LBJ v GWB: No Contest

A short piece by Rob Gurwitt in Mother Jones compares LBJ’s Michigan speech in 1964 and the problems he outlined then to what has happened since. He had only been President for six months, and it was the first time since the hectic days of Kennedy’s assassination that he had a chance to lay out his vision for the country.

He touched on our “hunger for community” long before it became the subject of learned head-shaking and alarmed conferences. Nobody had even heard the word “sprawl” as we mean it today, let alone made a big deal about a loosening commitment to neighborhood and the loss of green space, but Johnson brought it up — though he called it “expansion” — and worried about how it was breeding “loneliness and boredom and indifference.” He talked about bringing an end to poverty and racial injustice, to the decay of inner cities, to the disappearance of open land and the loss of historic places. He worried about air and water pollution, and fretted about the quality of education. “In many places,” he said, “classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. … Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” This was, let me remind you, 40 years ago.In recent decades, derision has been heaped on the programs Johnson created to address his concerns, sometimes justifiably. Yet the national accomplishments that flowed in the wake of this speech — the civil rights and voting rights acts, Medicare and Medicaid, education funding, the endowments for the arts and humanities, the expansion of parks, the protection of clean rivers and wilderness — remind us that Johnson changed the political, social and actual landscape for good. We’re still living in the world he created.

Not really. Medicare and Medicaid are under constant attack by both executive fiat and Congressional disdain; his environmental protections have been whittled away to shadows; Jim-Crow voting laws are coming back in under the radar; his poverty programs have been mostly eliminated through a combination of budget cuts and bait-and-switch tactics; everywhere you look the radicals in the Bush Admin are busy reversing, undermining, or eliminating outright everything Johnson fought for. Most of it is already gone; the rest is on its way.

Johnson clearly knew that he could appeal to his country’s better nature — that when he suggested using government to make this a more beautiful and appealing nation and help those stranded by a changing economy, Americans would respond. “Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?” he asked that enormous crowd, and they cheered. “Will you join in the battle … to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit? There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree.” Once again, we Americans are struggling to find our better nature. Four decades may have passed, but it’s not too late to prove Johnson right.

I don’t know. Where Gurwitt sees us ‘struggling to find our better nature’, I see us struggling to deny it in order to maintain our tenuous grip on complacency and the superficial sense of superiority that seems so important to so many of us. Where he thinks we can still turn this around, I have my doubts. We have deliberately and for better than a quarter-century chosen time and again to chase ‘soulless wealth’ at the expense of social polity, in the process becoming exactly what our parents thought they were preventing by fighting WW II: oligarchs of empire, subjecting other nations to the lash of our intention to control the world’s oil supply, and turning our own society into a quasi-autocratic police state under PATRIOT I in the name of ‘security’.

There is still, I admit, some discomfort in America with the Israeli-style interrogation techniques used at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, but that will pass. We’re proving to be a country capable of turning our backs on torture and abuse, allowing a single terrorist incident to excuse crimes we would have condemned forty years ago. It isn’t a pretty picture but it’s a picture our relentless pursuit of ‘soulless wealth’ and our excessive and near-irrational fears of attack have mandated. We seem, by and large, content to settle into a lowest-common-denominator level of expectations: make me rich and make me safe and I don’t really, when it comes right down to it, care how you do it or who has to pay the price for it.

I think we have come a long way toward turning ugly 1931 Germany and with a lot less reason than they had. Their excuse was the desperation of a runaway inflation that was literally destroying the nation. Ours doesn’t amount to much more than unnecessary fear and indefensible avarice. We don’t have Brownshirts roaming the streets yet but the conditions have been set up for tolerating them and the Freepers are ready and willing anytime to fill the role.

Yes, Bush’s approval numbers are at record lows but Kerry’s haven’t risen in response. It doesn’t seem to be a question of illegal and unconscionable acts perpetrated deliberately by the Admin as Alberto Gonzales’ letter proves quite clearly, but a discomfort with the level of incompetence: their mistake wasn’t the torture itself but getting caught at it. Nobody’s calling for Bush’s resignation as they called for Johnson’s; nobody’s seriously suggesting impeachment; we’re not even entirely certain we won’t vote for Junior again despite our qualms. And more than a third of us support him despite everything we’ve come to know about him and the people he’s chosen to have around him.

That’s scary and that’s not the country I grew up in. I think Lyndon would be appalled.

You can read the whole speech here, and you should if you want to be reminded of the way Presidents used to talk back when we thought there was more to life than making money and being afraid of ghosts.

Tell me I’m wrong.

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