Andrew is guilty of one critical error – you can not separate a man from his deeds nor the deeds from the man. We have come across presidential biographies that have sought to explain their subjects with everything from Tourettes syndrome to being kicked in the head by a mule as a boy. Typically the answer may be much simpler – we may be dealing with sociopaths – and as the moral compromises of achieving the office increase we believe the explanation to be more valid than ever. Maybe Acton put it a little more simply with, Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that.
With that caveat we offer Andrew’s all too simple explanation of a man who murdered restful sleep for us all.
Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society Chicago: I.R. Dee, c 1998 John A. Andrew Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973 Hardcover. 211 p.; 23 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 200-207) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Intent on completing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, Lyndon Johnson initiated the “Great Society” program in his 1964 commencement address at the University of Michigan. Johnson envisioned an active, purposeful federal government which would call upon America’s great post-war wealth to diminish inequality and improve the quality of life. By placing government at the helm of the country’s unprecedented prosperity, Johnson sought to eliminate poverty, expand access to education and health care, rebuild the cities and modernize the nation’s infrastructure.
Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society is a primer on the history of the Great Society in which Andrew systematically describes all of the major policy initiatives of the period. Those interested in learning about Johnson’s leadership style will be disappointed, however, since the focus is on the era’s programs rather than the President. Two thematic strands anchor the book: first, that the politics of race defined the challenges facing liberal reformers in the 1960s and, second, that the administration’s guiding principle was managerial liberalism, an assumption that a high performance economy could pay for liberal programs without demanding sacrifices from the middle class. Lyndon Johnson was wrong for thinking, Andrew concludes, that reform is inexpensive and easy.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the Democratic Party’s co-opting of the old inequalities of Reconstruction. By imposing the right to vote – for the Democrats – and banning discrimination in the provision of public services and in federally funded projects Johnson sought the same advantages for the Democrats that the Republicans had enjoyed in the 1870’s. The 1965 Voting Rights Act gave the Justice Department power to regulate registration laws in the South and to insure that state election laws did not restrict ballot access. Initially, Johnson feared that civil rights would swamp the rest of the Great Society agenda. But after defeating Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in the landslide election of 1964, the administration placed the Voting Rights Act on the fast track. The administration went even further in later years. Johnson proclaimed his support for affirmative action proposals and, in 1968, moved through Congress legislation that banned housing discrimination.
Johnson knew that moving the Democratic party toward racial progressivism would erode Southern support for the Democrats and drive southerners to the Republicans. What Johnson did not anticipate was how the politics of race and the tumult surrounding it – the riots, the violence and the rise of black nationalism – would blotch the blueprints of “managerial liberalism” and check the architects of the Great Society from renovating the New Deal edifice through the painless harnessing of economic growth.
The dominance of the race question is clearly evident in the War on Poverty. The poverty program – officially, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 -intended to change the “culture of poverty” through job training and a hodgepodge of other programs for the poor. While many programs like Head Start and the Jobs Corp failed quietly, the Community Action Program (CAP) received the most attention. In an effort to involve the poor in the political process, CAP funneled federal anti-poverty funds through grassroots, neighborhood-run organizations that often antagonized local party elite, particularly big-city mayors. In some high publicity cases, black militants ran local Community Action Agencies (CAAs). The War on Poverty was not well-planned or coordinated, and the country was not prepared to distribute income or opportunity to those who had done nothing to merit it.
The limits on federal power were most evident in the Model Cities program. Johnson appointed a task force of urbanists to develop a plan to rebuild old cities. The task force called for the development of a program that combined physical and infrastructure development for the urban landscape and social services for urban residents. The new concept was to concentrate and coordinate federal resources on an experimental basis in a few, select neighborhoods. The architects of the Model Cities program hoped to avoid the problems of Community Action by working closely with the urban establishment. In the transition from theory to practice, however, federal agencies did not work well together, and local governments resisted the dictated blueprints of federal planners. Congress spread Model Cities money among so many cities that the concentration of resources was impossible. For better or worse, federal efforts could not halt the economic and demographic exodus from the big urban centers.
The techniques of managerial liberalism worked – if at all – with programmatic initiatives that were removed from the politics of race, and provided benefits for both the poor and the middle class alike. The passage of the Medicare and Medicaid programs in 1965, for example, expanded health care access for the elderly and the poor. Medicare in particular enjoyed overwhelming public support with ninety-three percent of senior citizens participating in the program. However in order to satisfy the American Medical Association, hospital and doctor payments were inflated. In order to provide a safety net for the poor, expensive middle class entitlements were codified. The same processes were at work in the federal aid to education programs of the Great Society. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act sent federal money to poor and wealthy school districts alike through a grant formula that did not prioritize according to need and simply proved, like Medicare, if a family could not afford to take care of its elderly then neither could the community.
Andrew is mildly critical of Johnson for throwing federal dollars at flawed institutions like state and local governments, school districts and the health industry that could not balance the twin goals of equality and efficiency. The programs of the Great Society failed because liberalism sought to build consensus and avoid conflict with entrenched interests and that Johnson underestimated the tenacity of the problems he hoped to solve. The legacy of Great Society reform is citizen entitlement without bureaucratic efficiency. Many Americans, for example, have access to health care as a result of Medicare, but the costs of the program are uncontrollable. The plain and simple fact is that structural reforms were beyond the scope of the Presidency – by design in a Constitution that enshrines separation of powers.
Great Society programs were rushed through Congress quickly because Johnson realized that the window for liberalism after the 1964 election was sure to close. If he could get legislation on the books that expanded access, he reasoned, efficiencies could be enacted as problems arose. In this regard, the quandaries of the Great Society inform contemporary debates over domestic policy. Johnson joins contemporary liberals who advocate “mend don’t end” approaches to a variety of New Deal/Great Society style programs including Social Security, Affirmative Action policies and Medicare/Medicaid. Conservatives point to the cumbersome reform process as evidence of failure, and question the legitimacy and necessity of federal intervention in American social and economic life in the first place. The liberals will win until they run out of things and people to tax at which point in time we will either abandon the pretense of republican democracy and become a liberal fascist state or we will collapse. Either way Landslide Lyndon will continue to cast a long shadow on history.