The months after Johnson’s landslide victory in the 1964 presidential election were some of the most exciting in his life; it seemed all his dreams were within reach. When he lit the White House Christmas tree, he proclaimed, “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” On January 4, in the first State of the Union address aired during prime time, Johnson announced his plans for the Great Society—government programs that together would create “abundance and liberty for all.” His inauguration on January 20 drew the biggest crowds in Washington’s history, until Barack Obama’s in 2009.
In the late 1920s a young LBJ had taught poor Mexican-American kids in Texas, and seeing poverty up close made him determined to end it. “If every person born could acquire all the education that their intelligence quotient would permit them to take, God only knows what our gross national product would be—and the strength we would add to our nation, militarily, diplomatically, economically, is too large even to imagine.”
President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Johnson the head of the National Youth Administration in Texas, where he helped disadvantaged kids. Then, in 1953, the forty- six-year-old Johnson became the youngest Senate majority leader in history. Thus when he became president after Kennedy’s assassination, he knew how to work the political system. He framed many of his social programs as fulfilling Kennedy’s ambitions, and he struck quickly, knowing that the honeymoon of his victory against Republican Barry Goldwater would not last long. He never read books or went to movies; his only interest was learning about the lives of his fellow politicians so he could better cajole, seduce, or threaten them with the famous “Johnson treatment.”
The Dow Jones stock market index had gone up 44 percent in the last two years, and everyone believed the future looked bright for continued economic expansion. Future economic rivals such as Germany and Japan had yet to challenge the dominance of the Detroit automakers. Unemployment was 4.1 percent, the gross national product had grown more than 5 percent in the last year, and Congress enjoyed a Democratic majority.
Thus Johnson pushed through a raft of social entitlements that would stand as the high-water mark for Big Government liberalism, despite congressional Republican George H. W. Bush and the American Medical Association denouncing new programs such as Medicare and Medicaid as “socialized medicine.” Fellow congressmen Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, Strom Thurmond, and Donald Rumsfeld also opposed the programs.
Medicare A taxed employers and employees a higher amount for Social Security, and then put the additional money into a trust fund for seniors to use for hospital bills and nursing home costs. Medicare B gave seniors the option to take some money out of their Social Security check to combine with government funds to pay for doctors, nurses, and tests. Medicaid was a mix of state and federal moneys that paid for the medical needs of families with children, low-income people on welfare, the disabled, and the elderly.
Johnson signed the bills into effect on July 30. Other Great Society bills established Head Start, public radio, public television, food stamps, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Immigration reform addressed long-standing discrimination against southern and eastern Europeans and Asians. (Asian immigration in particular had been severely restricted.) Johnson also increased Social Security benefits and maternal-child health services, made it easier to qualify as disabled, added rehabilitation coverage, and lowered the age at which widows could begin receiving benefits. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act distributed federal money to schools.5
Simultaneously, the administration raced toward the moon. On March 18, Soviet Aleksei Leonov became the first man to walk in space, and the United States responded with a flurry of activity. From March to July, the unmanned lunar probe Ranger 9 sent back live satellite pictures that were broadcast on TV. The United States put the first two- person crew and the first nuclear power reactor into Earth’s orbit. On June 3, Edward Higgins White became the first American to walk in space. The Mariner 4 sent the first pictures from Mars when it flew by the planet. On December 15, the U.S. Gemini 6 and 7 accomplished the first rendezvous in orbit.
But across the Pacific, a nation a few thousand square miles larger than New Mexico was poised to end America’s sense of omnipotence.
Below the PBS American Experience documentary Lyndon B. Johnson. The Great Society segment begins at 8:38: