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A majestic, big-picture account of the Great Society and the forces that shaped it, from Lyndon Johnson and members of congress to the civil rights movement and the media 

Between November, 1963, when he became president and November, 1966, when his party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded the most transformative agenda in American political history since the New Deal, one whose ambition and achievement have had no parallel since. In just three years, Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; the War on Poverty program; Medicare and Medicaid; the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities; Public Broadcasting; immigration liberalization; a raft of consumer and environmental protection acts; and major federal investments in public transportation. Collectively, this group of achievements was labeled by Johnson and his team as the “Great Society.”

In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian E. Zelizer takes the full measure of the entire story in all its epic sweep. Before Johnson, Kennedy tried and failed to achieve many of these advances. Our practiced understanding is that this was an unprecedented “liberal hour” in America, a moment, after Kennedy’s death, when the seas parted and Johnson could simply stroll through to victory. As Zelizer shows, this view is off-base: in many respects America was even more conservative than it seems now, and Johnson’s legislative program faced bitter resistance. The Fierce Urgency of Now animates the full spectrum of forces at play during these turbulent years, including religious groups, the media, conservative and liberal political action groups, unions, and civil rights activists.

Above all, the great character in the book whose role rivals Johnson’s is congress—indeed, Zelizer argues that our understanding of the Great Society program is too Johnson-centric. He discusses why congress was so receptive to passing these ideas in a remarkably short span of time and how the election of 1964 and burgeoning civil rights movement transformed conditions on Capitol Hill. Zelizer brings a deep, intimate knowledge of the institution to bear on his story. The book is a master class in American political grand strategy.

Finally, Zelizer reckons with the legacy of the Great Society. Though our politics have changed, the heart of the Great Society legislation remains intact fifty years later. In fact, he argues, the Great Society shifted the American political center of gravity—and our social landscape—decisively to the left in many crucial respects. In a very real sense, we are living today in the country that Johnson and his Congress made.

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Quotes & Awards

  • Combines history with political science, as befits our data-happy moment…This patient no-frills approach offers illuminations that a more cinematic treatment might not.”

    New Yorker

  • “[An] authoritative new history…Although The Fierce Urgency of Now expertly illustrates both the breadth and the limitations of presidential power, Zelizer resists telling the story of the Great Society as Johnson’s biography. History doesn’t always come in the form of a tight narrative with a compelling hero, and it doesn’t here.”

    Chicago Tribune

  • “Zelizer writes with an expert’s deep understanding of the subject.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Readers…will appreciate the clarity of Zelizer’s writing and the brevity of his account.”

    Library Journal

  • “Zelizer, a lucid writer, doesn’t need to cherry-pick to line up parallels with today…A smart, provocative study.”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • “Andrew Garman narrates in a calm and reasoned tone…With clarity and a just a hint incredulity, Garman recounts how Dixiecrats, hard-line conservatives, and old-line New Dealers were able to come together for the briefest of times.”


  • “[An] intelligent, informative book.”

    Washington Post

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About the Author

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes class of 1941 professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at New America. He is the author and editor of numerous books that examine United States political leaders, policies, and institutions since the New Deal. His books include Jimmy Carter, Arsenal of Democracy, and Governing America: The Revival of Political History. He is also a weekly columnist for CNN.com.