Thursday, August 21, 2008

"The Liberal Hour"

New from Penguin: The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s by Robert S. Weisbrot and G. Calvin MacKenzie.

About the book, from the publisher:
A vibrant and revelatory history of the liberal moment of the 1960s, one which argues that Washington was not simply a target of reform but was, in fact, the era's most effective engine of change

In most accounts of the 1960s, Washington is portrayed as a target of reform—a reluctant group of politicians coaxed into accepting the radical spirit the day demanded. In the newest volume in the award-winning Penguin History of American Life, Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot argue that the most powerful agents of change in the 1960s were, in fact, those in the traditional seats of power, not the counterculture. A masterly new interpretation of this pivotal decade, The Liberal Hour explores the seismic shifts that led to an era when demands that had lingered on the political agenda for years finally entered the realm of possibility.

By the time John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, the political system that had prevailed for most of the century was based on crumbling economic, social, and demographic realities. The growth of the suburbs meant power had shifted out of the cities, rendering urban political machines and party bosses increasingly irrelevant, which in turn allowed younger, more independent-minded politicians to rise. In Congress, Democrats retained their long held control, but the Southern wing of the party was finally loosening its grip. Postwar prosperity led many Americans to believe there was enough wealth to go around, an optimism that lent powerful support to antipoverty programs, not to mention civil rights. And for once the Supreme Court, which has traditionally served the country's dominant interests, was aligned with the progressivespirit of the age. The 1960s all in all represented a rare convergence—a public ready for change, and a government ready to act.

Liberal reform may have begun with JFK's New Frontier, but his assassination only gave emotional urgency to his agenda. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, knew he had a brief window of opportunity before the forces of reaction would set in, an awareness that may have fostered his occasionally bullying tactics to push legislation through Congress. Still, the result was a burst in government initiatives—for civil rights, consumer protection, and environmental reform, among others—that has not been matched in American history. Ultimately, as our authors reveal, the liberal hour promised too much, and couldn't afford both a costly and unpopular war abroad and a Great Society at home, but when it passed it left in its wake a vastly altered American landscape.

With elegant and accessible prose, The Liberal Hour casts one of the most dramatic periods in American history in a new light, revealing that for all that has been written about the more attention-grabbing protest movements, the most powerful engine of change in that tumultuous decade was Washington itself.