Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism

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9780465050963: Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism

President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was breathtaking in its scope and dramatic in its impact. Over the course of his time in office, Johnson passed over one thousand pieces of legislation designed to address an extraordinary array of social issues. Poverty and racial injustice were foremost among them, but the Great Society included legislation on issues ranging from health care to immigration to education and environmental protection. But while the Great Society was undeniably ambitious, it was by no means perfect. In Prisoners of Hope, prize-winning historian Randall B. Woods presents the first comprehensive history of the Great Society, exploring both the breathtaking possibilities of visionary politics, as well as its limits.

Soon after becoming president, Johnson achieved major legislative victories with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But he wasn't prepared for the substantial backlash that ensued. Community Action Programs were painted as dangerously subversive, at worst a forum for minority criminals and at best a conduit through which the federal government and the inner city poor could bypass the existing power structure. Affirmative action was rife with controversy, and the War on Poverty was denounced by conservatives as the cause of civil disorder and disregard for the law. As opposition, first from white conservatives, but then also some liberals and African Americans, mounted, Johnson was forced to make a number of devastating concessions in order to secure the future of the Great Society. Even as many Americans benefited, millions were left disappointed, from suburban whites to the new anti-war left to African Americans. The Johnson administration's efforts to draw on aspects of the Great Society to build a viable society in South Vietnam ultimately failed, and as the war in Vietnam descended into quagmire, the president's credibility plummeted even further.

A cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of even well-intentioned policy, Prisoners of Hope offers a nuanced portrait of America's most ambitious—and controversial—domestic policy agenda since the New Deal.

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About the Author:

Randall B. Woods is John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. He is the author or co-author of ten books, including Shadow Warrior and the award-winning biographies LBJ: Architect of American Ambition and Fulbright: A Biography. A former dean of Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, he has served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in both Germany and Argentina and as the Mellon Visiting Scholar at Cambridge in the spring of 2012.

Review:

H. W. Brands, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Reagan: The Life
At a moment when stirrings of a new liberalism are informing discussions about the role of government in ameliorating inequality, guaranteeing health care and mitigating climate change, a fresh look at Lyndon Johnson's Great Society is entirely in order. No one has written about LBJ and his administration with greater insight than Randall Woods, who again brings the 1960s to raucous, frustrating and inspiring life.”

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chief domestic policy aide to President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 1979, and author
The most penetrating, lively, and readable history of the birth pains of the Great Society's social and economic revolution and its survival during the Vietnam war, civil disturbances, and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Randall Woods weaves a fascinating tale of how, in pursuit of social justice, LBJ pushed, shoved, and shoehorned the government into American life. With telling anecdotes and historical perspective, Woods shows that out of the ashes of 1960s liberalism, the phoenix of Great Society domestic programs continues rising and stokes the controversies that dominate the political and public policy landscape today."

Wall Street Journal
[Woods] tells the story well in Prisoners of Hope, his solidly researched history of the Great Society Early in his narrative, Mr. Woods makes an oft-neglected point: The first building block of the Great Society was the great tax cut of 1964.”

Open Letters Monthly
Prisoners of Hope is a deeply-researched and wonderfully readable account of one of the most important barrages of legislation ever enacted in American history Woods is excellent throughout his book in assessing LBJ's effectiveness [He] provides a very insightful excavation of the maneuverings of the 20th century's most enigmatic US president.”

Christian Science Monitor
Prisoners of Hope fully, shrewdly chronicles LBJ's Great Society.”

Washington Post
This engaging and comprehensive narrative allows us to see the connections between different pieces of liberal reform Woods has a keen eye for the illuminating story Prisoners of Hope is a sweeping history of LBJ's domestic record. Readers will come away with a better appreciation of this moment in history when a savvy Texan produced a burst of liberal reform comparable to the New Deal.”

Weekly Standard
Randall B. Woods introduces some balance into the record in this highly readable single-volume history of the Johnson presidency.”

Bookforum
[In his] vividly detailed narrative...[Randall Woods] threads juicy quotations from the tirelessly wheedling Texan into his accounts of bill after bill...that made the Great Society seem pretty unstoppable at the time.”

Kirkus
Through the author's clear prose, we see the frustrations and feelings of betrayal LBJ felt; he had done his best to try to alleviate poverty, to improve education and civil rights, and to work on issues of housing, discrimination, and health care... A sympathetic but also gimlet-eyed scholar's look at a towering physical and political presence who learned, to his sorrow, that good intentions were insufficient.”

Booklist, Starred Review
Woods offers an astute analysis of the achievements and unintended consequences of an historic era of reform.”

Richard Blackett
Anyone wanting to understand the volatile mix that is American politics today needs to look no further than Randall Woods' penetrating analysis of LBJ's Great Society agenda, that set of ambitious economic, social, political and cultural reforms of the mid-1960s that raised the hopes of the poor and dispossessed, and transformed American society yet, in these very successes, contained the seeds of a right wing backlash aimed at dismantling its cherished accomplishments.”

Dan Carter, Educational Foundation Emeritus Professor, University of South Carolina
Randall Wood's Prisoners of Hope offers us new and revealing insights into the remarkable history of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. He writes from the perspective of a scholar sympathetic to Johnson and his expansive goals, but well aware of the ways in which American history, culture and politics constrained the activist government role that Johnson envisioned. Anyone who wants to understand our current political struggles should read this book.”

John M Cooper, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin
In Prisoners of Hope, Randall Woods draws upon a deep understanding of Lyndon Johnson and his circle and their political circumstances to execute the best portrait of the Great Society that anyone has done. Acutely sensitive to both LBJ's gargantuan gifts and inescapable flaws, Woods unflinchingly depicts the failures and limitations of the man and his deeds, but, more important, he demonstrates their successes and lasting legacy. America in the twenty-first century is, indeed, the land that he loved and tried to shape.”

Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
Learned and deeply researched, Randall Woods has written the history of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society that we have long needed. Johnson's social programs were so ambitious that most historians have focused on bits and pieces. Woods does something much bolder: he ties it all together, attentive to the politics and ideas, the social movements, and the nitty gritty politics that made the mid-1960s a moment of policy innovation. This is a must-read book.”

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