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The LBJ Legacy

by John Daniel Davidson

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, by Julian E. Zelizer (Penguin, 384 pp., $29.95)

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Society — that burst of legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson that ushered in civil rights and voting rights for black Americans, Medicare and Medicaid, and the War on Poverty and a host of other welfare programs. Although he is best remembered for his escalation of the Vietnam War, Johnson’s Great Society is his more enduring legacy. It inserted the federal government into the lives of all Americans in new and permanent ways, changing the terms of our national debate about the proper role and scope of government.

That role is of course the subject of much debate today, and the half-century mark of the Great Society has therefore been accompanied by an effort on the Left to bolster LBJ’s reputation as the father — at least one of them — of American progressivism and civil rights, especially as civil rights have increasingly come to be understood as government-conferred benefits. Commentators and historians have tended to emphasize Johnson’s role in the Great Society more than that of the lawmakers in Congress who actually passed the bills, and for good reason: The Great Society was Johnson’s agenda through and through. He considered himself to be following in the footsteps of his political hero, FDR, and fulfilling the promise of the New Deal for a new generation of Americans.

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