After endlessly witnessing NFL players kneel for our national anthem and Black Lives Matter advocates whining that the American taxpayer hasn’t been generous enough to them, we finally see something positive come out of the African American community.
Jeremy Hunt, whose father is a black minister, said his dad taught him when he was growing up in Georgia that he should look at people as individuals. Not at the color of their skin or through the lens of race, but at the content of their character. The same way it was wrong that’s it’s wrong for white racists to hate black people, it’s now wrong for black people to hate white people for being white. He added that until recently, he had never found his father’s teachings to be considered radical, but in today’s society, these teachings are being rejected far too often by folks on both sides of the color aisle.
He later goes on to add that today we have on one side a few neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching and spewing poisonous hatred of blacks and Jews, and on the other side we have some black folks becoming a “horrifying mirror image” by preaching for hatred and segregation of white people.
A Not-So-Great Society
The failure, and success, of Lyndon B. Johnson.
The rise and fall of Lyndon B. Johnson from 1963 to 1968 is now recalled as a cautionary tale in the history of postwar America, illustrating at once the possibilities and perils of bold presidential leadership. Few presidents have achieved the popularity and electoral success Johnson enjoyed in his first few years in office. Throughout 1964 and 1965, his approval ratings hovered around 70 percent, which largely explains why he won the 1964 presidential election in a historic landslide. During those same two years, Johnson surpassed all 20th-century presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the number of important progressive programs he managed to steer through Congress. For a brief time, LBJ’s oversized presence on the public stage diverted Americans from memories of the awful events in Dallas that elevated him to the presidency.
Johnson’s collapse was as startling as his ascent. By late 1966, beset by urban riots and rising crime, mounting opposition to his policy in Vietnam, and the unanticipated costs of Great Society programs, Johnson lost control of the national agenda—and along with it his influence over Congress. His approval ratings fell to 35 percent in 1967 and 1968. By this time, LBJ’s critics were beginning to look back upon Kennedy’s assassination as a turning point that gave power to an ambitious politician ill-equipped to exercise it. Under attack from left and right, and facing primary challenges from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Johnson told the nation in early 1968 that he would not seek his party’s nomination for the presidency. Defeated and discredited, he served out the remaining months of his term before retreating in poor health to his Texas ranch, where he died in January 1973.
The Johnson saga has been told many times and in many ways, by liberal critics who identify LBJ’s presidency with the failed intervention in Vietnam, by conservatives who see in the Great Society a case study in governmental “overreach,” and by a list of historians and journalists who attribute Johnson’s collapse to his own personal failures. Who was the real Lyndon Baines Johnson: the scheming and power-hungry politician, the reckless cold warrior who took the nation into a ground war in Southeast Asia, or the visionary architect of the Great Society and the civil rights revolution?
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. Kennedy. 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 1960s 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. 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 1970s and ’80s, Johnson’s programs survived intact. Many of them continue to shape our politics to this day. 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. At the time, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and other liberal theorists were writing about the challenge of recasting liberalism to address “quality of life” issues that had become important in the postwar era of affluence and suburbanization. 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 1914 socialist tract by British political scientist Graham Wallas—as the slogan through which he would communicate his updated vision of liberal reform. In May 1964, in a commencement address at the University of Michigan, he used the term for the first time.
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. The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization. . . . For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.
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 1964 alone, he won approval for Kennedy’s tax cut, the Civil Rights Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act that codified his “war on poverty.” LBJ’s working relationship with Everett Dirksen, leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, was essential to the passage of this legislation. 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 1963 through 1966, 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 1964 election with 61 percent of the popular vote, thus outdoing FDR in his 1936 landslide reelection, while also bringing in safe majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. LBJ, now elected in his own right, proceeded in 1965 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 1965, eliminating pro-European quotas in U.S. policy and opening the doors to immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
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 1966 and has expanded to about 57 million participants today and is projected to grow to 80 million by 2030. Medicaid has grown even more rapidly, from 4 million beneficiaries in 1966 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 2006 (though an important section of the bill was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013). 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 1965 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 1965 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. 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. On August 6, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. 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 60,000 to 125,000 and an increase in the military draft from 17,000 to 35,000 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 1960s. Students disrupted college campuses in protest against the war in Vietnam. By 1968, the United States had descended into something resembling a “dystopia,” to use the author’s term. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within weeks of one another during the spring of that year; in August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was disrupted by more riots in full view of a national television audience.
Johnson, who ascended to power in a tragic moment of national unity, left the presidency with the nation in revolt against his policies and at war with itself.
The trajectory of Johnson’s presidency, Woods acknowledges, badly tarnished the Great Society: Many believed that LBJ’s programs caused the violence and disorder that accompanied them. Nevertheless, in Woods’s view, Johnson’s Great Society programs (mostly) survived the tumult of the 1960s and have proven their worth by the sheer fact of their persistence.
The author argues that, despite Johnson’s downfall, the Great Society improved American society over the long haul by reducing poverty, expanding educational opportunities for the poor, extending affordable health care to the poor and elderly, introducing environmental concerns into national politics, and breaking up the racial caste system across the South. Woods rejects any link between the Great Society and the disorder of the 1960s. If Johnson erred, he writes, it was in other areas: in his Vietnam policy, for example, and in ordering the FBI to spy on domestic opponents, including civil rights leaders, antiwar groups, “black power” advocates, and (even) Robert Kennedy.
It is true that the Great Society represented a significant break from the policies of the past; and probably true also that the Great Society exceeded the New Deal in the scope and scale of its programs. Most of these programs, by now, are securely embedded in the national system. At the same time, the Great Society set in motion a sequence of destructive consequences that cannot be ignored in settling accounts of the Johnson years.
In the first place, critics had a point when they drew a link between the war on poverty and urban crime and disorder. Between 1964 and 1969, for example, a period of expanding economic opportunity, the welfare rolls in New York City tripled from around three hundred thousand to more than a million people because the mayor and community activists saw an opportunity to take advantage of the new availability of federal funds. Those numbers on public assistance stabilized at a million or more until the 1990s, when reform efforts succeeded in paring back the rolls. What happened in New York City occurred throughout the country: Welfare rolls multiplied, and so did crime, disorder, broken families, dysfunctional schools, and out-of-wedlock births. The unraveling of America’s cities largely took place within a few years in the late 1960s, corresponding to LBJ’s time in office. Ronald Reagan once remarked that “In the ’60s, we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” That statement may have been an exaggeration, but it also contained an element of truth: The scores of burned-out, crime-ridden, and bankrupt cities in America today must be counted as part of the legacy of the Great Society.
Taken together, Johnson’s various initiatives smashed what James Q. Wilson once called “the legitimacy barrier,” the older idea that the federal role was limited to a few clearly defined and agreed-upon fields. By the time he left office, there was no important area of American life in which the federal government did not take an active part. Was this a good thing? The effect of this process was to politicize vast new areas of American life and to bring all major institutions under the financial and regulatory control of the federal government, including especially local schools, colleges and universities, social service organizations, and even museums and symphony orchestras. To a great degree, state and local governments are now heavily dependent upon federal aid and thereby burdened by the cumbersome regulations that accompany federal assistance.
More profoundly, the Great Society gradually turned the Democratic party into a “government party,” organized around public employee unions, lobbyists and interest groups, and would-be recipients of federal funds. Many of the once-vital institutions of America’s civil society have been turned into appendages of the national government.
Then there were the economic and financial consequences of Johnson’s spending binge. Johnson’s “guns and butter” policy soon placed pressure on the federal budget and led, in turn, to rising inflation. This was a key factor that led to the breakdown of the international monetary regime forged after World War II. Under that system, foreign currencies were pegged to the dollar and the dollar, in turn, was pegged at a fixed rate to gold. Rising inflation in the late 1960s led to an outflow of gold reserves from the United States, which, by 1971, forced the United States to abandon the gold standard altogether.
The breakup of the Bretton Woods regime led to a decade of economic disorder, here and abroad, as the United States and our trading partners battled a combination of slow economic growth and rising inflation. In addition to that, Great Society programs placed the federal budget on auto-pilot so that it expanded relentlessly year-by-year, regardless of expense or other priorities—a condition we still wrestle with today, and the main reason why we now have a $4 trillion federal budget and over $19 trillion in national debt.
Professor Woods is certainly correct: We still live in the shadow of the Great Society. But that is far from being the benign reality that he portrays in Prisoners of Hope. What, then, are the lessons of the Johnson years—or, indeed, what are the limits of liberal reform? These are deep questions, and Woods deserves credit for raising them. Nevertheless, despite the subtitle of his book, he does not begin to answer them, which is the main defect in this otherwise admirable history.
Hunt is indeed an honorable man. But what does he have that 78% of African American born today don’t have? You got it, a father at home, or at least a father figure he can look up to. Thanks to the Democrat Party and the failed presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and his program, “The Great Society” which taught the African American male that he no longer needed to care for his offspring because that’s what the government was there for.
All this to get African Americans to vote for the Democrat Party. They ruined a whole segment of society. And no one has ever held them to account, and probably never will.
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