Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Great Society?

One thing I know, even in my Van Winkled state, is that we have reached the time of year when caps and gowns are worn and students walk across the stage to receive their college diplomas. This means that throughout America esteemed men and women are stepping to podiums to offer words of wisdom and encouragement to the about to be graduated.

President Johnson articulates his vision
of "The Great Society.".
Forty-seven years ago this Sunday past there was a famous person addressing the graduating class at the University of Michigan. Standing before the microphone and cameras for approximately fifteen minutes, he delivered what some rhetoricians have listed as one of the 100 greatest American speeches of all time.

I refer to President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" speech of May 22, 1964.

Flash Ahead Two Years...
Back when I was growing up my father worked for a major petroleum company. This explains why by the time I was ready for junior high our family had moved about as many times as I'd spent years in school. Our parents practically had rehearsed lines. Each time they told my brothers and me, "Dad is being transferred. We're going to have to sell the house, pack up, and move to... [city, state]."

In 1966 we received the biggest shock of all. Mom and Dad filled in the blank for their three sons as follows:

"We're going to move to Anchorage, Alaska."

Living Out of a Suitcase
When we arrived in the 49th state it had been just over two years since the Good Friday earthquake that struck on March 27, 1964. That epic earthquake was the strongest ever recorded on the North American continent.

The day the earth shook. Along Anchorage's 4th Ave.
four blocks dropped 20 feet below street level.

Parked cars were left in an odd position.

Two years was long enough that most of the debris had been hauled off. My brothers and I were a bit disappointed. We had seen pictures of downtown Anchorage like those above. Yes, it was tragic, but it was also drama writ large and the childish mind desired to be titillated by devastation.

Instead, the city was in full recovery mode. Especially near our new temporary home, the third floor of the Turnagain Arms Apartments. The oil company was leasing this apartment for us until our parents found us a house to buy or rent.

The Turnagain Arms was an unimpressive structure across the street from the high-rise Anchorage Westward Hotel. The first day we were in town our parents took us for lunch at the Westward. Two things happened.

There was an earth tremor and we stared, mouths agape, as the large chandeliers in the dining room swayed above us.

A bigger shock came when our parents (ever thrifty even when eating on the oil company's expense account) tried to order us the cheapest thing on the menu, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They'd heard that "due to transportation costs" Alaska prices were 30-40% higher than in the States, but in 1966 they weren't prepared for a $5 PJB.

We never dined at the Westward again.

In 2008 I returned to Alaska and took a picture
of where our family lived in the fall of 1966.
The cost of living wasn't the only problem.

Just down the street from us was the "Buttress Area" where the destroyed downtown buildings had been cleared away. Engineers were supervising crews who were driving iron piling into the earth in order to reinforce it so it could be built upon again and (perhaps) survive a future earthquake.

Clank, clank, clank was our soundtrack. They were driving piling twenty-four hours a day. Like the world's worst headache, it never stopped.

The President is Coming
It was a definite adventure being in Alaska in those days. The city of Anchorage was half raw frontier where you could see how recently the land had been scraped away and the bears and moose pushed back a short distance in order to make a tenuous urban existence for about 60,000 souls. You only had to drive for five minutes and you were out of the city and into the woods.

Modern conveniences taken for granted in the rest of America were a big deal here. For example, people still remembered how the Turnagain Arms Apartments were home to one of the first elevators installed in the city. They said that people used to come over and ride it just to experience it.

All I knew was our apartment was old, the wall-to-wall carpeting smelled of cigarette smoke, and that the once shiny new Otis elevator was rickety and slow.

It was a weird life living out of suitcases (all our furniture and possessions were in storage) and walking through downtown to go to school each day, and on weekends getting into the car to join Mom and Dad when they went house hunting.

We had arrived in August and by the fall, with the first snow imminent, we still didn't have a real place to live. That's when we heard that the president was coming. He would be staying across the street from our apartment. In the Westward Hotel.

The LBJ Style
There's really not much of a record of the president's trip to Alaska on Nov. 1-2, 1964. Perhaps that's because it was just a stopover. LBJ and Lady Bird were ending a 17-day Asian tour. They overnighted in Anchorage, which meant they were with us only 9 hours total.

Still, it was memorable.

We kept waiting for a gentleman in a suit to knock at the apartment door, show us a badge, and ask my mother a few questions about who we were. Oddly, no one from the Secret Service came by. I say oddly because it was only 6 months since bullets cut down President Kennedy in his motorcade and it was all too apparent that the windows of our apartment would give us a sniper's view of LBJ's limousine as it arrived at the Westward Hotel.

The president issued an executive order.
Everyone would go to the bonfire located on
the west end of the Buttress Area (red star).
A further breach of security occurred courtesy of the president himself. Was he worried about his safety? Hardly.

As soon as the limo pulled up we leaned out our windows for a perfect view. The president got out, waved, and shook hands, exposing himself directly to the crowd.

Soon the people in the street was surging forward in an almost uncontainable fashion. LBJ deftly backed away and got on the running board of the Lincoln Continental. He grabbed a microphone that was wired to a speaker on the car while the Secret Service agents, some of them holding Thompson submachine guns, no less, nervously scanned the crowd and those of us dangling out the windows.

"Now everybody stand back. We don't want anyone to get hurt," LBJ said in a gentle drawl. "We're all going down to the bonfire."

It seemed that Lyndon Johnson had a spontaneous urge that night. The president's Alaska hosts had built a giant fire in the Buttress Area in honor of his arrival. There were plenty of demolished building materials to ignite. Although it was not on the official schedule, LBJ had decided he wanted to check out the "bawn-fower," as he pronounced it. Why? I have no idea. Maybe he thought it would be neat to see. Maybe he thought it was the polite thing to do. Maybe it reminded him of his youth. Maybe he was cold...

So to the bonfire the presidential party went. The limo rolled ahead, out of my  sight.

It was the closest I ever got to a president of the United States.

The Beginning and End of Something
I have to admit that until now I've hardly thought about Lyndon Johnson. But with the anniversary of the Great Society speech I find myself taking stock. That speech represented Johnson's vision for his presidency. If you read it or listen to it, you'll notice that there were three areas he believed should be improved in order to make a better America: our cities, the natural world (what today we'd call "the environment"), and education.

And it's also worth noting that four times in a speech that was only 1,800 words long LBJ used the word "beauty," including my favorite paragraph in which everything is summarized thusly:

    The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich
    his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome
    chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.
    It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and
    the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for

What happened to the Great Society? Well, the record shows that Congress passed 84 bills submitted by President Johnson. Everything from Head Start to Medicare to the National Endowment for the Arts had its genesis in this ambitious reshaping of American civil and cultural life.

But that was never supposed to be the whole story:

      The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program
      in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local
      authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation,
      a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders
      of local communities.

Ah, we supposed to all work together. But look at what happened.

By 1968 many of the cities LBJ wanted to regenerate were in flames as race riots spread across the country. Crime was on the rise. City streets were not safe to walk.

As for the beauties of nature and LBJ's desire to prevent "an ugly America", ahead of us were Three Mile Island, Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez, and the strip malling of the suburbs.

The percentage of Americans graduating from
high school soon leveled off.
And education? The goal was to increase the number of Americans graduating from high school. For the next five years this number rose from around 73% of the total population. But as you can see in the graphic on the left, it plateaued in the seventies and has stayed at mid-80 percent.

Presidential Report Card
The problem that LBJ was beginning to face in 1966 was a seemingly containable situation that had grown into an enormous conflagration: Viet Nam. This was why he had been on the 17-day Asian trip and was stopping off in Alaska. What would follow would be regular announcements from the White House, echoing the generals who assured the president that we were "winning the war."

Until it became obvious that we weren't. After that the political ground began to shift beneath the president.

People often talk about what America might have become if John F. Kennedy had not been murdered in the streets of Dallas, but I'll always wonder what would have become of us if Lyndon Johnson had turned away from Viet Nam. Could the Great Society have become a project we labored mutually to bring into being? A society where our cities were temples of commerce, education, and culture? A place where leisure meant a chance to both build and reflect? A place where we encouraged each other to seek beauty and community? A place where all of us appreciated the beautiful land we live in the midst of?

I can't help thinking that LBJ's response to the Gulf of Tonkin "crisis" in August 1964 became his equivalent of the Great Alaska Earthquake. His resorting to an ever-escalating military solution shook to the foundations all his Great Society plans to the point that he decided not to run for re-election in 1968.

After LBJ left office others tried to rebuild from the fractures of the sixties and all the rubble that piled up. We heard about George H. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light," Bill Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century."

All such dreams may well be unrealizable, but I have to say I still like, best of all, the idea of a Great Society.That's why in my memory I continue to stare at the flames of a bonfire on a cold northern night. If only that fire would never go out, but of course it did and that's what they call history. - V.W.


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