Grist/John De Graaf
His daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, believes it unfair to judge her
father by the war alone; it was never what he wanted, she argues. What
he did want, and wanted to be remembered for, was what he called “The
Great Society,” a vision of an America not more powerful or richer than
others, but transformed to value things other than wealth and power. He
laid out his vision in a remarkable speech delivered 50 years ago on May
22, 1964 to graduates at the University of Michigan.
Though Johnson was no silver-tongued orator like President Obama, his
words, crafted by speechwriter Richard Goodwin, rang with inspiration
and wisdom. And though he didn’t write the speech, there can be no doubt
that Johnson shared Goodwin’s values; a man like Johnson would never
let another person put words that he disagreed with into his mouth.
The speech was arguably the greatest ever delivered by a modern American president. It was a different take on American exceptionalism,
exceptionally different from what America has actually become. Its
gender-biased language is dated, but its message is far more advanced
than our current dialogue.
Indeed, no president would dare speak Johnson’s words today for fear
of being labeled unpatriotic or un-American. The speech was a call to
redefine the American dream. We should not let its 50th anniversary pass
without recalling it and recommitting ourselves to its goals. It
contains a perspective on American life never articulated by any
American president before or since then.