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The Great Society Fifty Years Later

Lillian Grace Avery, the nation’s first Medicare beneficiary, enrolls while in her hospital bed.
Lillian Grace Avery, the nation’s first Medicare beneficiary, enrolls while in her hospital bed.

Fifty years ago this coming Thursday Lyndon Baines Johnson launched the program known as the Great Society.

“The Great Society,” Johnson said that day in a commencement address at the University of Michigan, “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. 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. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”

“Today,” according to The Washington Post, “the laws enacted between 1964 and 1968 are woven into the fabric of American life, in ways big and small. They have knocked down racial barriers, provided health care for the elderly and food for the poor, sustained orchestras and museums in cities across the country, put seat belts and padded dashboards in every automobile.” As one LBJ aide, Joseph Califano, put it, “We are living in Lyndon Johnson’s America. This country is more the country of Lyndon Johnson than any other president.”

Yet today it is also fashionable to bash the Great Society, and it is probably fair to say that most, if not every, political battle currently raging is rooted in the Great Society’s expansion of government.

Ronald Reagan based much of his conservative agenda on opposition to LBJ’s programs. “The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal,” Reagan confided in his diary in 1982. “I remind them I voted for F.D.R. 4 times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society,’ It was L.B.J.’s war on poverty that led to our present times.”

Of course, neither Reagan nor successor Republican presidents have succeeded in fundamentally eradicating Great Society programs. But failure has never stopped the GOP, and prominent Republicans continue to assert, as Florida Senator Marco Rubio recently did, “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” (The War on Poverty was one part of the Great Society.)

Prodded by LBJ, the 89th Congress, which sat from January 1965 to January 1967, passed over 200 major pieces of legislation.

The accomplishments were many, too many to detail fully here. Some of the highlights include the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, national origin, religion, or sex; the Voting Rights Act a year later, parts of which the Supreme Court overturned a year ago, guaranteeing all Americans equal access to the voting booth; Head Start, which has educated more than 31 million underprivileged children under the age of five; and the Air Quality Act, which launched the federal government’s efforts to cleanup the environment.

Perhaps the most significant action undertaken under the rubric of the Great Society was the creation of Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly. It’s only today, 50 years later, that the federal government has undertaken to do for all Americans what Medicare does for those over 65. Perversely, it’s senior citizens, exhibiting hypocrisy and ignorance, who rank among the bitterest critics of the Affordable Care Act: Hypocrisy because they would deny access to affordable medical care, which Medicare gives them, to other Americans, and ignorance because Medicare, primarily a single-payer system, is far more progressive than the ACA, which creates exchanges in which consumers buy insurance from private companies rather than a government-administered health-care system.

The Great Society’s accomplishments were, well, great. Unfortunately, the desire to accomplish great things, given impetus when LBJ became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, waned in the mud of Vietnam.

Great problems remain, many of which stem from the shirking of governmental responsibility for the national well-being and the concomitant political drift to the right. Deregulation has given corporate America increasing power, and the shifting of the tax burden to the middle and lower classes has created income inequality rivaling that of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

LBJ knew the domestic accomplishments of the 1960s were only a beginning. “Most of all,” he said in Ann Arbor that May day fifty years ago, “the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

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