Even for Ronald Reagan, that was a remarkable rendering of history presented before an audience of black Republicans in Washington the other night. The president wasn't just offering another debatable interpretation of the past. He was rewriting the main text.
His theme was the state of poverty and progress in America, especially as it applies to blacks. In his view, the Golden Age was reached in the 1950s. It's all been downhill since.
The villain: the Great Society.
"With the coming of the Great Society," he said, "government began eating away at underpinnings of the private enterprise system. The big taxers and big spenders in the Congress had started a binge that would slowly change the nature of our society, and even worse, it threatened the character of our people . . . .
"The decrease in poverty I referred to earlier started in the 1950s. By the time the full weight of the Great Society programs was felt, economic progress for America's poor had come to a tragic halt."
Much of this is, of course, vintage Reagan.
It comes in a political context at the beginning of an important political season. It employs familiar political devices (the statistical numbers game to prove a point), and it reaches a political group the Reagan administration wishes to reassure if not realistically hopes to win.
But the premises upon which the president bases his arguments, not the political stakes, make this Reagan pronouncement significant. Here stands Reagan's latest exposition of his presidential role and that of the government he heads.
It's laissez-faire, hands-off, leave-it-to-private-business and let-it-trickle-down-with-a-vengeance thinking. He really seems to believe that therein lies the way to redress the nation's social ills. That's his lesson from the past.
Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, like LBJ himself, was filled with bombast and highly inflated promises. The name itself evoked the least admirable sides of the Johnson character.
It wasn't enough to work for a "good society," the term suggested by Walter Lippmann years before. LBJ had to preside over a "Great Society."
It wasn't enough to begin a national effort to work at easing the plight of America's poor. LBJ, amid presidential beat of drums and fanfare of hyperbolic press releases, had to declare a full-scale "war on poverty" complete with declarations of total victory and unconditional surrender and a quick timetable by which that ancient human affliction would be banished from the earth. (At the height of the "war" the total annual public bill came to $2 billion, less than the yearly profits then of one U.S. corporation, General Motors. So much for total national commitment.)
And certainly there were failures, many of them. The belief in the efficacy of government programs, the growth of the "povertyticians" who siphoned off federal grant largess and kept it from going to the poor, the inclination to "study the problem" and subsequently drown it in a sea of official reports, all these were among the obvious problems.
But beyond these lay something more positive. Undeniable progress was made. At its best, the Great Society embraced an attitude, a vision if you will, that went to the heart of the American promise. It involved a recognition that a society should be judged by how it cares for its weakest members; that society strengthens itself by addressing their problems; that the problems they face and the reality of many of their lives lie beyond the ability of private businesses to solve. They require a national effort. Above all, it involved a willingness to act.
Two recollections about Lyndon Johnson are instructive. One is the story told by Harry McPherson, the Washington lawyer and former LBJ aide and speechwriter:
Johnson, as vice president, is presiding over the Senate. Being debated is the intensely controversial and ultimately historic civil rights bill. LBJ falls into a conversation with John Stennis of Mississippi. He asks how Stennis stands on the public accommodations part of the bill. The people of Mississippi will never stand for it, Stennis replies; and he can't support it. Johnson speaks up:
"Well, you know, John, the other day a sad thing happened. Helen Williams and her husband Gene, who have been working for us for many years, drove my official car from Washington down to Texas, the Cadillac limousine of the vice president of the United States.
"They drove through your state, and when they got hungry, they stopped at grocery stores on the edge of town in the colored areas and bought Vienna sausage and beans and ate them with a plastic spoon. And when they had to go to the bathroom, they would stop, pull off on a side road, and Helen Williams, an employe of the vice president of the United States, would squat in the road to pee. And you know, John, that's just bad. That's wrong.
"And there ought to be something to change that. And it seems to me that if the people of Mississippi don't change it voluntarily, that it's going to be necessary to change it by law."
The second recollection comes from a trip with Johnson on the presidential jet, Air Force One. In typical LBJ style, half humble, half extremely boastful, he was talking to reporters in one of his memorable off-the-record conversations about what he and Congress together had accomplished in passing the Great Society legislation.
"A president and a Congress and a Cabinet have to plow a long furrow for next season's crops. That is what we did this year. Congress took many steps towards many long-range problems not faced up to before -- rent supplements, teachers, beautification, doctors, every conceivable type of education, conservation, immigration, nurses, hospital, cancer, heart, strokes, all kinds of research, 24 bills on education alone. On civil rights we have accomplished more in 10 months than in all history put together. The same for conservation. We have many new concepts in agriculture, crime and rapid rails, turning trains into planes, moving fast all over the coun-try . . . .
"I ought to be very candid. We don't know the answers to a good many of these riddles. We don't know how to unpollute the water and desalt it, but we are trying to find out. We have got programs started and we are revving them up. We don't know if rent supplements are the answer. We don't have a complete program on how to clean the air and water. We are going to try and find out. The main point is that we are not standing still. We are moving forward. We can't wait until the final solutions are ready."
The tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, and it remains a tragedy for America, is that his Great Society was overtaken by the war in Vietnam. LBJ stubbornly and wrongly believed he could give the country both guns and butter at the same time. He wound up delivering neither, and losing both wars at home and abroad.
Even in that pivotal year of 1966, after American forces, materiel and money began pouring inland through the elephant grass of Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers, Johnson still clung to the belief he could have it both ways. Talking to a group of black civil rights leaders, he said:
"We haven't gone near as far as we're going to go in the next two years of my office, if the good Lord is willing and the creeks don't rise."
Two years later the creeks rose to floodtide proportions and coursed over their banks. Lyndon Johnson's presidency was finished. So were his dreams for implementing and perfecting the Great Society.
That doesn't mean the effort was ignoble, or that progress failed to occur. It means old problems remain. And it will take more than expressions of good will, talk about how great it was in the '50s and nostrums about trickle-down theories to solve them.