How great was the Great Society?

Pretty darn terrific, was the defiantly out-of-fashion verdict of its principal architects, who gathered at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas here today not to bury the enthusiasms of their youth, but to perpetuate them.

The symposium, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the passage of such landmark Great Society legislation as the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, was peppered in its opening day with expressions ranging from disdain to disappointment to bewilderment at what participants called a "temporary loss of the spirit of generosity" in public policy.

Critics of the Great Society will make their case Friday, but their ideas dominated today's agenda as, one after another, alumni of the Johnson era grappled with variations of this question:

Was the Great Society a collection of good intentions run amok, of egalitarianism out of control, all administered in a blunderbuss manner that wound up leaving the poor poorer and robbed of the spirit of self-reliance, and that wound up convincing the middle class that a social policy built on compassion costs too much and doesn't work?

One after another, they said no.

"We have diminished the pool of people in this country who have nothing to look back to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope," Otis A. Singletary Jr., who headed the Job Corps in 1964-65, said, paraphrasing Robert Frost.

Former representative Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.), after asking five members of the audience who benefited from the Head Start or Job Corps programs to stand, said: "The legacy of Lyndon Johnson continues to enrich our lives. He saw the enemy and the enemy was not government. The enemy was ignorance, poverty, disease, ugliness, injustice, discrimination. He believed it was the duty of government to defeat the enemy . . . . The Great Society was larger than number-crunching or charts and graphs. It was a commitment of mind and spirit . . . . "

Some found the scope of what they had done truly historic. "It was the only national effort ever conducted by the majority for the benefit of the minority," said Sargent Shriver, a special assistant to Johnson from 1965 to 1968.

Given their conviction that what they did was right and that it worked, why are the Great Society's architects so out of step today?

James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, blamed it on the mood of the country changing from "compassion to narcissistic 'me-ism.' "

Farmer said the backlash has "an element of racism."

"Blacks were very popular in the early 1960s," he said. "No one would have dared hold a cocktail party without having at least one of us there. We were viewed as the long-suffering victims of oppression -- a very positive image . . . . But it changed."

Partly because of the summer riots of the late 1960s, partly because of the "black power" rhetoric, partly because of the political capital made out of busing and "welfare chiselers," Farmer said, blacks "became viewed not as the victims of oppression, but the victimizers."

Arthur Blaustein, a former regional director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, said the engineers of the Great Society failed to deal adequately with the "myths" about what they had done. One myth, he said, was that the programs were mainly for minorities (two-thirds of the recipients were poor whites, he said) and another was that the programs amounted to handouts (when the idea behind them, he said, was to encourage self-help).

Adam Yarmolinsky, deputy director of Johnson's anti-poverty task force, took an upbeat tack, saying the loss of the nation's "spirit of generosity" was a "temporary aberration," and adding that the Great Society, like Mozart, "died young but left a great legacy."