On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson gave the commencement address at University of Michigan’s graduation ceremony. Johnson took this opportunity to define his presidency with an ambitious reform agenda he called, the Great Society. “In our times,” Johnson bellowed, “we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the great society.”
Between 1964 and 1966, LBJ, the consummate, and tireless, Washington wheeler-dealer, presented 200 pieces of legislation on civil rights, poverty, education, housing, pollution, the arts, urban renewal, nature preservation, and more to Congress. One-hundred and eighty-one of these were passed. When considering the demise of the Great Society, the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Sargent Shriver, squarely blamed Johnson’s war in Southeast Asia. “Vietnam took it all away,” he lamented in the late 1960s, “every goddamn dollar; that’s what killed the war on poverty.”
Historian Maria McGrath will review the gains and losses of the Great Society in its day and appraise Shriver’s and others' explanation for its unraveling. With challenges to signature Great Society programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, currently in the news, she will also take stock of the long shadow Johnson’s American dream continues to cast over the nation.