Study Guide

The Great Society Speech Analysis

By Lyndon B. Johnson

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  • Rhetoric


    You'd think that, being the president and all, LBJ didn't need to establish his credibility with the audience. He didn't waste time emphasizing that he's the leader of the free world or that he knows more than you do about the Constitution. Everyone already knew that.

    But he also knew that he was talking to an audience of young adults, so he tried to boost his cred at the beginning of the speech with some jokes about co-ed college student partying—a few "I'm hip" statements to let them know he's been there, too.


    The Great Society speech is an emotional roller coaster (in a good way).

    It climbs as the president touts Americans' past achievements: "For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people" (9-10).

    It dips as he describes the problems: "It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today. (…) The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. (…) Classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated" (30, 46, 64).

    And it rises when he talks about solutions: "New experiments are already going on" (38).

    Finally, it climbs the last big hill with an appeal to the new graduates in the audience. Four times Johnson asks, "Will you join in the battle (…)" (85-88).

    Then it pulls back into the station with a positive declaration: "We have the power to shape the civilization that we want" (91).

    Not a bad ride, really.

  • Structure


    The Great Society speech was written specifically for the University of Michigan's 1964 commencement ceremony. Delivered 6 months to the day after JFK's assassination—and almost 6 months before the 1964 presidential election—it clearly marked a new point in LBJ's administration. With this 20-minute speech, Johnson took ownership of the significant social changes he wanted to make and laid out the platform he'd run on in the fall.

    How it Breaks Down

    Practice swings (1-24)

    Johnson acknowledges the dignitaries in the house and makes a few jokes about coed life at UMich. He ties accomplishments of the past to dreams for the future.

    Ball 1: Cities (25-39)

    American cities are in trouble. Unaffordable housing, crumbling infrastructure, and unemployment make daily life there a grind. We've got to reinvent our urban areas.

    Ball 2: Environment (43-52)

    America's a beautiful place, but it won't be much longer if we don't take care of it. (The Once-ler can explain.)

    Ball 3: Classrooms (53-72)

    American schools are failing, and millions aren't getting the education they need to make this a better place for everyone regardless of race or religion.

    Home run (73-98)

    The president asks for the graduates' help in making the Great Society a reality.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Great Society Speech

    Nothing tricky about this. It's a speech about President Lyndon Johnson's plans to fix some problems in America and build a more just, equal, and fair place to live. He called his plan the Great Society.

    The Great Society name would be applied to Johnson's entire domestic agenda. Johnson had used the phrase "great society" in earlier speeches, including one delivered at the University of Ohio on May 7th, 1964. But it was the University of Michigan speech that crystallized the idea and focused on specific areas of concern.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    This university has been coeducational since 1870, but I do not believe it was on the basis of your accomplishments that a Detroit high school girl said, "In choosing a college, you first have to decide whether you want a coeducational school or an educational school."

    "Well, we can find both here at Michigan, although perhaps at different hour.

    "I came out here today very anxious to meet the Michigan student whose father told a friend of mine that his son's education had been a real value.

    "It stopped his mother from bragging about him.

    "I have come today from the turmoil of your Capital to the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of your country." (2-6)

    LBJ doesn't get to the meat of the speech until Line 6. First, he has to set up the audience. He acknowledges University of Michigan president Harlan Hatcher; Michigan governor George Romney (father of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney); the Michigan congressional delegation; and finally, the Class of 1964.

    After a couple of jokes (yeah, you probably had to be there), he's ready to share his great ideas for a Great Society. He's gotta show the young audience that he can, y'know, relate.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country.

    They sought a new world.

    So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality.

    So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life. (93-96)

    Johnson connects the Great Society to the aspirations of earlier settlers and immigrants. Pretty appropriate for a speech to new grads just about to set out on their own adventures and explorations. He's essentially giving the students an opportunity to find a place for themselves within the larger American story.

    Then he finishes strong with a line reminiscent of the last line of Winston Churchill's "Finest Hour" speech before the Battle of Britain in 1940. He's letting the grads know that it's up to them to turn things around in this country.

    Mic drop.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    LBJ didn't go in for a lot of fancy talk. The language is basic, but the idea is huge.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Aristotle, Politics (29)
    • St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei (The City of God) (19)
    • The Ugly American, Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer (49)

    Historical and Political References

    References to this Text

    Historical and Political References

    • Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Fund-raising Dinner Honoring Former Representative John M. Ashbrook in Ashland, Ohio, May 9th, 1983
    • Bill Clinton, Interview With Bob Herbert of the New York Times in Anaheim, California, July 11th, 1999
    • Barack Obama, Commencement Address at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 1st, 2010

    Pop Culture References

    • "The Lyndon Johnson Song," Electric Needle Room 
    • The Great Society ('60s San Francisco psychedelic band—they didn't mean it as a compliment (source).
  • Trivia

    LBJ liked to let it all hang out. He brought up the idea for the Great Society speech while swimming with two advisers—naked. (Source)

    LBJ went nuclear on his opponent, Barry Goldwater, in the 1964 presidential campaign. An ad featuring a little girl, a daisy, and an atomic bomb aired only once, but it ushered in a new era of negative political advertising. (Source)

    Way to save on monogrammed towels. The whole Johnson clan had the same initials: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Lynda Bird Johnson, Luci Baines Johnson. And don't forget the family pooch: Little Beagle Johnson. (Source)

    LBJ got the Texas Hill Country to turn on and tune in. As a first-term congressman, he helped bring electricity to the region under the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration. (Source)

    Lady Bird Johnson knew when to stop and smell the roses…and bluebonnets and coneflowers. She founded the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 to study North America's native plants. It grew out of her Great Society work on behalf of the environment and is now named in her honor. (Source)

    Richard Goodwin, speechwriter for JFK and LBJ, was a special investigator for the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight in 1959 when Congress looked into charges that popular TV quiz shows were rigged. Alex Trebek would never stand for that (but he's Canadian). (Source)

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