Betcha saw this theme coming—after all, it's basically the presidents' job to come up with a vision of what they want for America. The Great Society speech was Johnson's chance to put it all out there. LBJ looked at America and saw promise. Sure, there were problems, serious problems. There were also serious resources—namely money, ingenuity, and the drive to succeed. Johnson was a true believer in the nation's ability to better itself, and in the Great Society speech, he hoped to turn his audience into believers, too.
It was a pretty ambitious vision, and he got much of it done through a torrent of legislation and a long list of new programs. People can argue about whether his war on poverty or Civil Rights Act were a success or not, but plenty of his visions became reality.
In 1964 the U.S. economy was strong, so Americans felt they could afford to help out people in need.
The Great Society programs just created a "nanny state"—too much dependence on federal government.
The Great Society speech came from a very personal place for Johnson. LBJ had grown up poor in the Texas Hill Country. He'd taught poor Mexican-American kids at a segregated school in south Texas. He knew something about poverty and unfair treatment. In the speech, Johnson points out the inequality of opportunities in American society, but he refuses to accept that those discrepancies are permanent ways of life.
Johnson gave the speech as the civil rights movement was reaching its boiling point. Martin Luther King had been putting issues of race and class all up in LBJ's face as he pushed for racial justice and equal opportunity for all Americans. Johnson was counting on the Michigan grads to be equal-opportunity warriors, despite their generally privileged positions as students in an elite university. The wars on poverty and racism was gonna start with them.
LBJ was proud of his Texas roots, but he often felt like an outsider in the Kennedy administration, which was full of sophisticated Ivy Leaguers.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights legislation outlawing segregation and discrimination, Black Americans were still cut out of equal educational and job opportunities.
Johnson didn't look (or act) like a Kumbaya kinda guy.
Given by a foul-mouthed guy who could be a brutal wheeler-dealer, was an expert political manipulator, and took meetings while sitting on the can with the bathroom door open, why does the Great Society speech have such an evangelizing quality? Soaring rhetoric, a focus on personal meaning—the president was asking folks to seek out something better, something beyond individual wants and needs. A rich life of the mind, preserving nature, creativity, words like "wonder," destiny," and "needs of the spirit"—we didn't think LBJ had it in him.
Maybe he'd listened to enough speeches by Dr. King to pull it off.
Actually, Johnson was a devoutly religious Christian. According to his friends and pastors, he really believed that these Great Society aspirations were moral imperatives, all of them a version of "Love thy neighbor" (source). He could quote the Bible as well as anybody and didn't have to be convinced by Dr. King or anyone else that God intended all people to be dealt with justly and compassionately. That was a non-negotiable article of faith for LBJ.
In a way, this emphasis on personal meaning and spiritual fulfillment was the same spirit of the sixties that spawned the youth movement. People were looking for meaning in a materialistic world that didn't seem to be making their parents totally happy. The University of Michigan grads were the perfect audience for pitching these ideas, because every student sitting there was wondering what their future would hold and how they'd find their purpose in life.
At least that's what we're hoping they were contemplating. Maybe they were just wondering if their roommate remembered to pick up the keg.
Bachelor's degrees in the humanities peaked several years after this speech. It's been mostly downhill ever since.
Johnson's reverence for nature laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement with landmark legislation on land conservation and resource management. Thanks, Lady Bird.