President Lyndon B. Johnson is today remembered largely for his failure in Vietnam. But before the war sunk his presidency, LBJ compiled a record of accomplishment on the domestic front unmatched since FDR. Medicare, civil and voting rights, clean air and water, Head Start, immigration reform, public broadcasting — fifty years later, these programs are so deeply woven into the fabric of American life that it is difficult to imagine the country without them. LBJ and the Great Society is a window on this transformative moment in U.S. history, and the larger-than-life figure at the center of it. Hosted by Melody Barnes, chief domestic policy advisor to Barack Obama and now co-head of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia. The series is a sequel to LBJ's War (also available in this feed), which mined a largely unheard trove of recordings from the White House to tell the story of Johnson's ruinous misadventure in Vietnam.
So what do historians think, fifty years out, about LBJ’s Great Society and its long term impact on American life and politics? In early February, series correspondent Melody Barnes put that question to three distinguished scholars, gathered before a live audience at the Miller Center for Presidential Studies, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Their perspectives are a thoughtful summing up of the Johnson Years, and a good place, we think, to close out this podcast series. The panelists: Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia; Guian McKee, associate professor in Presidential Studies at the Miller Center; and Julian Zelizer, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Our thanks to them for their insights, and to you our listeners for your interest.
Five decades after Lyndon Johnson first unveiled his lofty vision of a Great Society, politicians and pundits are still arguing about what he accomplished, and what he didn’t. This final installment will look at the legacy of LBJ's Great Society through the lens on one of its most enduring and popular programs — Head Start. Today, the Head Start program is alive and well, and so deeply woven into the fabric of American life that few know of its roots in the Great Society, or of the conflict and controversy that plagued many of its early programs.
Features Alice O’Connor, Professor of History and Director of the Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, and commentary from historians Rhonda Y. Williams, Josh Zeitz, and Julian Zelizer. Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.
Give Us the Ballot
By his own account the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was Lyndon Johnson’s greatest achievement – the jewel in the crown of the Great Society, and widely considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. This episode focuses on the extraordinarily eventful eight-month period — January to August 1965 — when the battle for Voting Rights was joined and ultimately fought to a successful conclusion. The outcome was hard won, and in doubt up until the last frantic weeks of negotiation and maneuvering in the wake of the bloody protests in Selma, Alabama. We hear from historian Rhonda Y. Williams, the John L. Seigenthaler Chair in American History at Vanderbilt University, about the complex and precarious alliance forged between the President on the inside, and Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement on the outside.
Includes interview excerpts from Washington University Libraries, drawn from the Henry Hampton Collection. This digitized resource includes complete video interviews with Civil Rights Movement leaders, recorded for the influential and award-winning documentary film, Eyes on the Prize.
Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.
FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK all attempted to pass some form of universal health care — but no one had gotten even close. Johnson believed he might succeed where his predecessors had failed, at least for the country’s elderly, but to do so he would have to overcome the opposition of the same influential interest group that had derailed all earlier attempts — the American Medical Association.
To prevail in this fight, LBJ would have to win over one key legislator — Congressman Wilbur Mills, the powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee. Johnson's skillful and tireless courtship of Congressman Mills, and the alliance ultimately forged between them, is the central story of this episode.
With analysis from historian Julian Zelizer, author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.
The Bully Pulpit
“We will not win our war against poverty until the conscience of the entire Nation is aroused,” LBJ told an aide. But how to do that when most Americans were doing reasonably well and barely knew poverty was an issue?
Somehow LBJ would have to convince a risk-averse and price-sensitive congress to back a costly, new government program aimed at solving a problem many voters barely knew existed. Johnson's solution: the 1965 Poverty Tour, a blitz campaign that would take the president into the country's poorest and most neglected communities in a bid to make the American electorate aware of the largely hidden poverty in their midst, and to rally their support behind his ambitious plan to do something about it.
Commentary and analysis: Joshua Zeitz, author of “Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House.” Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.
"I didn't know a damn thing about poverty and didn't want the job," Sargent Shriver would later recall, of his conversation with the president, “and I told him so.” But it was no use: Lyndon Johnson had fixed on Shriver to lead his newly declared war on poverty, and that was that. But could poverty really be eradicated? And if so, how? It fell to the reluctant recruit to figure that out, and fast. Johnson had given him just six weeks to turn a dauntingly ambitious idea into a legislative program, and somehow get it through a deeply change-resistant Congress.
Contributing historian: Joshua Zeitz. Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Mt. Rushmore next to Lincoln
Flawed, human, like you and me— A great man whose heart betrayed him, that same heart of a poor boy who became a champion of the poor, planting his stamp upon that extremely insufficient part of our national soul that seeks true justice.
This podcast is remarkably well done. Everyone should not just listen to it, but study it. The actual voices of that momentous era are weaved expertly into the narrative, placing us in the rooms where history was made. Thanks for this masterpiece!
We need an LBJ now.
Picked this up as it was recommended on another podcast (Slate’s The Gabfest) during their chatter section. I’ve always been intrigued by LBJ mainly because he audio recorded everything and you get to hear his thoughts in his own words. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he could get things done. This podcast serves as a reminder of the good things he was able to do and that he was a Progressive in a time of turmoil. We need leadership like his right now.
We forget the revolutionary things that LBJ did for the good of American society and how much government can do to better lives particularly when there is dialogue between the parties. We are reminded of that in this podcast which features wonderful source material from the people who made it happen, usually with Lyndon twisting their arm.