The Great Society at 50: Lyndon B. Johnson’s cultural vision

May 27, 2014

by Philip Kennicott
May 20, 2014
Published by The Washington Post

On May 22, 1964, in a University of Michigan graduation speech filled with references to excellence, inspiration and enrichment, Lyndon B. Johnson interspersed the word “beauty” or “beautiful” five times. It was not the first mention of the term “Great Society” — the phrase had been used as the title of a commission report on the humanities five years earlier. But more powerfully than anything Johnson had said before, it connected the quality of American intellectual, aesthetic and artistic life with the basic aspirations of a prosperous, democratic nation.

Today, it’s easy to read the Great Society speech as generic political boilerplate. And most Americans, whether they admire or loathe Johnson, don’t remember him as a man preoccupied with art, culture or Aristotle’s ideal of man as a social being. He has come down to us as a collection of caricatures: the legislative sausage-maker, the men’s-room multi-tasker, the Rabelaisian figure delivered up by dozens of biographies and memoirs. His personal fund of metaphor and imagery came from the barnyard, not Parnassus, and so it’s a shock, 50 years later, to rediscover the halcyon Johnsonian rhetoric, so fresh, so idealistic, so impractical. read more