The Fierce Urgency of Now: Julian Zelizer on LBJ in Literature

President Johnson endeavors to give "The Treatment" to Senator Richard Russell in 1963

Editor's Note: Julian Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is a weekly columnist for CNN, and his latest book is The Fierce Urgency of Nowexploring the life of LBJ through the political and congressional climate of his day. Below, Zelizer lists the best, most three-dimensional portrayals of our 36th president, from the play 'All the Way' to Robert Caro's Master of the Senate

President Lyndon Johnson has received an enormous amount of attention from historians and nonfiction writers. He is a tragic political figure worthy of being the main character in a Shakespearean play, as some of his greatest domestic accomplishments were wiped away by disastrous decisions about war. At the same, in recent years Johnson has emerged as something of a political wizard who seemed to understand how to work through the American political system in a way that few other politicians have been capable of doing.

Almost every book at least mentions the "Johnson Treatment," where the Texan cajoled, bullied, and sometimes seduced his colleagues into doing what he wanted. When Broadway opened up a stunning play about LBJ in 2014, "All the Way," it was not surprising that many theatergoers were eager to see his story played by the charismatic actor Bryan Cranston.

Most of the greatest works on Lyndon Johnson have been, well, "Johnson-centric." They have explained his greatest accomplishments and his greatest flaws as a product of his own political cunning.

One of the most important books on Johnson is Robert Caro’s brilliant volume about his career as Senate Majority Leader, Master of the Senate. The book provides a powerful account of how Johnson, as Majority Leader, was able to centralize power and create order in an unwieldy institution so to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1957. There are very few writers who have Caro’s narrative skill and ability to bring the back rooms of the Senate to life.

Two very fine political biographies of President Johnson include Robert Dallek’s Flawed Giant and Randall Woods Architect of Ambition. Both of these books provide detailed studies of the key points in Johnson’s presidency. Dallek and Woods do a great job of moving through the various policy challenges that he faced and looking at the massive impact of Vietnam on his presidency.

A short but truly outstanding work, meant for the classroom, is Bruce Schulman’s Lyndon Johnson and American Liberalism. This is a book that goes through Johnson’s career in a very brief but well written essay, placing him in the context of American liberalism. The book also offers students a terrific range of original documents from the Johnson archives to examine on their own in order to reach their own conclusions.

As the fifth work, I would choose a play: Robert Shenkkan’s Tony award winning "All The Way." I found this to be a remarkable production which did more than many other pieces of nonfiction writing to bringing Johnson to life and conveying the political whirlwind people encountered when dealing with him. Shenkkan was very impressive in dealing with technical legislative procedures, like the discharge petition, and making them part of a dramatic work of art.

As for The Fierce Urgency of Now? Most simply put, this book differs from the rest in that it puts context front and center. I argue that Lyndon Johnson’s power was much more limited than we remember and the 1960s was an era when liberalism was not nearly as strong as we imagine. The real question is not what made Johnson so good at legislative politics, but what were the political conditions in 1964 and 1965 that allowed Lyndon Johnson to succeed -- and why did those conditions shut down in 1966? The book makes Congress a central actor in the story. The narrative revolves around the ways in which activists and voters created the kind of Congress that Lyndon Johnson needed to pursue his political agenda. When those conditions ended after the 1966 midterms, Johnson’s magic was not so effective. The book is a reminder that the answer to breaking through a "dysfunctional Congress" comes from the bottom up and not from the top down.