Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Great Society, Medicare and the Summer of ‘65


The summer of 1965 was one of many critical moments of American history. The Great Society, President Johnson's ambitious policy to overhaul the country, became a reality. However, at the same moment, a new movement of a different kind was emerging. It was a kind of backlash that would take 15 years to mature into the conservative movement.

With Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney’s announcement of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, there’s bound to be a lot of talk about Ryan’s budget proposals, particularly the proposed reforms in Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats are no doubt pleased with Romney’s decision since any changes - no matter how necessary- to these social programs are bound to create some fear with some affected voters. 

Still, something has to be done. Everybody agrees on that, at least. Health care is the biggest driver of future budget deficits.

It is true that Ryan’s tweaking of his original plan should have removed some of this understandable anxiety and yet when it comes to something this complex, voters on both sides of the political spectrum are deeply suspicious of any tinkering. Even the ultra-right wing Tea Party movement is opposed to medicare cuts.
One source- correctly or incorrectly- captures the mood of the anxious voter.

Ryan’s plan has been rightly called “a thinly disguised assault on Medicare.” The House GOP knows they have no immediate hope of ending Medicare, but they’re telegraphing their long-term plans to cut all the cords holding up America’s social safety net. That should be a brutal wakeup call for all of us as we get a glimpse of how they would reshape America as a less kind, less gentle nation. They don’t plan to stop at Medicare; Social Security won’t be far behind.
It would be tempting for Democrats to scare the elderly voters with exaggerated fears about what Romney and Ryan might do. Even without the medicare fears, the less than charismatic Paul Ryan is certainly not going to be giving the Romney campaign anything close to a boost.
As I said, I will leave further discussion of that topic to others. 

Instead, I would like to take you back forty-seven years to a small town in Missouri where important events were happening.

Defining a Great Society

On a mild summer afternoon in late July of 1965, two presidents from different generations, President Lyndon Johnson and former president Harry Truman, had come together at a bill signing in the auditorium of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; The Social Security Act Amendments bill.
President Johnson signs
Medicare into law,  July 1965

Better known as the Medicare bill, the legislation established Medicare, a health insurance program for the elderly, and Medicaid, a health insurance program for the 

This bill formed a key part of the domestic social reform program called “The Great Society.”  The overriding goal was the elimination of poverty and racial injustice which had divided the nation.

The 1964 election victory had given President Johnson a golden opportunity. Not only had the election returned Johnson to the White House with 61% of the vote, (he carried all but six states.) Democrats gained enough seats to dominate with more than two thirds both houses of Congress.

Up until that political shift, the Southern Democrats had successfully thwarted administration efforts at civil rights legislation and other aspects of the ambitious vision of the Great Society program. Seizing this new opportunity, President Johnson, armed with the research of 14 separate task forces, set to work on legislation that would reshape the face of American society.

Immediately came The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The next item on his agenda was to be health care for the poor and elderly.

Earlier in 1965, President Johnson had outlined his vision in his State of the Union speech. He saw America as a great enough nation to offer opportunities to every citizen.
We have in 1964 a unique opportunity and obligation -- to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence.
If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union.
First, it would require an overhaul in institutions and a revolution in attitudes.
“The great society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”
*    *    *    *

At the signing of the Medicare bill, Johnson laid out his reasons for the unprecedented medical care reforms. The first step toward a great society is empathy. Legislation and leadership without empathy and courage achieved nothing.
Many men can make many proposals. Many men can draft many laws. But few have the piercing and humane eye which can see beyond the words to the people that they touch. Few can see past the speeches and the political battles to the doctor over there that is tending the infirm, and to the hospital that is receiving those in anguish, or feel in their heart painful wrath at the injustice which denies the miracle of healing to the old and to the poor. And fewer still have the courage to stake reputation, and position, and the effort of a lifetime upon such a cause when there are so few that share it.
The advantages of prosperity, he told the audience, must not be confined to a limited few. The government had obligations to all people, especially to those who could not help themselves, and those obligations were not limited merely to the most wealthy.
No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.

And no longer will this Nation refuse the hand of justice to those who have given a lifetime of service and wisdom and labor to the progress of this progressive country.
A great society was a society in which the benefits do not depend on the whims of the entitled. This, said Johnson, was not just a progressive notion, but an American tradition.
But there is another tradition that we share today. It calls upon us never to be indifferent toward despair. It commands us never to turn away from helplessness. It directs us never to ignore or to spurn those who suffer untended in a land that is bursting with abundance.
Following the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, President Johnson kept up the momentum. Now it was time to address the problem of election fraud which had been used as an effective tool in many of the Southern states to maintain white hegemony, despite the prohibition laid out in the 15th amendment.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements
President Johnson signed the resulting legislation into law on August 6, 1965.

Watts: Los Angeles Flash Point

Watts riots 1965 National Guard

National Guards maintain
calm during Watts riots in LA
Less than a week later, on August 11 and far from the Midwestern small-town setting, the LA neighborhood of Watts erupted in riots. This five-day riot resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. 

The violence had been sparked by police brutality, during the arrest of a black man on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. (Of course, it wasn’t really about that. The underlying conditions had existed for years.) The initial crowd of curious onlookers could not be dispersed, refused to leave the scene and, like a brush fire, suddenly transformed itself to angry stone-throwing groups. 

It should have been predicted. 
Minorities were becoming impatient. For some, the noble aims of the Great Society program, the eradication of poverty and the establishment of a society based on equality and justice, had come too late. The problems that had festered for over decade finally exploded. Distrust between white and black, rich and poor had turned to urban violence. 

It was not limited to Los Angeles. The summer before Watts saw black communities in seven eastern cities stricken by riots. Yet, in the aftermath, those that searched for the causes decided that it was not merely a problem between races. 
It was larger than that.

Autopsy of a Race Riot

On December 2, 1965, The McCone Commission released a 101-page report about the Watts riots. It was entitled Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965.
When the rioting came to Los Angeles, it was not a race riot in the usual sense. What happened was an explosion -- a formless, quite senseless, all but hopeless violent protest - engaged in by a few but bringing great distress to all.
Nor was the rioting exclusively a projection of the Negro problem. It is part of an American problem which involves Negroes but which equally concerns other disadvantaged groups.
Meaning, it had much more to do with class warfare. The "haves" against the "have-nots" and this was at a time when the disparity between rich and poor was less than it is today.

The report warned about the effects of doing nothing about the problem of social inequality.
The consequences of inaction, indifference, and inadequacy, we can all be sure now, would be far costlier in the long run than the cost of correction. If the city were to elect to stand aside, the walls of segregation would rise ever higher. The disadvantaged community would become more and more estranged and the risk of violence would rise. The cost of police protection would increase, and yet would never be adequate.
These reforms, the report also warned, had to be carefully managed in order to prevent dependence on welfare.
However, to be successful in doing so, these programs must be accompanied with a recognition that a truly successful welfare program must, wherever feasible, create an initiative and an incentive on the part of the recipients to become independent of state assistance. Otherwise, the welfare program promotes an attitude of hopelessness and permanent dependence.
Not everybody saw it in those terms. It was merely a case, they said, of urban rebellion and civil unrest. Searching for excuses was merely a symptom of white man's guilt complex. 
The police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, William Parker, who had been forced to call out the national guard when the civil unrest began to spread, became the voice for the anxious conservative voter. 

In the book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, author Rick Perlstein writes:
Chief Parker had provided this account of the riot's origins to Governor Brown's blue-ribbon panel studying Watts: "Someone threw a rock, and like monkeys in a zoo, they all started throwing rocks." He maintained that unless decent folks did something drastic, the monkey would be visited even unto their own doorstep- and for saying it was drowned in forty thousand congratulatory messages a month.
Ultimately the Watts riots provoked two opposing reactions. On one hand, there was soul-searching and a greater demand for social reform. But there was also its mirror image.

The Birth of a Backlash

One month after the McCone Commission released its findings and recommendations, the conservative movement began taking shape, led by an unlikely but familiar figure.
At his announcement in January of his candidacy for California governor, Ronald Reagan had blamed the original Watts riots on the "philosophy that in any situation the public should turn to government for the answer."
In his 1966 campaign for governor against incumbent Governor Pat Brown, Reagan ran on a policy of "to send the welfare bums back to work." 
Reagan called Medicare the advance wave of socialism that would "invade every area of freedom in this country." 

Looking to government for solutions to social problems, said Reagan, is foolish and dangerous. 
As he had said earlier in his “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964:
In this vote-harvesting time, they use terms like the "Great Society," or as we were told a few days ago by the President, we must accept a greater government activity in the affairs of the people...Senator Clark of Pennsylvania, another articulate spokesman, defines liberalism as "meeting the material needs of the masses through the full power of centralized government."

Well, I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as "the masses." This is a term we haven't applied to ourselves in America. But beyond that, "the full power of centralized government"—this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don't control things. A government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.
Of course, despite what Reagan said, governments do control things. Through fiscal policy, governments do control economies and do not necessarily resort to force or coercion. Contrary to Reagan’s view in his Goldwater speech, control can be achieved with well-conceived legislation and regulatory bodies providing the appropriate oversight. 
And sometimes yes, compromise. And sometimes, it can be achieved by appealing to the good side of human nature, and the human sense of fairness.

(Ironically, it was President Reagan himself who was quite willing to use force and coercion. As governor, there was his use of force in Berkeley "targeting UC Berkeley's student peace activists, professors, and, to a great extent, the University of California itself.")

And, as far as coercion, in the early days of his administration when air-traffic controllers went on strike, he ordered them back to work under the threat of dismissal. Even more ironically, In the 1980 presidential election, the air traffic controllers union, PATCO had refused to back President Jimmy Carter, instead endorsing Ronald Reagan.)

Our Present Mess

In the financial meltdown of 2008, all of us saw the results of allowing the private sector to regulate itself. Most importantly, the private sector- with profit as its only motive- is simply not equipped to handle public responsibilities of government, like health care for the elderly or poor, education or the incarceration of criminals.

If Reagan’s idea of private sector solution was mistaken, his general attitude about social welfare was complex but not inhumane. Of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative he remarked:
“I was a New Deal Democrat. And I still believe, today, that there is only one compassionate, sensible, and effective policy for Federal assistance: We must focus domestic spending on the poor and bypass the bureaucracies by giving assistance directly to those who need it.”
In fact, both Reagan’s father and brother benefited from New Deal relief. As he would go on to write in his diaries:
“The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for FDR four times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.”
*    *    *    *
In California, Ronald Reagan won the 1966 election in a 58-42 landslide, carrying all but three counties. Following this surprising victory in 1966, Reagan became so nationally prominent in Republican circles that he was considered a possible contender in the presidential election of 1968. 

Of course, things didn’t turn out like that. Instead, fellow Californian Richard Nixon took that prize and, following the shattering assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, went on to win the presidential election. 
Nevertheless, the seeds had been planted. The neo-conservative movement, led by this former actor, had begun its crusade. 

Racism as a Feature of Reaganism

Nixon, a savvy politician, understood Reagan and his appeal with some conservative voters. An internal Nixon memo captures how many saw Reagan in this early stage of his political career.
Reagan's strength derives from personal charisma, glamour, but primarily the ideological fervor of the Right and the emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan to keep him "in his place" or at least to echo their own anger and frustration."
Many of Reagan’s remarks, however, were tainted with the power structures of the past ( and all that went with them). He stridently opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For example,
While campaigning for governor of California, Reagan opposed that state’s Fair Housing Act, saying, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so.”
By the time, Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, his anti-Great Society views had hardened and, in turn, the neo-conservative movement had transformed the Republican party. 

In a 1981 interview, Lee Atwater an advisor of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and Chairman of the Republican National Committee.and strategist to the Republican Party,. astutely- though tactlessly- pointed out how the argument had shifted from outright racism and into something with a more subtle mask.
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. [emphasis mine]
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger".
Cutting social welfare program, limiting the role of big government, states’ rights were all code words or at least a different way of expressing something much less palatable. But now, as the neo-conservative movement suffers through its final hours, that aspect of the movement become more and more clear. 
*   *   *   *
In closing, we must return to July 1965, to Independence Missouri. 
After handing the signing pen to the former president President Johnson proudly issued the first Medicare registration cards to Harry and Bess Truman, numbers one and two. 
In speaking of traditions and the moral obligations that governments must uphold, the president chose a passage from Deuteronomy:
And this is not just our tradition--or the tradition of the Democratic Party--or even the tradition of the Nation. It is as old as the day it was first commanded:
"Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, to thy needy, in thy land."