Great Society Essay

It was 45 years ago today, on July 30, 1965, that part of the Great Society of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was realized, as the president signed into law acts creating Medicare and Medicaid. The acts guaranteed health insurance for the elderly and the poor, respectively. Medicare, in particular its cost and its coverage, has been at the center of many political debates ever since, including Barack Obama’s health-care bill that was passed earlier this year.

The photo below is of the signing ceremony, which was held at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. To Johnson’s left is former president Harry S. Truman, who received the first Medicare card. Also pictured, behind Truman, is Bess Truman, as well as Lady Bird Johnson (in blue), and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (to Lady Bird’s left). To Johnson’s right is Senator Edward Long.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum/NARA

At the signing ceremony, Johnson began, “The people of the United States love and voted for Harry Truman, not because he gave them hell–but because he gave them hope.” He went on to add:

No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.

And no longer will this Nation refuse the hand of justice to those who have given a lifetime of service and wisdom and labor to the progress of this progressive country.

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.”

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