Today's date:
Winter 1987

Second Thoughts: Reflections on the Great Society

Bill Moyers was President Lyndon A Johnson's press secretary and has been a commentator and producer for CBS Network News. These excerpts are adapted from an address delivered at Hofstra University's Fifth Annual Presidential Conference, "L.B.J., A Texan in Washington'' in April, 1986. The full proceedings of that conference will be published and available from Hofstra University or Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

The Time to Act
"This is the time to act," Lyndon Johnson said on the first morning after that fateful day of John Kennedy's assassination in 1963. By nightfall of that same day he instructed his chief economic advisor to proceed full steam ahead on planning the anti-poverty program. Within days, he met with the leaders of every major civil rights organization in the country and he called the powers in Congress.

On the map of his mind there was already appearing, in bold relief, the routes he would ask the country to follow. Our resources were growing at a rate of 5 percent a year and his economic advisors, in the words of Walter Heller, assured him that, "in our time, the engine of our economy would be the mightiest engine of human progress the world has ever seen." Just by shifting a small portion of the additional resources created by growth, it was thought we could abolish poverty without raising taxes. Lyndon Johnson came to believe we could all join in the positive sum game of getting richer together.

The economics matched the politics. Critics attacked his notion of consensus, but the President kept insisting that, in politics, you cast your stakes wide and haul up a big tent with room for everybody who wants in. He sought to stimulate the private sector *into generating growth and jobs. The budgetary deficit, the growth rate of the money supply and, in the beginning, the ratio of social to defense spending were all moderately increased to promote growth. I am one of those who think it worked. We know now that, with the soaring birthrates of the baby-boom, the American workforce increased an extraordinary 40% between 1965 to 1980. In no small part due to the economic and social policies of the Johnson years, the number of jobs almost doubled in the postwar period. We can fairly ask, what might have happened had the crowded baby-boom generation arrived in the workforce without those jobs?

If the President shared the liberal faith that by enlarging the size of the economic pie every one would gain, he instinctively sensed it wasn't enough. He said if income grew without change in relative shares, there would be no increase in equality. He believed equality was the moving horizon which America had been chasing for all its history.

So, with no popular mandate except the conviction that what the best and wisest parents want for their child, the community should want for all its children, he approved an antipoverty program that would try to end-run some deeply ingrained institutional obstacles to social justice.

In his more expansive moments, LBJ talked of going all the way. ''Let's conquer the vastness of space, create schools and jobs for everyone," he said. ''Let's care for the elderly, let's build schools and libraries, let's increase the affluence of the middle-class. Let's improve the productivity of business, let's do more for civil rights in one Congress than the last one hundred years combined. Let's get started in all of these areas," as he said in his first State of the Union Address, "by summer" and "with no increase in spending."

Fleecing the Poor
We were in Tennessee. During a motorcade, the President spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs by a few plain, he called them homely, white women on the edge of the crowd. Late that night in the hotel, long past midnight, he was still going on about how poor whites and poor blacks had been kept apart so that they could separately be fleeced-. ''I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it," he said. "If you can convince the lowest white man that he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll even empty his pockets for you."

Integration and Backlash
For weeks in 1964 the President carried in his pocket the summary of a census bureau report showing that the lifetime earnings of an average black college graduate were actually lower than that of a white man with an eighth-grade education. And when the New York Times reported in November 1964 that racial segregation was increasing instead of decreasing, he took his felt tip pen and scribbled across it, "Shame, shame, shame," and sent it to Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader of the Senate.

In those days our faith was In integration. Lyndon Johnson thought the opposite of integration was not just segregation, but disintegration - a nation unravelling.

America was a segregated country when LBJ came to power. It wasn't when he left. From his very first hours in office, he would move to combat it on a broad front. But he also knew not an inch would be won cheaply. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to many of us a watershed in American history. It was one of the most exhilarating triumphs of the Johnson years. Yet, late on the night of signing the bill, I found the President in a melancholy mood. I asked what was troubling him. "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come," he said. Even as his own popularity soared in that heady year, the President saw the gathering storm of a backlash.

Compromise with the Powers That Be
In 1965, I sent to the President an essay by Herbert Marcuse, the leftist philosopher so admired by the student movement, in which Marcuse applauded LBJ's objectives, but doubted the government's ability to stay the course. "Rebuilding the cities, restoring the countryside, redeeming the poor and reforming education," said Marcuse, "could produce nondestructive full employment. This requires," he said, ''nothing more, nothing less than the actual reconstruction outlined in the President's program. But the very program," he said, "requires the transformation of power structures standing in the way of its fulfillment."

An example of this was the call I got from Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley. Almost before I could say, hello, he said, "What in the hell are you people doing? Does the President know he's putting money in the hands of subversives?" Mayor Daley's definition of a subversive was anyone outside of his political machine. And, through the Community Action Program of the antipoverty program, the President was pouring money, "M-O-N-E-Y," Mr. Daley spelled it out on the phone, "money to poor people that aren't part of our organization. Didn't the President know they'd take that money to bring him down?" In the end, as I found out, the Community Action Director eventually hired for Chicago was one of Richard Daley's own men. So, Chicago was made safe for poverty and democracy.

Lost Consensus and Vietnam
"We can continue the Great Society while we fight in Vietnam," he told the country. To the President, both were the unfinished business of his generation.

This proved an improvident and deadly combination and contributed to the erosion of his cherished consensus into strenuous and sometimes violent conflict.

Such conflicts, ranging from the problems with Mayor Daley or George Wallace to the race riots in our major cities, would have been serious enough without the Vietnam War. But, an unpopular war caused defections on the part of people who might otherwise have supported the domestic vision. Opponents of the war and critics of the Great Society were soon finding one another's company against a government they saw as a common foe; and the more the President sought to drive dissent to the fringe of the public square, the more the square blazed with the fires of his own effigies. By 1967, neither the President nor the country talked any more of a grand vision.

What worked? What failed?
In 1967, 75 % of all Americans over 65 had no medical insurance and a third of the elderly lived in poverty. More than 90% of all black adults in the South were not registered to vote. Across the nation, there were only about 200 black elected officials. There was no Head Start for kids.

Today, Medicare, food stamps, and more generous Social Security benefits have helped reduce poverty among the elderly by half. Nearly 6,000 blacks hold elected office. A majority of small children attend preschool programs. The bedrock of the Great Society - Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, the right of blacks to citizenship - are permanent features of the American system.

What went wrong? Some things that went wrong were blamed on this Great Society without cause. As Ben Wattenberg has pointed out, there was no Soft-On-Crime Act'' of 1966. There was no "Permissive Curriculum Act'' of 1967, or a ''Get Vindictive With Business Act'' of 1968. But plenty of things went wrong. Progress fell victim to pork-barrel politics. The idea of giving the poor resources for leadership never got the support it deserved. Employment training projects suffered from high drop-out rates. There were often no jobs when the training ended. And, of course, the costs exceeded the estimate.

We had, in short, jumped too fast, spread out too far, too thinly over too vast a terrain. And then we gave to war on a distant front against an enemy that would not bargain, compromise or reason. They wanted only to win.

For once in his remarkable career, Lyndon Johnson sat down at the table, divided up the chips, cut the cards, and no one showed up to deal.

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