Book Review: Building the Great Society


Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, by Joshua Zeitz

First of all, let me just say that I did not finish this book.  I tried.  Our library has been opened and closed over and over again due to COVID (and a bit of casual rioting but that’s a different story), and nobody else wanted to read this “masterpiece”, so I kept on trying through three standard checkout periods – nine weeks total…  I couldn’t.  So this review is based on pages 1 to 137, and a little bit of casual skimming beyond that page to see if the narrative would change (it did not).

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House

I wanted to learn more about President Johnson’s self-described War on Poverty, otherwise what became known as The Great Society.  I wanted to learn about this New Deal-esque plan to lift Americans out of poverty by the multi-pronged plan to address inequities in housing, employment, education and nutrition.  I also wanted to learn about the successes and failures of this sweeping legislation and how it has continued to shape politics and people’s lives today, even more than 50 years later.

I didn’t get any of that.  This book – at least the first 137 pages, focused on who Johnson allied with to pass his legislation, who he selected for his implementation team, and the political infighting that was rife, even at the staff level.  I learned which ill-equipped and un-remodeled buildings they were housed in, how they had to scramble to even get pens and phone lines, and how team members who should have had access to information were shut out and marginalized.

If this was interesting, it might have made up for the fact that a third of the way into the book, Zeitz still hadn’t given the reader more than headline scraps of the meat of the Great Society plan, but it wasn’t interesting.  In fact, it just frustrated me.  It reminded me that back then, and still today, politicians seem to have forgotten that we the people have elected them to work together, to find compromise, and to actually SOLVE problems.  Instead Johnson just sounds like a bastard.  And probably an alcoholic.

So if you are interested in learning more about the Great Society, maybe this book gets into it later on, but go ahead and skip the first third…  And if you know of any good books on the Great Society, please let me know.

1 star. 

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Building the Great Society

  1. I took this opportunity to browse some of your other book reviews and found your reading list is similar to mine. I belong to a Nonfiction Book Group that has read several of the LBJ bios written by Robert Caro. If you haven’t read any of those yet you might want to and possibly start with the volume re the same subject or time period in his long career. I like these long and detailed works (and see that you may have a similar appreciation) because they give a lot of context and background re why LBJ pursued the objectives he did along with how he did it.

    • That does sound like it would be interesting! And it’s nice to meet someone who shares the same interests in books! I tend to read a bit of everything, but non-fiction, history and biographies are a regular occurrence for me. I’ll have to check out Robert Caro.

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