Webisode 15. Segment 2
LBJ's "Great Society"
The new president, Lyndon Johnson, was big. Taller than six feet three inches, he had big bones, big ears, a big nose, big hands, and big feet. His voice was big, his ego was big, and when it came to ambitionit was bigger than big. His ambition was colossal. He wanted to be a great president, "the greatest of them all, the whole bunch of them," he said. Hubert Humphrey Hubert Humphrey was a Johnson supporter in the U.S. Senate who would later become Johnson's vice president. This is what he had to say about Lyndon Johnson: "He was an all-American president. He was really the history of this country with all of the turmoil, the bombast, the passions. It was all there, all in one man, and if you liked politics, it was like being at the feet of a giant."
Johnson's dream was to wipe out poverty in America. He wanted to see blacks, whites, Hispanicsall peopletreated as equal citizens. He wanted old people to be cared for. He wanted every child in the country to get a good education. He wanted to see an America where all men and women are given equal opportunity. Early in his term his said, "I want to be the president who educated young children, who helped feed the hungry, who helped the poor find their own way, and who protected the right of every citizen to vote."
Lyndon Baines Johnson came from Texas, from the scruffy Hill Country near Austin. It was a region so isolated when he was a boy that no one had electricity at home, and almost no one had running water indoors or an indoor toilet. Lyndon was brighteveryone could see thatbut he was a rebellious student. Sometimes he did well; often he didn't. And from the time he was a little boy, it was politics that fascinated him. His father, Sam Ealy Johnson, served in the Texas legislature. Lyndon once said, "I want to wind up just like my daddy, gettin' pensions for old people."
But when Lyndon went off to college in 1927, Johnson's father was in debt. After a year Lyndon had to drop out and teach in order to earn money to finish. He taught Mexican-American children in Cotulla, Texas, that year, and saw real povertyworse than anything he knew. Back at college, he got a job carrying trash and sweeping floors. A friend remembered how he was that year: "He made speeches to the walls he wiped down, he told tales of the ancients to the doormats he was shaking the dust out of."
Some people are born to be preachers and some to be teachers and some to be ballplayers. Lyndon Johnson was born to be a politician. He was twenty-nine when he was first elected to Congress, and he set out like a sprinter in a running race. He got the government to help finance slum-clearance projects and low-cost housing in Austin, the state capital. And he insisted that Mexican-Americans and blacks receive their fair share of the new houses. Money he got for the region helped farmers go from horse-and-plow farming to twentieth-century machinery. He brought electricity to the Hill Country. Twelve years after entering Congress, Lyndon Johnson was elected to the Senate. Four years after that, he was elected leader of the Democratic party in the Senate. As Kennedy's vice president, he worked hard trying to get the President's programs passed. And when he inherited the presidency, after Kennedy's death, he added his own visionextending Kennedy's New Frontier and FDR's New Deal. He called it the Great Society. It centered on a massive fight against poverty. In March 1964 he unveiled his plan, saying: "This administration, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won."
Later in 1964 Johnson took his ideas to the American people. He ran for the presidency on his own against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. "All the Way with LBJ" was his election slogan. And he got what he wanted: the biggest percentage of the popular vote everand a congress that was Democratic and would vote as he wanted them to vote. He had an opportunity few presidents have ever had. He had his vision of a Great Society; he had support from the people to get things done; and he had the ability and energy to make it all happen. A Senate assistant named Ralph Huitt could attest to that. "Johnson said the only power he had was the power to persuade," he said. "That's like saying the only wind we have is a hurricane."
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