After half a century, a leading presidential historian says, President Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society” initiatives still have a profound impact on the way most Americans live.
And, in ways both positive and negative, the legacy of Johnson's presidency still casts a shadow over his successors in the White House and over American politics generally.
“It did transform our lives in ways I'm not sure many people necessarily appreciate,” said Richard Norton Smith, a historian and biographer who was also the first full time director of the Dole Institute of Politics on the Kansas University campus.
Smith, whose career also includes stints heading the Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Herbert Hoover presidential libraries, returned to the Dole Institute last week and this week to deliver a series of lectures about first ladies of the United States. During his visit, he took time for an interview with the Journal-World about the upcoming 50th anniversary of LBJ's Great Society programs.
The first recorded mention of the Great Society came on May 7, 1964, at Ohio University in Athens when Johnson said: “"And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.”
Over the next four years, Johnson would enact the most sweeping package of domestic and social legislation the nation had seen since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It included the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid; and the creation of cash assistance programs now commonly referred to as “welfare.”
But they also included less dramatic, although equally memorable initiatives: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – later transformed into No Child Left Behind – that directed federal aid to high-poverty schools; Head Start; national endowments for the arts and humanities; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; forming the U.S. Department of Transportation; consumer protection laws; and the Fair Housing Act.
Some of those programs are now so indelibly fixed in the American consciousness that many people forget they were LBJ programs, or that they are government programs at all, Smith said. That's especially true of Medicare.
“The standing joke now, of course, is the intensive critic of Obamacare who says, 'Don't let the government get its hands on my Medicare,'” Smith said.
But the size and scope of those programs, not to mention their long-term costs, also helped spur a conservative backlash against Democrats, and against “big-government liberalism” generally, which Smith says is still part of the national political conversation today.
“There is a sense that government over-reached, over-promised,” he said. “And to some degree, you can document that. The problem is, it's more complex than that. Some things worked well. Contrary to conventional thinking, the numbers of Americans living in poverty were significantly reduced during that period. But conservatives won the battle of perceptions, and it's the battle of perceptions that ultimately shapes practice.”
While Johnson wanted his presidency to be remembered for those initiatives, he was ultimately driven out of the White House over the other major event that still defines his presidency, the war in Vietnam. And Smith said it's the combination of those two legacies – popular social programs and an unpopular war – that makes it hard for historians, or anyone else, to assess his job performance.
“He's not unusual in that,” Smith said. “Woodrow Wilson had an extraordinarily successful first term. We're now celebrating – or most of us are – the centenary of the Federal Reserve, which is a Wilsonian initiative. … And yet the second term and the war (World War I), and really the aftermath of the war, is deemed to be his historical ball and chain.”
“In Johnson's case, it's almost a perfect parallel,” he said.
The Great Society programs, he said, were based on a faith that government could be trusted to meet great social challenges. But Johnson's handling of the Vietnam war had the exact opposite effect, producing what Smith called a “pervasive distrust and cynicism about government” that still lingers with many people.
“Those are all part of the legacy,” Smith said. “It's an extremely complicated legacy. And, put it this way: It'll keep a lot of historians busy for a long time trying to figure it out.”