Johnson vs. Reagan: Two visions collide

Johnson vs. Reagan: Two visions collide

By David Shribman - October 26, 2014

One saw an America on the rise, the other saw an America in peril. One saw government as a vital tool to smooth away the roughness of life and assure widespread freedom, the other saw government as an intrusion in the natural order of life and the enemy of freedom. One spoke of a reverie, the other of a nightmare.

Fifty years ago tomorrow these two men — one in the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, the other in an NBC studio in Los Angeles — set forth their visions, two of the most dominant figures of the late 20th century engaging in a long-distance debate about the future of America.

No one at the time understood that these dueling speeches — paired in no news story or broadcast — were of such historical significance, two men of destiny setting forth conceptions of America and its future that were destined to collide.

But on Oct. 27, 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson, running for re-election, and Ronald Wilson Reagan, speaking in support of Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, gave speeches that adumbrated an entire half-century of American history.

In that period, Jonathan Darman writes in a new book on the parallel trajectories of Messrs. Johnson and Reagan, LBJ was moved to give Americans “a fantasy and call it the future,” while Mr. Reagan, in a speech that became part of the conservative iconography, “framed the conservative cause in a kind of moral urgency.”

Here are annotated excerpts from the two speeches that spoke so eloquently of these two competing visions — and that previewed the clashes that would define our times:

Lyndon Johnson: It would be such a nice thing if these prophets of doom and gloom, and these apostles of fear and doubt, and these voices of smear and hate, and these suspicious persons who deal in petty things could just come [to Pittsburgh] and see the heart of America, see them with faith and with hope, and with vision and with happiness, and with belief in the future of our land.

For a generation, liberals had portrayed conservatives as sunless opponents of progress, and in some ways Mr. Goldwater, though the product of the sun-drenched desert, fell easily into this stereotype with his skepticism of Social Security and his opposition to government social-welfare programs. But the genius of Mr. Reagan was that he was sunny, a virtual apostle of optimism, while Mr. Johnson, despite this uplifting rhetoric, was wracked with fears and doubts.

Ronald Reagan: But I have an uncomfortable feeling that this prosperity isn’t something on which we can base our hopes for the future.

This comment, perhaps the most prescient remark in the Reagan speech, spoke of worries that the big-spending Great Society programs would bankrupt the Treasury. The Vietnam War at this time was still in its infancy, with only 23,000 American troops deployed there, only 4 percent of the eventual level. But the combination of guns (Vietnam) and butter (the domestic programs) would wreak havoc with the economy.

Lyndon Johnson: The Great Society is when America’s promise and her practice come together. The Great Society just isn’t a dream of mine. It is as real as tomorrow, and it is yours for the working at it. … It’s the time — and it’s going to be soon — when nobody in this country is poor.

Mr. Johnson’s early idealism was Texas Hill Country pragmatism; Franklin Roosevelt was a successful president and so the young LBJ embraced his precepts. The Kennedy assassination propelled Mr. Johnson into the White House and onto a new plane of idealism, fueled in part by his competitive instinct, his desire to exceed FDR and JFK. But he also fell in love with the notion of an LBJ legacy of beneficence. In this period the earthy rhetoric of realism that Mr. Johnson perfected as Senate majority leader was displaced with a soaring rhetoric of grandeur and nobility.

Ronald Reagan: This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Though on the surface there may be a small moment of convergence here — Mr. Johnson’s distrust of the Eastern intellectuals (the “Harvards”) whom Mr. Kennedy had brought to Washington and Mr. Reagan’s native Midwestern distrust of elites — these Reagan remarks speak of the distrust of central planning that conservatives associated with Soviet communism and of the social engineering that they associated with campus liberals.

Lyndon Johnson: I believe deeply that government must not be bigger by a single bureau or a single employee or a single dollar than it has to be. And I would have you know that I reduced the deficit from nearly $9 billion to $5 billion this year.

This comment, married with the president’s assertion that his administration spent $676 million less in July and August 1964 than Mr. Kennedy had spent in the same period in 1963, underlines the innate economic conservatism that Mr. Johnson possessed — a sense of rural thrift that he would abandon as the Great Society barreled forward.

Ronald Reagan: 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.

Here Mr. Reagan explores a theme that he had test-driven on the banquet circuit and that he would make a central part of his appeal two years later in his successful campaign for governor of California, in his presidential campaigns in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984, and in his presidency.

Lyndon Johnson: It’s the time when every slum is gone from every city in America, and America is beautiful. It’s the time when man gains full dominion under God over his own destiny. It’s the time of peace on Earth and good will among men. The place is here and the time is now.

This Johnson riff is the president in his newest incarnation, the politician as social utopian, the prophet of a new peace and a new prosperity. The early Johnson would never have said these words, nor would his aides have prepared remarks remotely like them.

Ronald Reagan: You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. … We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

Mr. Reagan, too, spoke in 1964 in a far different idiom than he employed in the past, when he, like Mr. Johnson, was a Roosevelt Democrat. In this classic burst of Reagan rhetoric, the conservative convert borrows language from the opponents to the New Deal, not only Republicans like Alf Landon but also Democrats like Al Smith.

Lyndon Johnson: To these people who talk about raw, naked power, and these people that talk about government centralization, these people that talk in these glittering generalities, covering everything and touching nothing, to those who want to repeal the progress of our times, I say, then, let them come here and take a look at Pittsburgh.

This last excerpt is a glimpse at Mr. Johnson’s newfound belief in renewal, and he holds up Pittsburgh — cleansed of its pollution yet still the unassailable citadel of steel — as an example of the irresistible power of Americans to remake themselves.

Here is the one example of a Johnsonian vision that was too modest rather than too expansive. He could not have imagined the Pittsburgh of a half-century in the future, shorn of steel, to be sure, but shiny in its stunning cityscape and a new magnet for youth, the arts, banking and medical research. 

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

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