Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson chose not to believe Americans were condemned to “soulless wealth” and elucidated a new version of American exceptionalism, “The Great Society,” valuing quality of life above quantity of stuff.
President Lyndon Johnson could have been a character in a Greek tragedy. His accomplishments were immense. He twisted enough arms to win the Civil Rights Act, despite recalcitrant fellow Southern Democrats and the knowledge that he was sacrificing the South as a source of Democratic votes for at least a generation. He outlined and won passage of the War on Poverty, perhaps the most significant social justice legislation in our history. He signed into law bills establishing national wilderness areas and parks and other environmental protections.
But Johnson’s hubris, the pride that precedes a fall in Greek morality plays, led him to escalate rather than resolve a war in Vietnam passed on to him by his predecessor, John Kennedy. The war served Johnson badly; he used the deception of unproven North Vietnamese attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to persuade Congress to give him unprecedented war-making powers. In time, his escalated war would cost 57,000 American lives and two million Vietnamese.
What [LBJ] did want, and wanted to be remembered for, was what he called “The Great Society,” a vision of an America . . . transformed to value things other than wealth and power.
In time also, war protestors who were willing to go “Part of the way with LBJ,” when he ran against Barry Goldwater were asking, “How many kids did you kill today?” The war’s unpopularity brought Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy into the 1968 primaries against him. On March 31, looking wan and defeated, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. Five years later, he was dead at 64, either despised or forgotten, a sad and lonely man.
His daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, believes it unfair to judge her father by the war alone; it was never what he wanted, she argues. What he did want, and wanted to be remembered for, was what he called “The Great Society,” a vision of an America not more powerful or richer than others, but transformed to value things other than wealth and power. He laid out his vision in a remarkable speech delivered 50 years ago on May 22, 1964, to graduates at the University of Michigan.
Unique Perspective for an American President
Though Johnson was no silver-tongued orator like President Obama, his words, crafted by speechwriter Richard Goodwin, rang with inspiration and truth. And though he didn’t write the speech, there can be no doubt that Johnson shared its values; Johnson was a man who would never let another person put words that he disagreed with in his mouth.
The speech was arguably the greatest ever delivered by a modern American president. It was a different take on American exceptionalism, exceptionally different from what America has actually become. Its gender-biased language is dated, but its message is far more advanced than our current dialogue.
Indeed, no president would dare speak Johnson’s words today for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or un-American. The speech was a call to redefine the American dream. We should not let its 50th anniversary pass without recalling it and recommitting ourselves to its goals. It contains a perspective on American life never articulated by any American president before or since then.
Reaching back to the Declaration of Independence, Johnson reminded his audience that wealth, power, economic growth or military superiority should not be our goals.
The purpose of protecting the life of our nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation.
He suggested that we already had enough wealth; greater labors of Sisyphus were no longer necessary. It was time to elevate quality above quantity.
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.
Growth Trumps Quality
Today, instead of quality of life, politicians speak of “growth” as if it is the answer to all problems, an economic good without negative externalities. In the debates of 1996, vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp declared in a debate with opponent Al Gore that the GOP would “grow the economy” twice as fast as the Democrats could. Gore, the proclaimed environmentalist, never questioned whether such rapid growth would be a good idea given the limits of the biosphere.
“Expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.”
President Obama and liberal economists like Paul Krugman pay as much homage to the god of growth as Republicans do. But 50 years ago, when America was far less wealthy, Lyndon Johnson had no problem going where Gore and Obama would not.
Your imagination, your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. . . . Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.
Johnson thought we ought to be indignant about unbridled growth. How far we have come since then in forgetting the wisdom in his words!
Johnson was clear that the War on Poverty, which he had launched that January, and the Civil Rights Act, which he was just then muscling through Congress, were priorities, but by themselves, they were not his ultimate goal.
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.
Honoring Leisure Time
Our modern presidents deify endless work. They are obsessed with incentives to labor and compete, but seem totally unconcerned that leisure too can be time well spent. The Jack they idolize is “all work and no play.” He may be dull but he is productive and successful, whatever those words have now come to mean.
Johnson thought differently. The time had already come, he noted, to honor free time. He knew then that you cannot talk about building social connection when people do not have time for each other. He knew that the good life is not about being constantly busy in a rat race to nowhere.
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
Today, the “demands of commerce” reign supreme. You cannot propose anything in our modern legislatures without first asking if it would be good for business above all other priorities.
Johnson was also one of a handful of American presidents who truly made the environment a priority. Modern happiness research has shown clearly how important access to the natural world is for both happiness and health. Hospitals are even being built with every window looking on natural greenery because people heal faster in such rooms. Johnson did not have the benefit of such research but he understood nature’s value.
[The Great Society] is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake. . . . We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.
A few years ago we were greatly concerned about the “Ugly American.” Today we must act to prevent an ugly America. For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.
Who Cares About Meaning Anymore?
Johnson would have abhorred the way we dishonor creation day after day, turning the lush hills of Appalachia into flattened terraces of rubble to strip the coal from their bowels, or filling the oceans with plastic detritus that leaves albatrosses choking and dying two thousand miles from the nearest continent. He continued:
[The Great Society] is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods. . . . It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.
In Johnson’s day, the meaning of our lives meant something. The great majority of college students then, when asked by pollsters, did not feel it necessary to become rich. They wanted work where they could make a difference instead of work where they could make a killing. Today, the polls tell a different story. Indeed, we drive our children like cattle to get the highest grades to get into the most prestigious schools to get the best jobs – defined not by meaning, but by market value – and “compete in the global economy.”
“. . . In the future, men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.”
On that spring day 50 years ago, Johnson asked the students of Michigan to want more from life. He tried to inspire them to demand more than the greed we hold out to them as the meaning of life today.
So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?
Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty? Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace – as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?
Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?
There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.
Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country. They sought a new world. So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality. So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.
A New American Dream
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson chose not to believe that Americans were condemned to “soulless wealth.” He elucidated a new dream valuing quality of life above quantity of stuff. That he was a flawed man does not make his observations any less true. Looking back on his words at the University of Michigan, we see how far we have not come and how far we still must travel.
Luci Baines Johnson is right. For all his faults, and despite the debacle of Vietnam, her father’s legacy deserves reconsideration. But sadly, the good that he did and the dream he shared in his Great Society speech are in danger of being buried with his bones, the latter by the unbridled growth he warned us of.
In our pursuit of growth and greed we have allowed poverty levels in America to creep back toward where they were before his War on Poverty reduced them appreciably. We have allowed inequality to soar to its highest levels ever.
We have allowed the destruction of beauty and nature. We have built an ugly America enslaved to the demands of commerce, where strip malls and billboards line our highways and blight our vistas, and everything we see is flooded with commercial appeals.
We have sacrificed the leisure that Aristotle thought essential to the good life to pointless busyness, impatience, time stress and boredom, perpetually seeking the newest gadget or virtual connection that might drive lack of meaning from our minds.
Moreover, the competition that greed entails has brought back with a vengeance the scourge of racism, hidden by code words until a redneck rancher like Cliven Bundy attempts to rehabilitate slavery, exposing still-festering wounds.
The Great Society remains that gleaming city on the hill that cannot be reached without a new American Dream, a different kind of society and a different kind of human being. Yet it is still there, it is still achievable, and it still beckons.