In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his first State of the Union address to Congress.
“Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last 100 sessions combined,” he said in the speech.
In the span of just a few years, Johnson was able to spearhead the most transformative agenda in American political history since the New Deal. But Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University says that’s only part of the story.
Zelizer’s book, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society” suggests our recollections are far too Johnson-centric.
“A lot of our memory of this period focuses on Johnson being this political magician who could twist arms, who could intimidate people, who could almost seduce you into doing whatever was necessary and that’s how a lot of the bills came to be,” Zelizer says. “But it focuses too much on Lyndon Johnson and what he personally did and less on the context, especially the Congress in which he was president.”
Johnson inherited the same conservative Congress that had resisted President John F. Kennedy during his time in office. It was seen as “dysfunctional” and gridlocked, when no bills were making it through. Then, Zelizer says, the civil rights movement broke the logjam.
“They put so much pressure on Congress that by ‘64 the idea of stopping the Civil Rights Bill is becoming almost impossible,” Zelizer says. “Liberals are ready to go, they have the numbers on the Hill and they’re going to move with or without Johnson. So Congress – that broken Congress – is very different after the election of ‘64.”
Johnson himself said he wasn’t the “Master of the Senate,” as some called him.
“He knew Congress, he had been in Congress for a long time. He did love politics,” Zelizer says. “All of that is true.”
Johnson was a president who was able to take advantage of good opportunities when they emerged. Zelizer says it’s not enough to just say – because he was able accomplish it – that he was responsible for putting a lot of bills through Congress.
“That’s what was remarkable to me,” Zelizer says. “He’s always telling people to calm down, not to over-expect what he was going to be able to do. That he didn’t have all the magic in the world and no president does.”
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.