Book Review — Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House

Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House by Joshua Zeitz is the story of LBJ’s grand plan for the United States.  Zeitz is the author of several books on American political and social history and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Dissent, and American Heritage. Zeitz appeared as a commentator on two PBS documentaries – Boomer Century, and Ken Burns’ Prohibition — and has commented on public policy matters on CNBC and CNN International. He has held faculty positions at Harvard, Cambridge, and Princeton and is the author of four books.

Today, Johnson is probably more associated with the Vietnam War than with his Great Society.  Zeitz looks at the president and his staff along with the Great Society and Civil Rights programs without making Vietnam the central point of the presidency.  The war does come into the book near the end, but the primary discussion is not the war. LBJ was a Texan and it showed in some very stereotypical ways.  He was gruff and used his power and favors owed to gain what he wanted.  He was not above intimidating his staff and opponents.  In one example while swimming with one of his senior staff, Johnson stopped at the right spot where his feet firmly touched the bottom of the pool but the shorter staff member needed to tread water while Johnson poked at the staffer’s chest and berated him.  Johnson always took a position of power.  He also enjoyed panicking guests by driving his (amphibious) car into the lake on his ranch while yelling that the brakes went out.  

Johnson could be a bully but he did have a soft spot.  He was a teacher in poor, primarily Mexican communities.  The racism and poverty had a deep effect on Johnson.  America was at its highest point of wealth and industry.  The vast richness of the United States should not be squandered.  All Americans should benefit.  Johnson spoke In a 1965 Speech at the signing of the Higher Education Act in San Marcos, TX:

I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.

Johnson worked on many programs that would seem out of place for his public image. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a project that evaded Kennedy.  Johnson used all his power and influence to push through the Act.  It became the starting point for his Great Society Program which became the 1964 campaign slogan.  Johnson believed that the Civil Rights Act had cost him and the Democrats the South. Johnson did, in fact, lose the Deep South (and Arizona) to Goldwater but carried the rest of the country.  He had a mandate for his Great Society.  The Voting Rights Act was pushed through despite resistance from southern leaders. He appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and Robert C. Weaver became the first African-American to hold a cabinet position. Head Start, Food Stamps, National Endowment for the Arts and the Federal Work Study Program all saw their start under Johnson.   Medicare, Medicaid, and public broadcasting all saw growth under LBJ.  Johnson’s Great Society did not come easily. Congress became conscious of costs, especially with the growing spending on Vietnam, and racial issues in southern states.  In the north civil rights was support in word but not always deed.  People would pay lip service to civil rights but resist desegregation of schools.  Much like the words of  Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, Johnson too seemed to have experienced “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  Vietnam overshadowed the good Johnson accomplished.  He felt the unfairness and once remarked:

If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: “President Can’t Swim.”.

Zeitz gives the reader an inside look at the Johnson presidency.  His staff members and inner workings of the presidential policies are examined in detail.  Original source material and first-hand accounts as reference material make this book an excellent account of LBJ’s years as president.  Also, moving Vietnam to the backburner allows the read to see the “good” Johnson intended to accomplish with his presidency.  Personally, Johnson was far from perfect; professionally, too, he believed the ends sometimes justified the means.  An important work on the man who shaped modern liberal policy and improved the lives of many Americans.  


Available January 30, 2018

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