great societyPresidency, n. The greased pig in the field game of American politics.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

The history of the American Presidency from George Washington to Barack Obama is the single most convincing empirical argument against the theory of evolution. – Paraphrased/plagiarized from several wise observers; often said about Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, William Jefferson Clinton, and several Republicans interspersed

Few American Presidential speeches deserve less to be commemorated than Lyndon Johnson’s commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. It contained not one memorable phrase, not one noble or notable metaphor, not one idea that had not been uttered endlessly by progressives in the previous half-century. But, since its fiftieth anniversary is upon us, and since it announced the intention to do endless harm to what was left of the republic, we should probably remind ourselves about one more reason we feel the chill run down our spines when we think about the 60s.

“The Great Society,” he said, “rests on abundance and liberty for all.” “Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society,” he concluded? Believe it or not, that was as good as it got. LBJ used the term “Great Society” ten times in a speech of about 2000 words, or rather Richard Goodwin did. Calvin Coolidge was the last US President to write all of his own speeches; it is doubtful that Johnson wrote any of his. Goodwin does say that LBJ summoned him to the White House pool where he was swimming naked, and ordered his writer to join him, and outlined some Great Society profundities. The final product did not rise to its crude beginning.

Like all good progressive speeches, it was forward-looking and took no notice of the noble past: “I have come today from the turmoil of your capital to the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of your country.” All of its mantras pointed to progress, although the sacred word was used only once; rather, the “city of man” (he actually used the Augustinian term) would put its energies toward the usual goals: equality, the elimination of poverty, universal education, the renewal of nature, and “in the next 40 years we must re-build the entire urban United States.” All this, of course, in the hands of the young, as “your generation has been appointed by history…to lead America toward a new age.” This was commencement cant, of course, but the faith behind it bound together all progressives from a new nation (Teddy Roosevelt) to hope and change (Barak Obama). “Within your lifetime powerful forces, already loosed,” he insisted, “will take us toward a way of life beyond the realm of our experience, almost beyond the bounds of our imagination.”

And the engine of progress? “White House conferences and meetings,” from which would come the “new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism” to set the course toward the Great Society. There was in the speech not the slightest ability to seek the work of the spirit. To be “appointed by history” was to be appointed in government. Nothing higher could be imagined. God was rhetorically MIA.

The only former President Johnson quoted was, curiously, Woodrow Wilson. Everyone savvy about LBJ was well aware, however, that he was trying to sound enough like John Kennedy in order to act like Franklin Roosevelt. Although it turned out that he was incapable of the former, he was “appointed by history” to accomplish the latter, at least for a while.

The historical moment of the Great Society speech is telling, and it helps to explain both its attempt at a high tone and its lack of specific proposals. LBJ delivered the speech on May 22, 1964, six months to the day from the event that gave him the opportunity, and six months almost to the day before the event that would give him the power. The murder of Kennedy on November 22, 1963 put Johnson in an office he could never otherwise have achieved. It also set up the landslide victory over Barry Goldwater of November 3, 1964, which gave Johnson potential political authority that he (or Kennedy, for that matter) otherwise could not have achieved. The significance of the Great Society Speech, then, was that it came when it did, not that it contained any particular merit—other than the foresight to omit particulars.

As President, Johnson brought to the office an intimate understanding of how Congress worked—probably a better understanding than any President before or since. As Forrest McDonald writes (in The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, the best book by far on the subject), “A Lyndon Baines Johnson manual of how to manage Congress” would have been definitive, and would have included an attention to both legislation and congressmen and an incredible persistence in pursuing them in every detail. Added to his personal power—the “Johnson Treatment” was something once experienced, never forgotten—and the mix for the Great Society cake was historically compelling.

Furthermore, as McDonald says, LBJ “was masterful at having his way with Congress, but [also] he seemed to believe that no problem was beyond the remedy of passing a law.” And he not only believed in legislation, but all his biographers agree that he believed deeply and with all his heart in the New Deal. One must admit that his empathy for African Americans (and for civil rights in general), shall we say, “evolved,” that he was a user of women and an utter tyrant over subordinates, but he never wavered in his conviction that government could make better the lives of the poor and downtrodden. Add a True Believer to a Master Manipulator and give him a Moment of Opportunity and the result is likely a Great (or maybe not so great) Society.

Johnson was about as politically and morally corrupt as anyone who has served in the highest office in the republic, and he was intellectually ill-prepared to be the leader of a coherent liberal or progressive vision for America. He manipulated and stole elections; he mixed politics and personal business to his enormous enrichment; in a later time he would not have survived his connections to Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker, among others. Intellectually, Johnson was smart and cunning and quick witted, but barely educated. In fact, he had most of the reflexive crudeness of an anti-intellectual who also envied educated people. He had a prodigious memory, especially about things that would give him advantages over opponents or charm allies, but no real interest in understanding what a truly Great Society might look like. This combination of corruption and lack of vision made it unlikely that he could summon the statesmanship to lead a republic coherently toward goodness.

He had that one big idea, the New Deal. He had the tools to be “effective,” and he had the moment of opportunity. What emerged was a mish mash of laws and programs that made even the original New Deal look well thought out. An “avalanche of social legislation,” historian Alonzo Hamby calls it, poorly formed and attempting to cover almost every aspect of a citizen’s life. The almost immediate result was the growth of a Federal Register (regulations promulgated by unelected bureaucrats to interpret meaning and enforcement of laws which are otherwise incoherent), the pages of which made a book taller than an adult male by 1970. The “book” has grown many times since then, in itself creating a government that is incomprehensible and a society that is ungovernable whatever its goals or vision may be. The progressive thrust was what it always had been—more taxes for more programs, movement of authority upward from communities and states to the national government, and within the national government from the legislature to the executive and judicial—but the Johnson program also created “indirect government,” a system of “NGO’s,” contractors, endowments. etc., almost all mandated and unfunded, a kind of hidden government that was in reality under the control of ruling elites responsible only each other and the executive functionaries who understood how various segments of it worked. How great is the potential for corruption? How difficult is the system to reverse? Who would vote to reverse it, since most of us are by now beholden to one or more of the segments?

Ironically, the “greased pig in the field game of American politics” here described created a system mostly despised by a generation on the “eve of destruction” that we think of as the 60s. Rather than destroy or get destroyed, the Great Society would absorb it all.

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