Thirty years in politics had prepared Lyndon Johnson for just about anything.
Except becoming president in the wake of tragedy.
Oh, he wanted to be president. But not by assassination. "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today," he said in a national address five days after John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas.
It was Johnson's responsibility to bring the country together and move forward. So he pledged to continue the work that Kennedy had started on civil rights, poverty, and a host of other issues. But he'd make those programs his own, stamping them with an "LBJ" brand just like an old Texas cowboy.
Johnson was a New Dealer at heart. He'd come to Congress in 1937 with his dad's words echoing in his ears: "Now, you get up there, support FDR all the way, never shimmy, and give 'em hell" (source).
Now that he was president, Johnson saw the opportunity to go even further than Roosevelt had. He firmly believed government had a duty and a right to help folks facing hard times, injustice, and other problems. So he devoted his time and energy to passing legislation that would strengthen the social safety net established during the New Deal.
In his first State of the Union address, on January 8th, 1964, LBJ declared "unconditional war on poverty." Thirty-four million Americans—about 18 percent—lived in poverty. Of those 34 million, 15 million were under the age of 18. Another 5 million were over 65. Prosperous America was failing the most vulnerable members of society, the very young and the very old. "The richest Nation on earth can afford to win (this war)," he said. "We cannot afford to lose it" (source).
From the outset, there was a reaction from conservative circles to Johnson's vision. His 1964 presidential election battle against staunch conservative Barry Goldwater set the stage for decades of argument about the proper role of government. Johnson won in a landslide of epic proportions, but the Goldwater campaign started a conservative revolution against government overreach that only grew stronger under the Reagan presidency.
The war on poverty was just the start.
As Johnson's Great Society came into clearer focus, the president signed more than 200 new laws aimed at making America a better, fairer place to live. Civil rights, voting rights, clean air and water, mass transit, consumer protection, aid to education, health care, housing, immigration, the arts—if the president thought it could make a positive difference in the lives of Americans, there was a law for it.
For their trouble, Johnson called the 89th Congress "fabulous" for passing 60 of his bills.
Critics charged that government was growing too big and that Americans were becoming too dependent on costly federal handouts. But Johnson, keenly aware that a president had limited time to make lasting change, pushed for more.
The war in Vietnam changed everything.
Three previous presidents had sent aid and military advisers to Southeast Asia. Johnson sent combat troops. As the troop numbers, costs, and casualties mounted, the public—who was treated to body counts on the nightly TV news— turned against the war and Johnson. Students who'd been excited by the promise of the Great Society took to the streets in protest, chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?"
Other Americans were souring on LBJ's ambitious initiatives. Riots in Black inner-city neighborhoods eroded white support for the Great Society, as whites came to believe its programs disproportionately benefited Black Americans.
With his approval ratings tanking and the public questioning both his military policies and his social programs, Johnson decided not to run for reelection in 1968. But he hadn't given up on the Great Society.
In 1969, shortly before he left Washington for his beloved Texas ranch, Johnson mused, "I hope it may be said, 100 years from now, that we helped to make this country more just. That's what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried" (source).
Lots of Great Society programs are now embedded in our society's DNA: Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, civil rights laws, funding of public schools and higher education, Head Start, environmental protection—if anything, those programs have expanded over the years.
The legacy of the war on poverty? Well, that depends on who you ask. Poverty declined during the '60s, but climbed up again in subsequent decades. We've got more social safety nets, but they haven't made a dent in the number of people living below the poverty line.
On the other hand, more people are graduating from college; we've made a serious dent in hunger and malnutrition in the U.S.; infant mortality rates have declined; from 1959 to 2012, the poverty rate among seniors declined from 35% to 9% (source).
Problem is, these Great Society programs are hugely expensive. It takes strong popular support and political will to keep paying for them, and it's not always there, especially in tough economic times. The National Endowment for the Arts or more national parks might seem like luxuries during an economic recession.
Or is it?
LBJ would argue that this would be exactly the time to nourish the soul with the arts and nature. But lots of people believe that, with wages stagnating and many folks left out of the economy, a great society is first and foremost one with strong industry and good jobs to lift people out of poverty. If a program, however well-intentioned, is going to negatively affect the economy, well then, it has to be reconsidered.
Stay tuned. Maybe just not to PBS.