History professor lectures on LBJ’s Great Society

Caleb Wong

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson increased opportunities for Americans of all social classes by passing legislation focused on civil rights, voting rights and health care, according to Julian Zelizer, author and history professor at Princeton University.

Zelizer spoke about the history and impact of Johnson’s “Great Society,” a collection of programs in the 1960s set up to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, during a lecture hosted by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law on Friday.

“The most iconic image of Lyndon Johnson that I’ve seen … is where he hovered over opponents, where he hovered over his supporters, and he seduced them, cajoled them, lobbied them into voting for what he wanted to do,” Zelizer said. 

Today, Americans underestimate the struggles Johnson faced to pass his historic pieces of legislation because liberal and conservative forces polarized politics in the 1960s, Zelizer said.

“Congress was dominated from the late ’30s to the early ’60s by a conservative coalition of Southern Democratic committee chairs and Midwestern Republicans, who teamed up on committee and who teamed up on the floor to block everything that was liberal,” Zelizer said.

Johnson maintained close relationships with members of Congress and understood the limits of presidential power, according to Zelizer. The president carefully cultivated his relationships on the Hill, and he would even instruct his cabinet staff to call members back within five minutes of receiving a phone call.

“We don’t put Johnson in the context of the times,” Zelizer said. 

Ellen Scholl, global policy studies graduate student, said she thought the relationship between the president and interest groups was the most interesting part of Zelizer’s talk.

“There is a tendency in the post-George Bush era to talk about the presidency as an all-powerful, dominating institution,” Scholl said. “As LBJ thought, there were actually some real limits on the presidency, and I think it’s important to remember those limits.”

Congress is an important part of the government, but the legislative branch has been difficult to work with throughout history, according to public affairs and history professor Jeremi Suri.

“The most important part of the lecture is … how extraordinary it is that in a particular moment, Congress and President Johnson were able to work together for civil rights the way they did,” Suri said.