In 1964, Lyndon Johnson had a dream, and he and his young assistants set out to pass the most far-reaching domestic legislation since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
"The Great Society Remembered," an hour-long documentary about that dramatic time, airs on WETA (Channel 26) at 10:30 tonight. Billed as a "retrospective on where these programs have taken us as a nation, where they have failed and succeeded," the program unfortunately deals with its large themes in only the most general terms. It provides little or no analysis of which programs failed and which succeeded, or of the how and why, and no comparison of those programs then and now. The absence is as remarkable as it is disappointing, given the controversies that, through the years, rallied conservative politicians against Great Society "big spenders."
Joseph Califano, a presidential assistant at the time, does point out two historic and indelible changes: "Essentially, there were no elected blacks in this country at the time the Voting Rights Act was passed. Today there are thousands of elected blacks in the South. It has changed the face of politics in the United States." And Medicare and Medicaid, which brought profound changes of health and hope for the elderly and poor, are recognized as "probably the single most significant reasons why life expectancy has gone up in this country."
The show begins with 20-year-old shots of then young aides -- Califano, Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti, Doug Cater, Harry McPherson -- with their leader, Lyndon Johnson. The assistants, grayer now, talk about those days, portraying Johnson as a man driven to pass his programs; a crafty president who cajoled, arm-twisted and berated everyone from southern politicians to industrial czars and religious leaders to get with him on civil rights, aid to education and the War on Poverty.
Cater says Johnson's "theory of Congress was, 'If you're not doing it to them, then they will do it to you' -- and frequently he used a more vivid verb than 'doing.' " He persuaded southern congressmen to do the seemingly impossible -- sponsor poverty legislation. Horace Busby describes the renowned LBJ technique, as used on George Wallace: Johnson hitched his chair up close to Wallace, put his hand on his knee, looked him in the eyes and pleadingly asked, "Why are you doing this? All your life you've wanted to do things for the poor. Why are y'all off on this black thing?" By the time LBJ's act was over, Wallace was in tears.
It takes some serious effort to make the mid-'60s dull, but this documentary often succeeds. While some of the 30 people interviewed talk articulately -- on occasion, eloquently -- there is little evocation of the extraordinary drama of changes sweeping the country during one of its most revolutionary periods. Instead, the documentary emerges as a marathon of talking heads -- unrelieved by film clips that could reinforce and strengthen the comments. Scenes of billy clubs, water hoses and sit-ins during the civil rights days may be overly familiar to some, but could have added power to the words of activist Unita Blackwell, now one of those elected southern black officials, who remembers when "you just knew you might die any moment."
And surely there are film clips that could re-create pre-Great Society conditions of the poor and elderly, living without Medicare and Medicaid, and then-and-now clips of such programs as Head Start and the Job Corps.
There are hints at some of the wrangling that hindered community action programs, part of Johnson's "guerrilla raid" as Moyers calls it, to get around bureaucratic ineptness and lethargy. The poor were supposed to have a voice in these grass-roots programs. "In some places it may have succeeded and in a lot of places it didn't," says Harry McPherson. Sargent Shriver, former director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, then says, "The availability of federal money in the local community outside the power structure control constituted a threat. It empowered people who were not in the power structure." Shriver mentions the "terrible times" and "hostility" of some officials to the innovative approach, then adds, "It was interesting to see that those mayors, a number who opposed community action, ended up in the penitentiary." But we learn no more about the community action programs than that.
There are some references to the painful cost of Vietnam, a major thorn in the execution of Great Society programs. "The combination of those huge expenditures, military and social, the determination to have guns and butter, was the first cause of the first wave of high inflation at the end of the '60s and beginning of the '70s," says McPherson.
The documentary leaves you with no sense of the extent to which these 20-year-old initiatives are still in place, which ones have died or should have died.
The program ends on a flat, almost apologetic note. John Gardner, former secretary of health, education and welfare, says, "The Great Society was just a label for a set of aspirations and they were very American aspirations. Rather old American goals which we had to take another try at. And we did."
A stronger ending would have pointed out that the programs were never as great as the Great Society wanted them to be, but neither were they as bad as their detractors claimed. And they did change forever some of the injustices to blacks and the poor, the elderly in need of medicine, the young in need of education.