Book Review: Prisoners of Hope
Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society,
and the Limits of Liberalism
by Randall B. Woods
Basic Books, 2016
Randall Woods, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, has written the first stand-alone narrative history of President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs; his Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism is a deeply-researched and wonderfully readable account of one of the most important barrages of legislation ever enacted in American history. He’s prised the origins, elaboration, Congressional wrangling, and widespread societal aftershocks of Johnson’s lawmaking work out of the larger narrative of Johnson’s presidency, and the effect invites some startling reassessments.
Especially seen in the light of the endemic gridlock of today’s Congress, Johnson’s accomplishment over the course of only a handful of years looks nothing short of astonishing. After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Johnson used his signature combination of cajoling and bullying to get over a thousand pieces of legislation passed, making new law and new regulation on a sweeping range of issues. The Equal Accommodations Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Act, the Fair Housing Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and a host of other federal acts dealing with public education, jobs, clean air and water, public television – these and more were overseen and pushed forward by President Johnson with what Woods characterizes as the federal government “promising first to expand the benefits of citizenship and then to extend them to those previously excluded.” Woods sees it as in part a continuation of the century’s earlier landmark feat of social engineering:
What the Great Society was about was expanding the definition of citizenship and extending full citizenship to as many individuals as possible. Expanded Social Security, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the War on Poverty, Model Cities, clean air and clean water legislation, and Medicare/Medicaid were collectively an effort to realize the positive rights that FDR had articulated during the New Deal – the right to adequate health care, to a basic education, to a decent-paying job, to a secure old age, to a safe environment.
Woods is excellent throughout his book in assessing LBJ’s effectiveness while only very occasionally sliding into hagiography, although his contention that Johnson was “motivated by feelings of Christian charity and compassion and determined to use religion in his quest to achieve some degree of social and economic justice in an imperfect world,” might strike Johnson scholars as a touch bizarre, as will the strain throughout the book linking the Great Society with some sort of postwar Great Awakening in America. The book often pitches this slate of Congressional legislation in incantatory good-vs-evil, and it never quite works:
Though LBJ and his advisers preached the politics of consensus, they were very much aware of the pervasiveness of evil in the world – racial prejudice, economic exploitation, political oppression, hunger, disease. Believers must do the best they could under the circumstances, but LBJ thought they should do it with a vengeance.
But for most of its length Prisoners of Hope stays on this side of the Rapture and provides a very insightful excavation of the maneuverings of the 20th century’s most enigmatic US president. Woods of course hardly needs to stress the embattled present-day relevance of both Johnson’s legacy and the philosophy behind the Great Society. The role of the federal government in both expanding citizenship and guaranteeing social safety nets has provided the heat that’s been bringing the ongoing presidential race to a spattering boil for months (it’s the fascination of a full hour to wonder what LBJ would have made of 2016 candidate Bernie Sanders), and the question of what government should do for citizens will keep the Great Society pertinent as the modern-times high water mark of the answer. Prisoners of Hope is as much a blueprint as it is an autopsy.