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Lyndon Johnson
President Johnson at U-M Commencment, 1964. (Image: Bentley Historical Library.)

1964: Michigan, LBJ, and the Great Society

By James Tobin
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On the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the White House was keeping an invitation from the University of Michigan on hold. At the suggestion of a student leader, Roger Lowenstein, U-M President Harlan Hatcher had invited Kennedy to address Michigan’s graduates at spring commencement in 1964. Hatcher waited a month, then reissued the invitation, this time to the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

U-M President Harlan Hatcher confers an honorary degree to President Lyndon Baines Johnson during commencement 1964. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

U-M President Harlan Hatcher confers an honorary degree to President Lyndon Baines Johnson during commencement 1964. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

Weeks went by with no definite answer. Then, with some urging from Michigan’s junior U.S. senator, Phil Hart, Johnson said yes. If the ceremony could be moved up a day to Friday, May 22, he would speak. The University began to prepare for its first commencement address by a sitting president.

Skinny-dip summit

One day in April 1964, LBJ called for two top aides, Bill Moyers and the speechwriter Richard Goodwin, to join him for a skinny dip in the White House pool. He wanted to talk about something important. LBJ had been pushing Kennedy’s unfinished business through Congress—civil rights legislation, Medicare, a tax cut. Now, looking toward election in his own right in the fall, he told his aides he wanted ideas for “a Johnson program, and don’t worry about whether it’s too radical or if Congress is ready for it. That’s my job … Hell, we’ve barely begun to solve our problems.”

He wanted a big speech to kick off his election campaign, and he planned to deliver it at Michigan Stadium. As he recalled in his memoir, Remembering America, Richard Goodwin (who later would marry the historian Doris Kearns, a Johnson protégé) started looking for “a concept, an assertion of purpose,” to capture the bigness of Johnson’s vision. He picked up on a phrase LBJ had used in speeches once or twice already. The phrase was “Great Society,” a variation on “The Good Society,” the title of a classic defense of liberalism by the commentator Walter Lippmann.

Drafting the speech, Goodwin groped to express an ideal beyond the lunch-bucket liberalism of the New Deal. He was trying, he recalled, to capture the idea “that private income, a decent standard of living, was only a foundation; that private affluence, no matter how widely distributed … could not prevent the deterioration of urban life … could not restore our contact with the natural beauty that had been stripped from our urban areas … could not assure us that the intelligence and talents of our children would be skillfully cultivated.”

With suggestions from other aides and revisions by Moyers, it was essentially Goodwin’s draft that LBJ carried to Ann Arbor.

“In your time…”

Gov. George Romney greets LBJ as he descends from the helicopter. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

Gov. George Romney greets LBJ as he descends from the helicopter. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

Attendance at commencement had been spotty in recent years. But under a clear sky on May 22, 1964, football-Saturday-sized lines streamed into Michigan Stadium. The Secret Service wanted no one sitting behind the rostrum, so sections at the north end were blocked off. Even so, the Michigan State Police estimated attendance at 70,000. University officials claimed it was closer to 85,000.

Then, a few minutes before 10 a.m., four identical helicopters landed just east of the stadium. From one of them LBJ emerged—the first hand he shook belonged to Gov. George Romney, father of the presumptive 2012 Republican presidential nominee, before he was hustled into the stadium tunnel. In the visitors’ locker room he dressed in academic robes. Finally, he strode into view as the Michigan Marching Band blared “Hail to the Chief.”

At 10:56 a.m., after the presentation of degrees (including his own honorary doctorate of civil law), Johnson stood to deliver Richard Goodwin’s words. “In your time,” Johnson told the graduates, “we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the great society.” In such a nation, he said, “abundance and liberty for all [and] an end to racial injustice and poverty” would be “just the beginning” of an age devoted to larger pursuits of the human spirit. It would be “a place where each child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents … where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness … a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community … a place where man can renew contact with nature … a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”

To begin this quest, he said, his administration would pursue concrete goals in three areas—urban renewal, environmental protection, and massive aid to education. (He gave no details; Richard Goodwin held to Theodore Roosevelt’s advice that a political speech should be “a poster, not an etching.”)

Along with the drive for civil rights, the “war on poverty,” and Medicare, these would be the pillars of Johnson’s massive domestic program—and the source of the liberal-conservative divide down to our own time.

A welcome antidote

By all accounts Johnson was pleased with the reception he received from Michigan students. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

By all accounts Johnson was pleased with the reception he received from Michigan students. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

The speech lasted just 20 minutes. Johnson, though renowned as a one-on-one persuader, was no great orator in front of a crowd. He could never match the offhand charisma of his predecessor, who had electrified a late-night mob of Michigan students when he called for an international Peace Corps during the 1960 campaign. Still, the Ann Arbor crowd stopped LBJ with applause 29 times, and on the return flight to Washington that afternoon, he was “just … absolutely euphoric” over the response, a reporter recalled. For the moment, at least, he believed “he was fully in command of the nation’s support.”

In his column the next day, James Reston of The New York Times noted that in the six months since Kennedy’s death, LBJ had displayed remarkable political skills; but “the basic question is: What is the end and purpose of all this remarkable political skill?” In the speech at Ann Arbor, Reston said, LBJ had shaped an answer.In November, Americans rewarded him with a landslide victory over the Republican nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater.

According to the historian Robert Dallek, author of a two-volume biography of LBJ, it was not that Americans were craving the specific programs that would make up the agenda of LBJ’s Great Society. It was a more emotional reaction. Johnson’s “positive outlook on the nation’s future,” Dallek wrote, “was a welcome antidote to the grief and dejection so many Americans continued to feel over Kennedy’s assassination.

“In short, Johnson’s enthusiasm and confidence that the country could reach unprecedented heights made Americans feel better about themselves,” Dallek continued. “Never mind that he was overstating and overselling his vision of where he hoped the country would go. It was enough that he forecast a better day when pride in the nation’s accomplishments would replace recrimination and doubt about a violent America doomed to national decline.”

Did you encounter Johnson or any other U.S. president during your time at Michigan?

Sources include Robert M. Warner, Anatomy of a Speech: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Address,” Michigan Historical Collections Bulletin No. 28 (December 1978); Richard Goodwin, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1998); Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (1998); Michael R. Beschloss, ed., Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (1997); The Michigan Daily; and the Ann Arbor News.

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN is an author and historian. His latest book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency,was published by Simon & Schuster in November 2013. He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.

COMMENTS

  • Lee Markham - 1973

    Although I did not attend my own commencement ceremonies in 1973, I did attend the one in 1964 when LBJ addressed the crowd. I was privileged to be selected as part of a small group of students from Cantrick Junior High in Monroe to accompany one of teachers to Ann Arbor for the event. Of course, I will never forget it. We sat on the far end of the stadium from LBJ, and the TV view, even in black and white, would have been better. But I was actually THERE!

    Reply

  • Jerry Graham - 1970

    Unfortunately, like so many liberal ideas, the Great Society has had lasting unintended consequences. I\’m sure LBJ had no idea he was fostering the beginning of the entitlement mentality that plagues our country today. The civil rights portion was necessary, but we are seeing the disastrous effects of economic expansion by the government which is now ascending to epic heights with concomitant crippling debt.

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  • Roger Rayle - 1969,1971

    I remember attending the LBJ event when my sister graduated in 1964. I was able to attend again when Obama spoke in 2010. The contrast in security arrangements for the two events was interesting. For Obama, the security was only apparent during the check-in screening and from the sharpshooters stationed on the roof of the stadium. During LBJ’s visit, security was more overt with uniformed or plain-clothed personnel every 100 feet or so in the aisles. During LBJ’s speech when my mother stood up to take a photo, several of them turned and reached for their guns! I don’t think she took the photo.

    Footnote: The Secret Service has taken some heat of late, but when Obama spoke on that day in 2010 with thunderstorms in the area, there were the Secret Service guys exposed high up on the new stadium superstructure doing their job.

    Reply

  • John Bayerl

    It was my privilege to receive my MA Degree on this occasion. Although I appreciated the historical importance of the event, I recall feeling some resentment that it was LBJ, not JFK, speaking. After hearing the speech, I was pleased that I had the opportunity to be part of it. This was especially true since I was a native of the U. P. of Michigan who had grown up in relative poverty.

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  • Ted Everingham - 1964 Law

    I remember that day vividly. My Law School diploma is dated May 23, 1964; apparently diplomas had been printed before commencement was moved up a day – to May 22 – to fit LBJ’s calendar.

    Reply

  • Jan Zielinski Karnes - 82, 84

    while only a quick mention in the article, I must take issue with the author’s use of the word ‘blared’ in regards to the Michigan Marching Band. As a 4 year musician in the MMB, I was never encouraged to blare. This seems perhaps even more unlikely under the fastidious ear of Dr. Revelli, director at that time.

    In 1981 we were invited to play on the Bob Hope show filmed in GR on the occasion of the GR Ford Library dedication. Many dignitaries besides the Fords were in the audience including Pres. Reagan, members of Congress, the Mexican president and Canadian prime minister. As I imagine was the case in 1964, the performance was dynamic, precise and blare-free.

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  • Michael Birkholm - 1973

    A big moment at UM but unfortunately a disastrous program that exacerbated the poverty problem it aimed to remedy. I lived it as a teenager in Benton Harbor, a town which has been the subject of many an Urban Studies thesis. I graduated in 1969 and only now, 40 years later, do we begin to see some progress.

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  • Paul Gogulski - 1960

    I wish one of our distinguished graduates would do the country a service by publishing the true cost and true effects of Johnnson’s War on Poverty without covering up the unpleasant facts. In addition, I would hope that someone in the faculty would bother to read it.

    Reply

  • Victoria Osborn Matishen - 1964

    In the fall of 1960 I arrived at U of M and was at the Union to see John Kennedy. The Dean of Women announced that we girls were allowed to stay after curfew until he arrived. What a thrill to hear Kennedy propose the Peace Corps. I induced my sister (class of 1966) to join it later.
    In the fall of 1963, I was studying with a professor who made a call to the administration. The secretary who answered said, \”The President has been shot.\” and hung up. Since i was a hostess at Harlan Hatcher\’s monthly open houses, I was sad to hear this. Only later as we went to the snack room did we learn that it was Kennedy.
    Then came commencement May 1964. I was late, (a life-long affliction) and had to sit in the last row of LS&A graduates. Past the aisle behind me were the law school graduates. LBJ\’s speech was electrifying. He walked down the center aisle and began shaking hands with the law students. Then he crossed over and shook my hand. Then left.

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  • Rick Lausten - 1968

    Like all programs, but particularly social ones, the Great Society faced the Law of Unintended Consequences. We all want to help people who are in dire straits, but when does the assistance cease from being an step out of poverty and when does it transition to becoming an enabler of a dependency mentality? I would suggest that where that line should be drawn determines whether one is a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. That, to me, is the crux of one of the debates going on in our country now.

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  • Gail Osberg - 1964

    I was seated in the stadium that day; received my AMLS from what was the School of Library Science. President Johnson walked out on the path through the graduates and I was able to shake hands with him. Upon arriving at my apartment the owners of the house asked about the ceremony and when told I shook the President’s hand the husband of the couple grabbed my hand and said, Let me shake the hand that shook the hand”.

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  • Carl Welser - BS \'62, MS\'64 Biology

    Already owning a couple of advancd degrees, I decided to at least sit in the stands since the speaker was a sitting president.
    I figured there might be a significant policy utterance.
    So I settled on \”Creative Fderalism\” as the likeliest enduring key term.
    Somehow I completely missed \”Great Society.\”
    Carl F. Welser

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  • Frank Spies - BBA 61, LLB 64

    The law graduates were on the field in the line Johnson would pass on the way in. He shook hands with the law graduates on both sides of me. I now wish we could have heard the other Johnson getting an honorary degree that day — UofM engineering grad, Kelly Johnson of Lockheed. Maybe his contributions to our country were more beneficial. Lyndon Johnson made births to unwed mothers accept-
    able which has not helped our country.

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  • Lewis Dickens - 1964

    The Assistant Dean of the College of Architecture and Design asked me to carry the school flag at that commencement. I was thrilled to sit behind LBJ and read his speech over his right shoulder on the teleprompter. I really was inspired by it and also by Kelly’s presence. What moved me was his discussion about Planning and the war on poverty and building a great country, a Great Society. So I opted to go to work for the Oakland County Planning Commission. I tried to get a copy of the speech and neither the Freep nor the News carried it, nor did the NYT. The Freep had a picture of the SR71 and I was stunned. It was never published again until about 15 years later.
    Mentioning to a co-worker from Glasgow that I really liked the speech and that it inspired me, I was shocked to learn that he not only was aware of it, he told me that it was the Great Society Speech.

    So time has moved on and the War on Poverty was turned into the War on the Poor, and the Contract on the Middle class by the Republican party, acting as convicted and self righteous as any early Nazi member.

    It was truly a great speech and a fulfillment of the inspiration initiated by Kennedy in his late night tease. If you saw the remembrance of that event last year, you saw my comments of that event as well.

    Great speeches can inspire and can change the direction of the world but if they fall under untiring and endless, supercilious and vicious attacks the inspiration can be sapped by mean spirited people and that is very sad if not evil.

    Bill Dickens

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  • Maxine Berman - '68, LSA

    I was there too, as part of a high school group as someone else mentioned above. Indeed,the size of the crowd might be attributed to the fact the I believe U of M invited every high school in the state to send 5-6 students to hear the President. It was a remarkable day and a remarkable speech. Granted, the Great Society didn’t and couldn’t solve all of our problems, but for those of you who are so certain that it did absolutely nothing–or worse, I would suggest, at the very least, you look at the significant growth of the black middle class since that program began.

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  • Betsy Vokac - 1979

    I recall a day in the late 1970s when Gerald Ford was on campus to deliver a lecture in Angell Hall. The Fisbowl as always was crammed with people, but on this day it was truly clogged. I didn’t see President Ford, but I do recall being late to whatever class I was trying to reach.

    Reply

  • Barbara Lazarus Najman - 1964

    I had not planned to attend graduation. It had been a turbulent six months since President Kennedy had been assassinated and had so impacted our generation despite the fact we had been unable to vote for him in 1960 as we weren’t 21. When it was announced President Johnson would speak, plans were quickly changed. I remember sitting in the first few rows with my roommate, Gloria Bowles, a fellow Michigan Daily Senior Editor, and taking hope that the Great Society would continue many of President Kennedy’s ideals for reshaping America. It was a hope that was later squandered on the battlefields of Vietnam.

    Reply

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