Irwin Unger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, suggests in The Best of Intentions
that you think of the Great Society the next time you fasten a seat belt, visit a national park, or switch on "All Things Considered." Unger notes that while the sweeping social reforms begun under the Kennedy administration have been seen primarily as benefiting the poor---as the recent debates on welfare have made clear---much of the so-called Great Society initiative was in fact intended for the advantage of the middle class. Under the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, he writes, the talents of government were put to solving social problems and to establishing what Johnson called "a creative federalism between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities." These programs reflected a post-scarcity sensibility, the idea that within the vast riches of America lay the possibility that each citizen could have an equitable share, and Unger points to some unlikely heroes in the campaign to make them a reality---among them the since-discredited legislator Wilbur Mills, who shepherded Medicare through Congress, and Nixon himself, who took time during Watergate to sponsor a series of far-reaching environmental and social initiatives. At a time when the last vestiges of Great Society federalism are under siege in Washington, this well-written book is of special interest.
From Publishers Weekly
Highly relevant to today's debate over Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," Unger's incisive reassessment of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs helps explain why the middle class lost faith in the campaign to rescue the poor. A Pulitzer- winning historian at New York University, Unger believes that President Kennedy's New Frontier masked a weak commitment to domestic reform, and he considers JFK's record barren compared with Johnson's pivotal legislation creating Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the war on poverty and other programs. But black-militant excesses, misspending, pork-barrel projects and a perceived lack of results alienated the middle class, in Unger's analysis. He portrays Nixon as a bigot who considered the Great Society a payoff to blacks and Hispanics but who nevertheless was unable to dismantle it. In Unger's estimation, the Great Society's antipoverty drive largely failed as LBJ envisioned it?as a means of creating opportunity?but he emphasizes that insufficient funding of education, antipoverty and other programs may have been responsible for its poor results.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.