The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. By Julian E. Zelizer. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. 370 pp.
Few would argue that the Great Society was anything other than a watershed moment in American legislative history. From the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to the War on Poverty to the broad collection of reforms in education, health care, consumer protection, the environment, and more, its influence on modern America--for better or worse--has clearly been immense. In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian Zelizer examines this period of federal activism in a thoughtful and lucid volume that sheds light not only on the laws themselves but also challenges the conventional wisdom about the forces that produced them.
The Fierce Urgency of Now rejects the accepted historical framework about the origins of Great Society legislation on two critical fronts. First, it disputes the idea that the 1960s was simply the apex of the liberal mood, the culmination of a long evolutionary path that produced some core liberal convictions that united American politicians and made this legislative agenda possible. Instead, the picture it paints at the time of LBJ's ascension is one of a divided and fragmented system, making the years of Great Society success appear to be more of a brief aberration than an inevitable denouement.
Second, and more significantly, it challenges the traditional narrative that places Johnson's legislative mastery at the heart of the story. Instead, Zelizer's portrayal of the Great Society finds the critical element in the day-to-day legislative politics rather than the top-down story of a political genius bending the legislative machinery to his will. This perception of the centrality of LBJ's legislative brilliance, he warns, is not only a historical but also offers a dangerously simplistic model that fosters unrealistic expectations for subsequent policy makers. Indeed, hovering throughout the book is the specter of President Obama's battles with congressional conservatives and the criticism leveled at him for not, somehow, passing more significant legislation. "If only he had been more like Lyndon Johnson," liberals seemed to lament. Zelizer has little patience for this story of the indispensable man, which, he notes, "overemphasizes the capacity of 'great men' to effect legislation by force of personality and undervalues the more complicated and significant effects of the political...