On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin while riding through the streets of Dallas, Texas in an open motorcade. A little more than two hours later Lyndon Johnson recited the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One. Johnson had arrived at the pinnacle of his political career under the worst possible circumstances.
Lyndon Johnson wasted little time in distinguishing himself as a skillful leader who would transform Kennedy's vision into a reality. To Johnson, the essence of leadership lay in building consensus among diverse groups. He opened his White House to mayors, businessmen, union leaders, congressmen, and academics. He directed dozens of task forces to design programs that embodied his vision of a benevolent government that cared for the poorest and most helpless of its citizens.
One issue above all would test Johnson's ability to forge consensus -- civil rights. Johnson supported a bill JFK had sent to Congress in 1963, making the practice of racial segregation in public facilities illegal. The bill also outlawed discrimination in employment and mandated strict controls over state voting laws. Faced with a filibuster by Southern senators, who accused him of supporting civil rights solely to increase his national following, the president exerted the full force of the fabled Johnson "Treatment." Political columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described the "Treatment" as "an incredibly potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, and reminders of past favors and future advantages." After 83 days of debate, Congress passed the most sweeping civil rights bill in the nation's history. Johnson knew passage of the bill might cost him Southern votes in the 1964 election, but he maintained that some issues transcended politics. Lyndon Johnson had begun to set his sights on higher goals.
On May 22, 1964, Johnson declared "we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society." Johnson had been searching for a phrase that would capture the spirit of his administration's ambitions, finally deciding upon "Great Society." The label described an America where poverty and racial injustice would have no place, where the elderly would be cared for, where education would be placed at a premium, and where the nation's natural resources would be cherished and protected.
The landslide election of 1964 gave Johnson the mandate to realize his vision of a Great Society. The Democrats held two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress. In his inaugural address Johnson expressed his unbounded enthusiasm for a grand future -- "Is our world gone? We say farewell. Is a new world coming? We welcome it, and we will bend it to the hopes of man." He was now more than just the custodian of JFK's legacy.
Emboldened by his election by more votes than any president in history, Johnson prepared to inundate the 89th Congress with a flood of legislative proposals. Out of this congressional session came passage of a series of landmark programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart, immigration reform, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, among dozens of others. By the end of 1966 Congress had passed nearly 200 pieces of major legislation proposed by Johnson. The Great Society appeared to be within reach.
But no package of legislation could address the growing anger and resentment building in America's largest cities. The pace of change in the inner cities was slow. Summer riots erupted in Watts, Detroit, and Newark.
The violence was a sign of the darker days in store for the Johnson administration. The luster of the Great Society would be tarnished by racial divisions and economic disparity at home and a growing war in Southeast Asia.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?