Most people associate the Great Society initiative with Lyndon Baines Johnson.
There is very good reason for that, to be sure. As president, Johnson, the “master of the Senate,” was the driving force behind the raft of legislation that passed during his administration, the 1964 and 1965 legislation that framed and filled in his vision for a “great society” in which the blessings of postwar America’s bonanza would be shared by all. Johnson’s spearheading of the Great Deal initiatives in turn stemmed from his personal attachment to the New Deal. Johnson had been a Roosevelt stumper in Texas before finding his feet in Washington politics, and the desire to complete FDR’s domestic legacy by positioning government at the center of a vast nationwide redistribution network was the motor of the Great Society as we know it today. President Johnson was a necessary condition for the Great Society programs that cleared Congress with remarkable regularity and became part of the federal bureaucracy. No Johnson, no Great Society.
But LBJ was not sufficient condition for the Great Society to arise. Former Wall Street Journal editorial board member and current King’s College scholar Amity Shlaes’s new book Great Society: A New History shows us that what we might think of as Johnson’s pet program was so much more than his baby alone. Shlaes’s biography of the idea of the Great Society reveals that it was planning in general—more precisely the article of faith that government could employ “the best and the brightest” to engineer its way over any obstacle that the mere unplanned world might throw at it—that was the Great Society’s true parentage (pp. 7–8). Johnson was without doubt the broker for the deals, public and private, that allowed the Great Society to take shape. But, for all that, Johnson was merely one of many at the planning table. It was faith in planning, not inherent greatness, personal or otherwise, that made the Great Society what it was. If nobody else in government had believed it possible to plan a great society, then all of Johnson’s efforts would have been in vain.