As the Johnson Administration takes its leave of Washington, one of the most interesting questions is what history will make of the Great Society. The issue is not so much what will happen to the multitudinous programs which have been enacted; some of them, probably fewer than is generally supposed, will vanish; some will go on in altered form. More important is whether the Great Society will turn out to have been anything at all, other than an impressive string of legislative victories; whether, as the President has so devoutly wished, it will stand alongside the New Deal as having been one of those periods in which the relationship of government to national life was fundamentally changed.

There had been a New Deal, a Fair Deal, and a New Frontier, and so a few months after he succeeded to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson decided that he wanted a sobriquet and a theme of his very own. The theme, as outlined in the speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, had two strands. The New Deal crossed the threshold of government responsibility for the stability of the economy in a way which Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover never would have accepted. The Great Society was to assume that government was responsible for creating opportunities, and improving the environment and even the nature of society in a way which Dwight Eisenhower never would have accepted and Harry Truman had never dreamed.

The sharks and the whale

Quite obviously, the grandiose visions of the Ann Arbor speech did not pan out. The Johnson landslide of 1964 and the accompanying Democratic gains in Congress did produce, for about a year and a half, an unusual burst of legislation. Some of Johnson’s legislative achievements, such as the tax cut, Medicare, and the 1964 civil rights bill, had been high on the Kennedy agenda though stalled in Congress; some were of an entirely different order. At the end of 1966, as Johnson had been expecting, the Congress tired of his prodding and his programs and began to turn on him. “The whale has shed some blood.”he remarked to an aide when the first important bill was defeated, “and now the sharks will close in.”The 1966 elections diminished his working majority, and by then, of course, we were at war. The continuation of summer riots, climaxed by the worst one of all in Detroit in August, 1967, and the need at the same time to raise taxes to finance the escalated war, reduce the debt, and cool the economy drove the President into a kind of retreat in late 1967, from which he emerged this year to try for a last few initiatives. One result of all this was an extraordinary list of legislative victories

— which was part of the problem.

Largely because of the pressure of these events, the strand of the Great Society having to do with opportunity, opportunity for lower income groups in particular, received the heavier emphasis. As the Administration’s sights narrowed, the term Great Society came and went from use. There was a bit of “quality-of-life” legislation: with great effort, a “beauty” bill — alas, only skin deep — providing for removal of billboards and camouflaging of junkyards was passed in 1965; but the billboard lobby struck back, and Congress slashed the program’s funds. New waterand air-pollution-control laws were passed, but neither has had much money. More than forty new national parks have been established over the past eight years, a substantial increase. Largely through the genius of Ralph Nader, the Administration learned that consumer issues weren’t necessarily losers (moreover they didn’t cost money), and beginning with auto safety in 1966, a number of consumerprotection laws were added to the books. Some of these programs are stronger than others, and the enforcement is uneven. None of this will turn America into Elysium, nor have the corporate polluters fundamentally changed their spots. Several of these programs are vulnerable, yet consumer protection is approaching the status of an assumed right.

Old frontiers

Several of the enactments of the last few years were direct descendants of New Deal legislation, and matters on the Democrats’ agenda for years. Medicare, for example, was an extension of the social security insurance system; the idea of health insurance had been kicked back and forth between the Executive branch and the Congress in one form or other since 1935. Some considered Medicare outmoded by the time it became law, since it did nothing about the organization and delivery of health services. The idea for a special regional development of Appalachia can be traced to TVA.

What was new, and what is likely to have been the most significant no matter what becomes of it. was the poverty program. It seems simple in retrospect, but a program focusing on “poverty” as opposed to, separately, jobs and housing and health was a fundamental shift of governmental approach. As James Sundquist. former congressional staff aide and official under Kennedy and Johnson, pointed out in his excellent book on the origins of much of the recent legislation (Politics and Policy, The Brookings Institution, 1968), the poverty program arose conceptually out of “an attitude that had become pervasive in Washington as the Kennedy administration entered its third year– a feeling that the ‘New Frontier’ was made up mainly of old frontiers already crossed, and that all of those old frontiers, all of the innovations conceived over the course of a generation and written into law would not, singly or collectively, change the gray face of the ‘other America.’” Intellectually, the poverty program stemmed from Michael Harrington’s The Other America and John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, both of which had impressed President Kennedy. It also grew out of the New Economists’ realization that they had to do more than stimulate the economy in order to help those worst off. Before his death, President Kennedy had encouraged the drafting of a poverty program; the next year President Johnson pushed it through Congress.

Much of the program was traditional and conservative; if people were washed and trained they could “lift themselves out of poverty.” Curing poverty directly by giving the poor more money was never seriously considered. What was radical as a government activity was the Community Action Program, the heart of the whole scheme. It is now clear that there were about as many ideas about what community action meant, from coordinating projects to organizing the poor for political action, as there were architects of the plan, and that “maximum feasible participation” of the poor to some meant that the poor should be getting the jobs and to others that they should be calling the tune.

The poverty program was injured from the start by its own rhetoric. “I have called for a national war on poverty,” the President said. “Our objective: total victory.” There was a great deal of talk, in some cases more than talk, about “taking on city hall.” As new ghetto leaders did emerge, already nervous mayors and other politicians, including members of Congress, took fright. The mayors successfully pressed the Administration to tighten the strings on the community action programs. Liberal members of Congress, accustomed to the traditional liberal way of doing things, pressed for spending of the money in traditional fashion– clear-cut programs with clear-cut lines of control out of Washington. The program gradually emerged in the public mind as one for Negroes, and when riots and crime became issues, the poverty program paid. The poverty warriors concluded that federally sponsored confrontation, setting the minority against the majority, was not feasible.

Johnson’s retreat

From the beginning, before there was any substantial commitment of troops for the war in Vietnam, Sargent Shriver, the director of the poverty program, and President Johnson disagreed on how much should be spent on the war in the ghettos. Shriver believed that if it was to meet its commitment, the program had to start big and keep growing. The President worried that if it did not start small and proceed with caution, it would become too controversial to survive, like the National Youth Administration, for which he had worked in the 1930s. When the program was in deep trouble in 1967, the President declined to come to its aid (though his staff did).

The retreat from the war inevitably caused bitterness. Some mayors belatedly concluded that they had kicked a good thing, a way of drawing federal money into the cities with relatively little regard to bothersome state governments and perhaps even of keeping the peace.

The Office of Economic Opportunity, which runs the program, at one point the liveliest agency in town, is now thoroughly demoralized. Community Action money has been channeled into safe though worthy secondary programs such as Head Start — three-year-olds won’t picket city hall– and neighborhood legal and health centers. Both presidential candidates were expected to do over the face of the poverty program, and Mr. Nixon specifically pledged to jettison the Job Corps. The Corps, a compromise between those who wanted training for the ghetto youths in the worst trouble and the conservationists, who were pushing for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, has had mixed results, depending often on which contractor ran which camp (several were run by private businesses). It made the decision to concentrate on the worst kids on the block, and it was expensive.


The most important point about the poverty program is that even if it disappears, it set loose a number of forces which no amount of retrenchment can still. There may be no Community Action Program, but there will be community action. Local or federal governments will ignore the poor’s views at their peril. Republicans and Democrats are rushing into line behind such concepts as community development corporations. There is unlikely to be a return to the old assumption that six-year-olds who have not been to school before will all begin their educations with the same capacities.

The poverty program established the idea that simple traditional tools would not fix complex problems, which set a pattern for other government enterprises. Largely because of Shriver’s zeal, the poverty program shook up the rest of the domestic bureaucracy, to the point that the bureaucrats were constantly trying to take the program over. And it showed the medical, legal, and education professions that they badly needed to rethink their responsibilities.

Before the poverty program, most of the government’s training efforts were largely concerned with white high school graduates. The Labor Department now has a substantially altered view of its mission. Despite all of the training programs scattered about the government– there are something like ten major ones, and one of the Johnson Administration’s last efforts was to try to pull them together– it was only recently that it dawned on the policymakers that it didn’t make much sense to treat a man’s symptoms of joblessness without first locating a job. This is the point of the government-sponsored National Alliance of Businessmen, which now claims to have placed and kept some 60,000 former “hard-core” unemployed in jobs since the project began last spring. It is strongly identified with President Johnson, and is voluntary (and subsidized), and therefore its specific longevity is in doubt.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the first major breakthrough in federal aid to education, differed from earlier proposals which were consistently defeated in Congress in that it specified that the money was to improve the education of, including the methods of educating, low-income children. This was a tactical as well as an ideological innovation, and included among other provisions a resolution of the issue of aid to parochial schools. (Parochial students would be helped, if they were poor, but not the schools. It was a bit talmudic, but it worked.) The school districts were to draw up their own plans, and the emphasis was to be on innovation. Far too much money and time went into middle-class solutions audio-visual equipment and lower teacher-pupil ratios. There was also some sheer nonsense: one school district used some of the money to give swimming lessons one summer, calling the program, inevitably, “Operation Head First”; there was also — there had to be — a “Project Upstart.” After a time, however, the example (threat) of Plead Start and pressure from Education Commissioner Harold Howe began to improve matters. There have now been reports and counterreports on whether the money has made any difference, but two things are clear: the new law has had neither enough time (educators still know little about what makes people learn, or how to measure whether they do) nor enough money. It is perhaps the program that has been most desiccated by the budget squeeze: the spending per pupil is now half of what it was in 1965, down from $250 per child to $125.


Both the public housing program, which worked for whites with prospects during the 1930s, and urban renewal, which was designed to help cities restore their tax bases in the 1950s, were disasters for poor blacks. First with rent supplements in 1965 and then with a large low-income housing program this year, the Administration tried to make amends. The 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act pledges six million houses for lowand moderate-income families within a decade. For some thirty years, there have been governmental pledges of adequate housing for all, and there are good reasons for skepticism about the latest one: union practices still limit the number of construction workers and tangle construction itself in outmoded codes; sites for low-income housing are hard to get, within or outside cities, a problem which has almost killed rent supplements. The very fact that the law was approved in 1968, of all years, however, suggests that it will not be eliminated. The idea began in Congress and had the backing of a sort of bipartisan, nonideological coalition there. The Urban Coalition pushed it, and the recommendations of the Kerner Commission helped. Private industry is involved, at a nice profit.

The Model Cities law of 1966 in effect bribes cities, through increased federal rewards, to make a concerted social and physical attack on entire neighborhoods. More than one hundred federal programs operating out of five different departments could be involved, The influence of the poverty program was clear: the idea that a ghetto could not be helped through a simple housing construction program, that a number of services had to be brought into play at once; the explicit directions that the neighborhoods are to participate in decisions. The Model Cities idea is good, but complicated and more vulnerable than good old housing construction. The program may die, but the notions of concerted approach and citizen voice will not.

Last September, the Cabinet presented to the President a desk blotter inscribed with the Johnson Administration’s “landmark laws.” There were 187 of them, several of less than landmark proportions. During the 1968 presidential campaign, the President talked about the 60 education bills and 40 medical-care bills and 300 (yes) conservation bills passed during his Administration. There have been bills for libraries, for the mentally retarded and the blind and the deaf, for vocational education, for universities and community colleges, for nurses and teachers. They are likely to remain on the books, for they have the enthusiastic support of the client groups. They are nonpartisan GOP House leader Mel Laird likes them, too. And they have nothing to do with encouraging upstarts.

Those troubled waters

There is a vague understanding among government officials here that all of this, plus the long period of sustained economic growth of which they are so proud, somehow hasn’t gotten through. In his clumsy State of the Union metaphor last January — “when a great ship cuts through the sea, the waters are always stirred and troubled” — the President tried to explain the problem, and there is a lot of talk among government officials about America’s own revolution of rising expectations. Some understand that the discontent is much deeper than all that. Within the White House, there was some feeling that there had been too much emphasis — some thought merely rhetorical, some thought actual — on the poor, to the point where the lower-middle and middlemiddle classes felt overtaxed, overpressed, and unappreciated. There was at any rate some thinking about new programs for the middle classes, too. But there was no money.

A man of the legislature, as Lyndon Johnson was, usually measures his success by the number of bills he has sponsored. Yet one obvious problem was that the Administration’s effort to enact so many was, as the bureaucracy phrases it, counterproductive. People began to see that some sweeping programs were really tentative experiments; or a bold new program would be announccd and then starved for funds while another bold new program was announced. Some of the President’s associates argued hard that three hundred programs which were one-third effective were not the functional equivalent of one hundred which were adequately funded and well administered, but they lost. Without a more thorough provision of services in the ghettos, argued one, the only thing a rat-control bill would do was lower the average age of rats. Vastly increased responsibilities were dumped upon an inadequate bureaucracy and outmoded and resistant institutions. Government reorganization is one of the most difficult and thankless jobs around, and the Johnson Administration did its bit, and knew there was more to do. The Nixon group is talking of reducing the power of the White House staff, but it will find that this cannot be done if government agencies are to run at all in harness.

The history of the government over the past thirty years is an evolutionary record. Dwight Eisenhower did not dismantle very much, and Richard Nixon won’t either. A program is only a premise, of course

that if x is done, y will happen –and some of the premises will prove valid and some won’t. The soon-to-be-former Administration officials will be alive and well in their private retreats, and will be only too happy to return to testify before friendly congressional committees. With the domineering Democratic President off the scene, the congressional Democrats will be a much feistier group. If Harry Truman’s reputation survived the Korean War and other frustrations of his Administration, it is altogether possible that Lyndon Johnson’s resurrection, once the memory of Vietnam fades, will be even more magnificent — and not for any lack of his interest in such a development.

Mr. Nixon will not be able to do all that he has said — reduce taxes, raise arms, and use tax credits to reconstruct cities. The striking thing is how some of his own rhetoric at least, including the talk about giving the poor “a piece of the action,” echoes that of the Great Society. A little over eight years ago, he and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy were arguing over whether the federal government should support teachers’ salaries, and President Eisenhower and the Democratic Congress were constantly at each other over the general question of federal responsibility. That is a settled question now. The great national issue is over the sharing of power. It is simply too soon to say whether anything as concretely monumental as TVA or social security will have been built during the Johnson presidency. Certainly a lot of ideas were loosed that will not go away. And whatever becomes of the specific programs of the past eight years, and however short they fell of stated goals, this country has made a significant quantum jump in its assumptions about the deployment of federal power and resources. There is a new sophistication about how difficult social problems must be approached. That is quite a bit in such a brief space in the nation’s history.

Mr. Johnson, for all his Bunyanesque assault upon the poverty problem at the outset of his Administration, leaves office at a time of profound discouragement on the home front and with the Great Society not exactly a phrase on everyone’s lips. It should still be recorded that he meant it, and that he and his Administration tried very hard, and all of this may become clearer as the commitment, intent, and competence of the Nixon Administration now come to their first trials.

Elizabeth B. Drew