cover image Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House

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

Joshua Zeitz. Viking, $30 (396p) ISBN 978-0-525-42878-7

In this probing study of domestic policy in the Johnson Administration, historian and journalist Zeitz (Lincoln’s Boys). argues that battles over civil rights and anti-poverty measures were as fierce as those over the Vietnam War. Zeitz examines the crafting and implementation of L.B.J.’s Great Society agenda: the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, which together profoundly changed American life and the role of government; food stamps, Head Start, and federal school-aid measures; and the controversial “community action” programs that funded citizens’ groups as they organized, protested, and sued local governments, which felt to beleaguered Democratic mayors like a war on them rather than a War on Poverty. Zeitz’s lively narrative foregrounds the personalities and power plays of Johnson’s White House staff—genteel press secretary Bill Moyers emerges as both a liberal idealist and a “ruthless” bureaucratic operator—under the tyrannical L.B.J., infamous for his castration taunts and compulsory nude pool parties. Zeitz also explores the sociology motivating the policy-makers; they were convinced that the poor could be better helped by social and cultural opportunity and integration than by redistributing money, a conviction that eventually foundered on economic slowdown and white backlash. Zeitz’s lucid account yields engrossing insights into one of America’s most hopeful, productive, and tragic political eras. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Feb.)