LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ legacy after half a century
His domestic agenda gets positive marks
January marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dramatic declaration that his still-new administration was giving high priority to economic poverty, and not just the reduction but literal eradication of the problem in the United States.
He declared a “war on poverty.” Media commentary on the benchmark anniversary has been emphasizing this anti-poverty effort.
In fact, however, that was just one component of an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, titled “The Great Society” and pressed urgently in Congress. LBJ’s program was described in detail in his 1964 State of the Union address, less than 2 months after the shocking assassination of predecessor John F. Kennedy had catapulted Johnson into the Oval Office.
At that point, the new president was a reassuring, respected figure. In 1945, there had been widespread public anxiety when relatively unknown Vice President Harry S. Truman became chief executive. He succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt, who dominated the landscape of American politics, and increasingly the wider world, during an unprecedented 12 years in the White House.
By contrast, Johnson had been a consistently strong, visible leader in the U.S. Senate through the 1950s. He had delivered home state Texas into the Democratic electoral column in the exceptionally close 1960 election. That was crucial to victory for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket.
LBJ linked eliminating poverty to ending unemployment as well. He also emphatically pressed Congress to pass comprehensive legislation on civil rights, tax reduction, medical care for senior citizens, transportation and related national infrastructure redevelopment, and foreign aid. That last program in the 1960s involved more money in real terms, and far more controversy, than is the case today.
Characteristically seized by his own vision of the future, this president declared that the Congress should “… build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any … in the history of our Republic.”
Remarkably, he largely delivered on the agenda. McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser, later described the experience as seemingly seeing “one freight train per minute” relentlessly moving through Congress.
The wheeling and dealing involved was extraordinary. LBJ hedged on Medicare cost estimates, insightfully arguing time was of the essence, and that the people would become strongly supportive of the program. This history bears directly on the current health care debate.
After 1964, growing social and political turmoil, and violence, came to characterize the decade. In early 1968, Hanoi’s Tet Offensive destroyed U.S. public support for the Vietnam War.
During LBJ’s last months in the White House, his public appearances were limited almost exclusively to military bases, such was the hostility toward him. The war devastated him emotionally as well as politically.
Yet, President Johnson’s populist legacy endures. Hurricane Betsy in 1965 provides one telling example.
This was the first Gulf Coast storm to create more than $1 billion in damage. LBJ immediately flew to New Orleans and ceaselessly visited storm victims, slogging through deep water to shacks. He shined a flashlight on his own face after dark, so residents could recognize their visitor.
Federal relief was comprehensive – and immediate.
Poverty has been reduced since the mid-1960s from approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population to an estimated 15 percent, even though the income threshold has been raised. Great Society programs have been successful.
The civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965 fundamentally altered race relations. Profound long-term results include the election of Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.
Note to readers: Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College.