Statement for the Lyndon B. Johnson/John F. Kennedy Libraries Symposium on The Great Society Held in Austin, Texas
I never knew either Lyndon Johnson or John Kennedy, but I can never forget the impact that their administrations had on my home State of Georgia.
Just think back to what life was like in 1961. Throughout much of the South, a black man couldn't go into a restaurant and order a fried chicken dinner. There was no Medicare and many elderly people had to pay their hospital bills—if they could pay them at all—out of their tiny Social Security checks.
In 1961, there was no federal aid to education, there were no food stamps, there was no Headstart and there were no legal services for the poor. When John Kennedy entered the White House, less than 30 percent of the black adults in Georgia were registered to vote. When Lyndon Johnson left office, the figure was close to 60 percent.
It was during these Kennedy-Johnson years that this nation made an unalterable commitment to heal the racial divisions that had estranged South from North and black from white for more than a century. True, progress has sometimes been slow and the course far from smooth, but the commitment has endured. And we, as a nation, have prospered.
Despite their dramatically different styles, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson knew how to harness the moral authority of the Presidency.
Now, more than a decade after his tragic assassination, the beacon of John Kennedy's New Frontier continues to inspire new generations of America's young.
Lyndon Johnson saw the White House as, in Teddy Roosevelt's unforgettable phrase, "a bully pulpit." One memory lingers with me. It is the image of Lyndon Johnson, invoking Martin Luther King, as he told the nation with his Texas drawl, "We shall overcome." But Lyndon Johnson did not limit his moral fervor to the cause of civil rights. More than any President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson reminded the American people that poverty has no place in a land that is as rich as this nation.
Lyndon Johnson recognized that the legislative achievements, which were the cornerstone of the Great Society, were not etched in stone. In detailing his vision of America in 1964, he proclaimed, "The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work."
But no one could have foreseen how unsettling the last eight years would have been for the legacy of the Great Society.
Some of the problems were political. Richard Nixon, aided by such minor league hatchetmen as Howie Phillips, first gutted and then abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity. The Medicaid program was allowed to fester, until it took a Democratic Congress to explain the dimensions of the scandal to the American people. Ambitious programs like Model Cities were diluted beyond recognition as part of Richard Nixon's experiments with revenue sharing.
But what was surprising was that many of die objections were philosophical. Some academic analysts claimed that middle class "poverty professionals" siphoned off a disproportionate share of Great Society programs designed to aid the poor. Others claimed that the Great Society "promised too much" and raised unrealistic expectations that could not be satisfied by government action.
Obviously, not all the Great Society programs were well conceived or carefully administered. It is easy to understand why. The mid-1960's were not a time for sober reflection. With our nation's cities burning, it was dear that this was not a time for timid or halfway measures. Blessed with a Congress committed to domestic change, President Johnson realized that his legislative program had to be adopted quickly or not at all.
I know that the pessimists are wrong when they say that the Great Society "promised too much." Is it promising too much to tell a resident of the South Bronx that he doesn't have to spend his life living in fear amid fetid conditions? Is it promising too much to tell the parents of college students that there will be jobs for their children when they graduate? Is it promising too much to tell a welfare mother that there will be enough money for her to bring up her children in dignity?
I don't think these are excessive promises. I don't believe that an American President—with compassion for the American people—could aspire to do anything less.
If I am elected President, I will try to build on the enduring framework of the Great Society and the New Frontier. I will not abandon the vision of an America where poverty has vanished and injustice is no more.
But we must face the harsh realities of the mid-1970's. We have all become somewhat chastened since the optimism of the Kennedy-Johnson years. We have been forced to recognize that federal resources are not infinite. Every budget projection I have read leads to the same dismal conclusion—die money just isn't there for many new programs.
There are several important programs that I am determined to begin if I am elected President. One is national health insurance, which has been a dream of all Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman. Another is simplifying the current welfare system to provide a uniform national program, instead of the continuing hodgepodge of conflicting—and often demeaning—rules and regulations that constitute the current system.
I see an equally important task confronting the next President, as well. And that is one of reorganization and reassessment of existing domestic programs. These are not empty slogans. Rather, they represent a determination not to waste scarce federal dollars on programs that just aren't doing the job.
We can no longer afford to support inefficient and ill-conceived domestic programs just because they have laudable goals. Every dollar that is wasted on a badly administered program is a dollar that is taken out of the pockets of disadvantaged Americans. I admit that this is a hard lesson to absorb. But these are hard times that we face for the rest of this decade.
I intend to be sympathetic in my assessment of existing domestic programs. I realize that all too often the problems are many and the resources too few. I also recognize that the measurement of the success or failure of anti-poverty legislation is a very inexact science. I will not let statistics obliterate human realities if I am elected President.
It is difficult to talk about patience in politics. It is difficult to talk about limits when the problems seem so limitless. But I would be deceiving you if I tried to gloss over the constraints which the next President will face.
I leave you with my pledge that I continue to be committed to the goals of the Great Society. And, if elected President, I intend to provide competent administration as a way of furthering these goals, not thwarting them.
NOTE: The APP used September 12 as date for this document. The original source states that the statement was issued for the symposium held on September 12-16, 1976.
Jimmy Carter, Statement for the Lyndon B. Johnson/John F. Kennedy Libraries Symposium on The Great Society Held in Austin, Texas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347664