician was more than an opportunist. Considering Johnson’s relatively poor socioeconomic background and teaching in impoverished Texas schools for Mexican-American children, Zeitz believes that the Texan’s conversion to civil rights and alleviating poverty was sincere and not simply a case of political expediency. But the reasons for this conversion are less well developed by Zeitz, who also fails to analyze the reasons for Johnson’s commitment to the Vietnam War. This is an unfortunate omission, considering that Zeitz says the conflict in Southeast Asia undermined the Great Society as Johnson tried to avoid a tax increase to pay for the war while insisting that Americans could have both guns and butter. In the final analysis, it proved impossible to do both, and the Great Society was sacrificed on the altar of the Vietnam War. It seems that to obtain a full analysis of Johnson’s motivations, we will have to wait for the much anticipated fifth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson, which is to concentrate upon the Great Society and Vietnam War.

The primary focus of Zeitz’s volume, however, is not upon Johnson, but rather his subordinates, who attempted to implement the President’s liberal agenda and forge a bond between John Kennedy’s people, who stayed on after the assassination, and the Texans whom Johnson brought to the White House. While Johnson and Robert Kennedy were never able to reconcile their differences, other Johnson and Kennedy men were able to work together in support of a liberal agenda that Zeitz argues went well beyond what Kennedy had envisioned. Thus, the major actors in Zeitz’s narrative are figures such as Walter Jenkins, Horace Busby, Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti, Richard Goodwin, Larry O’Brien, Henry McPherson, and Joseph Califano—men who sacrificed health and family to labor for Johnson and the Great Society.

Despite the demands he placed on his subordinates, Johnson was able to elicit dedicated service from an array of talented men. But it is interesting to note that even with the growing appreciation for diversity in the 1960s, all of Johnson’s key advisers developed in the book were white males. This lack of diversity may help to explain why Johnson’s people often came into conflict with local leaders while attempting to implement the community action programs associated with alleviating poverty. Nor does Zeitz consider the role played by movement activists in placing pressure upon the Johnson administration to pass civil rights legislation and implement reform. Zeitz’s account is essentially a top down history of the Great Society and omits the role played by community organizers and activists.

Zeitz, nevertheless, makes a strong case for the legislative achievements of the Great Society. Under the Johnson administration, voting rights were expanded, federal aid to poor schools and students were introduced along with early childhood education, and government health care assistance to the poor and elderly was established. In addition, efforts at desegregation were hardly limited to schools as Johnson’s subordinates addressed segregation in hospitals and nursing homes. Efforts to assure open housing for minorities were met with considerable resistance in the North and fostered a white ethnic backlash to the Great Society.

Along with chronicling the breadth of Johnson’s programs, Zeitz does a solid job of analyzing the philosophy that governed the administration’s approach to addressing issues such as poverty. Zeitz argues Johnson and his advisers did not believe in a radical redistribution of income within the United States. Instead, these liberals , who were strongly invested in the capitalist system, believed that the poor needed education, skills, and training so they could take advantage of the opportunities available within the expanding American economy. Zeitz concludes that what joined the disparate programs of the Great Society into a coherent approach was “the underlying assumption that the poor principally needed basic protection against severe hardship and coordinated help in interlocking their fair share of national wealth—not government guaranteed income” (55). And the intellectuals and policy experts employed by Johnson were just the men to provide the guidance needed to eradicate poverty.

Of course, the Vietnam War, white backlash, and a lack of diversity limited the impact of the Great Society. Poverty persists, and many conservatives are quick to blame the Great Society for perpetuating a culture of dependency. In reality, it is difficult to fully appraise the effectiveness of the war on poverty as the Vietnam War curtailed many programs before they could be completely implemented. Zeitz acknowledges that the qualitative liberalism of opportunity pursued by Johnson’s men did not eradicate poverty, but he insists that the Great Society improved the quality of life in the United States by “reducing poverty, alleviating the suffering of those who live in it, diminishing systematic racial discrimination, enriching the nation’s cultural life, and enshrining consumer and environmental protections in the law” (314).

Zeitz laments the efforts of the Trump administration to dismantle the reforms and safety nets of the New Deal and Great Society which sought to preserve capitalism. He concludes that the class warfare of the Trump tax cuts and deregulation may provoke a more radical response calling for a redistribution of income to guarantee a greater degree of equality in American society that moves beyond the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

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