Saturday, May 24, 2014

That time Lyndon Johnson made a killer case against unbridled growth

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.

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