When Lyndon Johnson was a boy growing up near the Pedernales River in the Texas hill country his parents would regularly play a record on their Victrola. But it wasn’t music.
It was William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, who was known for his charismatic oratory and populist ideals. This was one factor, though small and symbolic, in how the future president developed the ideas he would work feverishly to translate into reality during his frustrated presidency.
Though he was no Bryan when it came to having a way with words, he did give a famous speech articulating his views – and initiating a torrent of policy initiatives – just a few months after he came to the nation’s highest office following the tragic death of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Johnson was riding high in the polls and en route to a landslide election that fall, when in May of 1964 he went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to deliver the commencement address before 80,000 at the football stadium on the campus of the University of Michigan.
The past was very much in the tall Texan’s mind as he spoke that day – both distant and recent. He likely heard the scratchy but memorable words of Bryan echoing in his brain, but he also was reminded that just one year before President Kennedy had used another commencement in another place very effectively. That venue was American University in Washington, D.C. and Kennedy had talked of war and peace in a way that overshadowed the diploma distribution that day.
Always conscious of any comparison with his far more elegant and erudite predecessor, Johnson was determined to make some history of his own.
What he had to say that day – and all that followed – signaled sweeping change in how government functioned in, around, and over culture. Lyndon Johnson talked in glowing terms that day about his vision for “The Great Society.” His rhetoric did not match that of Bryan, nor his eloquence that of Kennedy, but his content was designed to pick up where another one of his heroes left off. That hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt.