A cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of even well-intentioned policy, Prisoners of Hope offers a portrait of LBJ and America’s most ambitious—and controversial—domestic policy agenda since the New Deal.
Randall Woods’s vividly detailed narrative ... threads juicy quotations from the tirelessly wheedling Texan into his accounts of bill after liberal bill—from civil rights to Medicare to federal aid to education to the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts—that made the Great Society seem pretty unstoppable at the time.
If Woods overstates Johnson’s power in domestic affairs, he is too generous to LBJ when dealing with Vietnam. He presents the war as another example of how Johnson’s genuine commitment to liberalism simply missed the limits of what the U.S. government could accomplish. Yet he plays down how Vietnam was a crass political trade-off Johnson made to protect Great Society liberalism and its supporters from the chronic attacks on Democrats as weak on defense. Obsessed with protecting his coalition, Johnson destroyed his legacy. None of this detracts from the fact that 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.
While Mr. Woods does an excellent job of describing the passage of Great Society programs, he is less successful in grappling with their consequences. Despite the equivocal title of this book, he writes as an unabashed booster that 'the Great Society was an unquestioned success.' He is on his strongest ground in claiming that 'the Great Society’s efforts to defeat Jim Crow in the South were largely successful.'