The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society Under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, by Irwin Unger (New York: Doubleday, 1996, 400 pp., $27.95)
Bill Clinton won the recent election, in part, because he promised to balance the budget without deep cuts in Medicare, education and the protection of the environment. The Newt Gingrich-led Republican congress was caricatured as mean-spirited because it proposed shrinking and/or eliminating these and many other federal programs to achieve the same goal.
Almost all of the items at risk were enacted into law as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. So, in a certain sense, this ambitious legislative agenda of 30 years ago was an unacknowledged issue in the recent campaign.
New York University historian Irwin Unger's latest book, The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society Under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon,is a fair-minded account of what actually happened during that period of great social change as the author carefully distinguishes between legislative specifics and the myths that have grown up around them.
Separating fact and fiction is important because many people believe the Great Society is a major cause of America's moral and cultural decline. Their case against it goes way beyond the failure of certain programs to deliver promised services. The encouragement of a sense of “entitlement” among the underclass during that era is said to have destroyed self-reliance as a civic virtue, creating a climate that undermines valid social norms.
Even those who don't share this particular ideological perspective remember the 60s as a time of disorder in which the Great Society is somehow mixed in with assassinations, inner-city riots, campus demonstrations and an unpopular war. Unger takes great pains to set the record straight.
The energy behind the Great Society was generated by a small group of left-liberal intellectuals in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was an elitist movement, with reforms designed from above that were intended to help the poor and middle class below. Its thinking “was infused by the sense of affluence achieved,” Unger explains. The next step was therefore “to conceive a new liberalism that would wrestle with the quality of life, now that the quantity of life had been largely attended to.”
The mood was radically different from today. Reformers believed in the power of social engineering and were convinced that any problem could be solved. The middle class was feeling both optimistic and generous, willing to finance extensive federal projects for itself and those less fortunate. “The response was off the trend line of national behavior,” Unger observes, “reflecting an extraordinary convergence of short-lived political and economic circumstance not to be repeated in the next 30 years.” Most of the turmoil and despair popularly associated with the 60s came after the major Great Society programs were in place.
John Kennedy's New Frontier was an attempt to extend the big-government social agenda which FDR and Harry Truman had originated. Unger describes it as “aimed at achieving security against life's vicissitudes through federal intervention.” The Kennedy administration's method of operation was typical of the time. A select group of academics, congressional staffers, business leaders and family loyalists were organized into 29 different task forces, each devoted to a specific issue. They met secretly, without grassroots input.
Faced with a hostile Congress, most of the New Frontier agenda soon stalled. But when Johnson became president after Kennedy's 1963 assassination, he put his own particular spin on the proposals, and after convening his own 42 secret task forces, the Great Society was born. Amazingly enough, combining his legislative skills with a landslide re-election victory in 1964, he got almost all of it enacted.
Many of Johnson's accomplishments—Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education and urban redevelopment—were a completion of the New Frontier. But the ambitious Texan wanted to break new ground. So, in keeping with the advanced academic thinking of the time, he also designed programs aimed at the middle class and their quality of life. “Clean air and water, new and improved national parks, highway beautification, consumer protection laws, federal subsidies to the arts and humanities, public broadcasting, loans to college students all touched the lives of solvent, well educated and politically literate men and women” as well as the poor.
But unfair as it may be, the Great Society is best remembered for its controversial War on Poverty. Johnson announced the program with a display of hubris unthinkable today. “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” he proclaimed. “We shall not rest until the war is won.”
To implement his vision, the president created a new federal agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Two ideas from the newly-fashionable social science disciplines guided OEO's planning: faith in the value of technical education of the disadvantaged and the idea of a unique culture of poverty. Unger points out that this latter notion assumed that “the behavior and values of the poor itself were at least in part responsible for their fate … [and that] the poor's cultural inadequacies could be handled by education rather than redistribution [of income].”
The emphasis was on opportunity rather than handouts. However, in its Job Corps, Community Action and Legal Services programs, OEO introduced another new idea: the relative suspension of class blame. Overturning centuries of conventional wisdom, the OEO refused to distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor when it doled out money and services. The distribution of government benefits was delinked from good behavior. But it was the spilling over of this attitude into the administration of existing welfare programs that created the much resented sense of “entitlement” among some of the recipients, not any of the Great Society initiatives themselves.
Except for Head Start, which aided preschool children, most OEO programs failed to achieve their goals, and the agency was disbanded in the mid-70s. The rest of the Great Society lives on. How to dispose of its legacy will be a major point of contention between Clinton and the GOP congress for the next four years.
Americans have slowly come to realize that times have changed since the Great Society and that we can't have it all. We are being forced to decide what our public policy priorities should be. Our choices will determine what kind of nation we want to become.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.