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The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, Julian E. Zelizer

Reviewed by Rick Valelly

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How were the Great Society programs and policies designed so that they attracted bipartisan majorities? Why and how did the Great Society programs withstand the electoral and popular backlash that soon engulfed them? This book persuasively locates the answers in the politicking that took place in congressional committees and in how liberal Democrats and Republicans in Congress, working closely with the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, timed their legislative moves.

Zelizer hardly neglects civil rights and Black Power protest, unexpected and dramatic events, shifts in the public mood, the backdrop of Vietnam, the explosion of black unrest in northern cities, and what public opinion surveys told Congress and the president about what the American people wanted—and what they did not want. Also, Zelizer provides a marvelous portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson as a visionary, cunning, and fanatically hardworking president determined to make the most of his unexpected opportunities. We see just how racially conservative, economically anxious, and fiscally prudent America really was then—and thus we grasp, as Johnson did, the sheer exceptionalism of the Great Society opening. LBJ was racing against a clock—he knew every minute of his working day that reversal and challenge were certain. Indeed, one of the great surprises of the book is Zelizer’s

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