WHILE Lyndon Baines Johnson was a man of time and place, he felt the bitter paradox of both. I was a young man on his staff in 1960 when he gave me a vivid account of that southern schizophrenia he understood and feared. We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. "I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it," he said. "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
Some years later when Johnson was president, there was a press conference in the East Room. A reporter unexpectedly asked the president how he could explain his sudden passion for civil rights when he had never shown much enthusiasm for the cause. The question hung in the air. I could almost hear his silent cursing of a press secretary who had not anticipated this one. But then he relaxed, and from an instinct no assistant could brief -- one seasoned in the double life from which he was delivered and hoped to deliver others -- he said in effect: Most of us don't have a second chance to correct the mistakes of our youth. I do and I am. That evening, sitting in the White House, discussing the question with friends and staff, he gestured broadly and said, "Eisenhower used to tell me that this place was a prison. I never felt freer."
For weeks in 1964, the president carried in his pocket the summary of a Census Bureau report showing that the lifetime earnings of an average black college graduate were lower than that of a white man with an eighth-grade education. And when The New York Times in November 1964 reported racial segregation to be increasing instead of disappearing, he took his felt-tip pen and scribbled across it "shame, shame, shame," and sent it to Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate.
I have a hard time explaining to our two sons and daughter -- now in their twenties -- that when they were little, America was still deeply segregated. The White House press corps, housed in Austin when the president was on vacation in Texas, would often go to the faculty club at the University of Texas, which was still off-limits to blacks in 1964. I remember the night it changed.
There was a New Year's party for one of the president's favorite assistants, Horace Busby. About halfway into the evening, there was a stir and everyone looked up. The president of the United States was entering with one of his secretaries on his arm -- a beautiful black woman. The next day, a law professor called the club to say he intended to bring some black associates to a meeting there. "No problem at all," said the woman on the phone. "Are we really integrated?" the professor asked. "Yes, sir," she answered, "the president of the United States integrated us last night."
In those days, our faith was in integration. The separatist cries would come later, as white flight and black power ended the illusion that an atmosphere of genuine acceptance and respect across color lines would overcome in our time the pernicious effects of a racism so deeply imbedded in American life. But Lyndon Johnson championed that faith. He thought the opposite of integration was not just segregation but disintegration -- a nation unraveling.
But he also knew not an inch would be won cheaply. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to many of us a watershed in American history. With it, blacks gained access to public accommodations across the country. When he signed the act, he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the early edition of The Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come," he said.
Critics attacked his notion of consensus, but the president kept insisting to some of us that in politics, you cast your stakes wide and haul up a big tent with room for everybody who wants in. The only time I can remember any kind of discussion with him about his political philosophy, he said he was "a little bit left, a little bit right and a lot of center."
When he signed into law the anti-poverty program, he said, "You tell Sargent Shriver no doles, we don't want any doles." But he thought the government should be adventuresome. He turned around the direction of one meeting on the defense budget by saying, "You know, you can't take a tank from the blueprint to the battlefield -- you test it over and over. That's true of the social programs as well. You can't take a poor kid and turn him around just by getting Congress to pass a bill and the president to sign it and one of those agencies in Washington to run it. You have to experiment and keep at it until you find what it takes."
Moreover, LBJ believed, income was not the only measure of well-being. What about status, self-respect, opportunities for upward mobility and political power? Could these be left only to those who could afford them? "Not on your life," he said. I'm pretty sure LBJ never read John Stuart Mill, but in his bones, planted there from the experience of childhood and youth, he believed that in the absence of its natural defenders, the interests of the excluded are always in danger of being overlooked.
"It isn't enough just to round out the New Deal," LBJ said one day to a congressman. "There has to be a better deal." He talked of "the Great Society," but the slogan was no more precise than others in currency in those days. Sometimes LBJ despised the term: It just didn't fit his way of talking. In simplest terms he was trying to raise our sights beyond sheer size and the grandeur of wealth. A full stomach yes, but a fuller life too.
What worked? Well, in 1967, 75 percent of all Americans over 65 had no medical insurance and a third of the elderly lived in poverty. More than 90 percent of all black adults in the South were not registered to vote, and across the nation there were only about 200 elected public officials who were black. There was no Head Start for kids.
Today, Medicare, food stamps and more generous Social Security benefits have helped reduce the poverty rate for the elderly by half, and they are no poorer than Americans as a whole. Nearly 6,000 blacks hold elected office. A majority of small children attend preschool programs. The bedrock of the Great Society -- Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, the right of blacks to citizenship -- are permanent features of the American system. So much so that in the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, Reagan presented himself as the man who saved the nation's safety net.
What went wrong? Some things that went wrong were unjustly blamed on the Great Society. As my former colleague Ben Wattenberg has pointed out, there was no "soft-on-crime act" of 1966. There was no "permissive curriculum act" of 1967. But plenty of things went wrong. We had jumped too fast, spread out too far and too thinly over too vast a terrain, and then went to war on a distant front -- against an enemy that would not bargain, compromise or reason together.
A slogan is a dangerous thing. Those who create it can lose control of its meaning. Others read into it what was not there. Friends put their own spin on it. It can mean everything or nothing. But slogans aside, at the root the Great Society was only an idea -- and not a new one. It was the idea that free men and women can work with their government to make things better.
The problem of big government is real. Finding ways to make this complex system work, of making it responsive and responsible with a due regard for the integrity of the individual and well-being of the country, was the challenge we set out to wrestle 20 years ago. It will be so far into the future.
"The Great Society," said Lyndon Johnson, "is a challenge constantly renewed."
Bill Moyers is chairman and executive editor of Public Affairs Television Inc. This article is excerpted from a speech given at Hofstra University to be published by Greenwood Press.