As 1965 dawns, President Lyndon Johnson launches the Great Society, the most ambitious raft of social program bills since the Great Depression. He also wants to pass a voting rights bill, but is worried he will alienate Southern legislators.
Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., frustrated at the lack of progress on voting rights, has mounted a vote campaign in Selma, Alabama, which Sheriff Jim Clark meets with brutality.
As Johnson attempts to juggle these issues, a crisis develops in Vietnam: The Viet Cong attack a Marine support base, and the President feels compelled to retaliate. Despite Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s trepidations, Johnson agrees to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s plan for a bombing campaign and an increase in American troops to get the North Vietnamese to negotiate.
King organizes a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. After the marchers are brutally attacked by Sheriff Clark’s troopers, Johnson tries to get Governor Wallace to protect them, but he refuses. Furious, Johnson puts the Alabama National Guard under federal control.
At the same time, he sends his voting rights bill to Congress. Legislative victories follow as Congress passes bills on Medicare, education, poverty programs, and finally, voting rights.
But ominous events cloud these bright achievements: Facing instability in Vietnam, Johnson vastly increases American troops. Despite greater numbers, they meet with little success. Then, one week after he signs the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots in Los Angeles begin to stir up public opinion against civil rights.
As 1966 dawns, the Vietnam War is dragging on and the casualties are mounting, with no sign of victory in sight. King has moved north to Chicago to challenge housing discrimination there. Johnson is trying to pass an open-housing bill to remedy discrimination, but is facing stiff resistance, particularly from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. After white residents attack peaceful black demonstrators, riots erupt.
The civil unrest in the North increasingly swings American voters to the right. In quick succession, Johnson is handed defeats on his open-housing bill and in the midterm elections of 1966. A divide begins to appear between King and the President over the issue. At the beginning of 1967, soldier deaths have mounted ominously and protests against the war have increased. Finally, King speaks out against the war, which creates an irreversible rift between the two men.
On the economic front, the war has caused deficits and inflation to mount. Johnson is forced to defend his social programs against budget cuts by conservatives and his war policy from attacks by the left. An atmosphere of paranoia envelops the White House as Johnson increasingly suspects Robert Kennedy of trying to undermine him. Finally, in early 1968, the President is faced with a major North Vietnamese offensive and a near-defeat in the New Hampshire primary. He decides not to run for another term.