Daley and other tough guys. A side note here: Do these names still ring bells with many viewers? If The Great Society is intended to be an animated history lesson, one wishes the illustrations that accompany it packed greater visual punch.
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More a parade of unfortunate circumstances than an effectively curated biography, The Great Society is an earnest consideration of how even a smart and aspirational leader can be undone by his times. Tickets and information: greatsocietybroadway.
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Michael Sommers has written about the New York and regional theater scenes since For an archive of Village Voice reviews, go here. Email: michael nystagereview. Skip to main content Skip to primary sidebar Skip to footer Share this Footer Sign up for new reviews. Johnson, due to his background in Southern politics and rough personal style, was never convincing as a spokesman for the liberal movement, especially among contemporaries used to rallying around the likes of FDR, Adlai Stevenson, and John F.
For this reason, historians and liberal leaders who followed Johnson emphasized the negative lessons of Vietnam while blurring his achievements as a breakthrough domestic reformer. For those who came after, LBJ's presidency was recalled more for its failures than its achievements.
Thus it was Kennedy, and not Johnson, who emerged from the s as the symbolic standard-bearer of the liberal cause. Randall B. Woods introduces some balance into the record in this highly readable single-volume history of the Johnson presidency. A professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of a previous biography of LBJ, Woods sets forth a political history of the Johnson years, attributing his downfall to a mix of events that Johnson did not foresee or could not control.
He acknowledges Johnson's personal faults while resisting the temptation to view him through a psychological prism.
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More important, while recognizing the failure in Vietnam, he argues that Johnson's lasting legacy should be found elsewhere, in his Great Society programs and civil rights legislation. These were monumental breakthroughs, he argues, at least equal in importance to the domestic programs adopted during the New Deal. Moreover, they were lasting achievements: When liberalism fell into disfavor in the s and '80s, Johnson's programs survived intact. Many of them continue to shape our politics to this day.
“Great Society” Speech
For good or ill, we still live in the shadow of the Great Society. It would be an understatement to say that Johnson "hit the ground running" when he inherited the presidency on the day Kennedy was assassinated. He wasted no time grieving for his slain predecessor. As the nation—and the Kennedy family—mourned, Johnson organized all-night sessions with staff and colleagues to lay plans for his presidency. The eagerness with which LBJ seized the reins of power shocked the Kennedys and poisoned relations between the two sides for the duration of Johnson's administration.
Even so, Johnson let it be known that he would honor Kennedy's legacy by pushing through Congress the stalled elements of his domestic agenda: a tax cut to stimulate the economy and a major civil rights bill. But Johnson also signaled that he would go further. On the day after the assassination, he told an aide, "I am a Roosevelt New Dealer. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste. The New Deal, however, was a response to depression and mass unemployment, conditions that no longer prevailed in the mid-'60s.
FDR used the crisis of depression to make the case for reform; Johnson would use postwar abundance as the foundation for his agenda. In a time of plenty, even poverty might be cast as a problem to be solved instead of an ineradicable condition of life. With the help of aides Bill Moyers and Kennedy holdover Richard Goodwin, Johnson settled on "The Great Society"—borrowed from the title of a socialist tract by British political scientist Graham Wallas—as the slogan through which he would communicate his updated vision of liberal reform.
In May , in a commencement address at the University of Michigan, he used the term for the first time. Johnson, sounding very much like a committed liberal, claimed that America's new wealth could be deployed to eliminate poverty, end racial discrimination, rebuild the cities, fix the schools, clean up the environment, and address all manner of national problems. Johnson, however, was an activist and reformer but by no means a liberal ideologue.
In fact, according to Woods, he was something of the opposite: a consensus builder who saw that he needed support from all quarters to win the votes needed to pass his agenda. It was partly for this reason that the liberals in his party never completely trusted him. He told middle-class voters and business leaders that reform was the conservative alternative to violence and upheaval. Johnson worked Congress on a daily basis, calling and meeting with members regularly, either to cajole or browbeat them as the situation required.
His approach succeeded: In alone, he won approval for Kennedy's tax cut, the Civil Rights Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act that codified his "war on poverty. The civil rights bill, in particular, which was opposed by Southerners in Johnson's own party, could not have won approval in the Senate without overwhelming support among Republicans.
Johnson also rode the wave of a booming economy: From through , real GDP grew at a rate of nearly 6 percent per year, the most rapid three-year expansion of the entire postwar period. With the political and economic winds at his back, Johnson won the election with 61 percent of the popular vote, thus outdoing FDR in his landslide reelection, while also bringing in safe majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. LBJ, now elected in his own right, proceeded in to steer through the 89th Congress the lasting pillars of the Great Society: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act providing federal aid to schools with concentrations of poor children ; the Higher Education Act providing federal funds for scholarships and work-study programs for low-income students ; Medicare and Medicaid new entitlements providing federal support for health care for the elderly and the poor ; the Voting Rights Act; and the Immigration and Nationality Act of , eliminating pro-European quotas in U.
The passage of these programs brought about large changes in national policy that continue to shape our politics today. Medicare and Medicaid established a permanent federal role in health care, one that continues to grow in expense year by year. Medicare began with about 19 million participants in and has expanded to about 57 million participants today and is projected to grow to 80 million by Medicaid has grown even more rapidly, from 4 million beneficiaries in to nearly 70 million today. The education acts similarly established a large and ever-growing role for the federal government at all levels of the educational system.
The immigration act has brought waves of new immigrants into the United States from Asia and Latin America. The Voting Rights Act, thought to be a temporary measure required to ensure black voting rights in the South, won renewal and expansion by Congress periodically through the decades, most recently in though an important section of the bill was struck down by the Supreme Court in Professor Woods takes the reader through these various programs, noting how they have evolved or have been reformed over the decades but stressing that, a half-century later, they continue to win support from voters and key interest groups.
Woods points to the summer of as a key turning point during which Johnson's political fortunes suddenly went into reverse. Ironically, in view of the general tenor of Johnson's policies, his downfall was set in motion by liberals and leftists who should have been allies and by groups that his policies were designed to help. The previous spring, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then working in the Labor Department, prepared an explosive statistical report showing that the black family, under stress from poverty and urbanization, was showing signs of breaking apart due to rising numbers of out-of-wedlock births.
After reviewing the report, Johnson delivered a commencement address at Howard University in June in which he described the growing problem and pledged new policies in his war on poverty designed to expand opportunities for the poor and keep urban families intact.
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Johnson's remarks seemed to point toward some kind of guaranteed family income, as opposed to a strategy that delivered services to the poor while sending the money to middle-class providers. When Moynihan's report appeared in a national magazine several weeks later, liberals and leftists denounced it for exaggerating the problem and for "blaming the victim" for responding in understandable ways to the conditions of poverty.
Five days later, rioting broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles that lasted for six days and led to the deaths of 34 people and injuries to more than a thousand others. In response to this event, black activists began to question the value of integration and the goals of the war on poverty. Big-city mayors, including Richard Daley of Chicago, began lodging complaints with the White House that activists were using federal "community action" funds to finance demonstrations and sit-ins in their cities.
Johnson soon scrapped his ideas for expanding the war on poverty and distanced himself from Moynihan's report. At almost exactly the same time, he approved an increase in American ground troops in South Vietnam from 60, to , and an increase in the military draft from 17, to 35, young men per month. From this point forward, Johnson played defense against escalating attacks on his domestic and foreign policies.
The riots in Watts were only a prelude to scores of urban uprisings during subsequent summers. Rates of violent crime spiked year by year through the s. Students disrupted college campuses in protest against the war in Vietnam. By , the United States had descended into something resembling a "dystopia," to use the author's term. Martin Luther King Jr.