History
3:30 am
Wed January 8, 2014

For LBJ, The War On Poverty Was Personal

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 11:31 am

President Lyndon Johnson stood in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 1964, and, in his first State of the Union address, committed the nation to a war on poverty.

"We shall not rest until that war is won," Johnson said. "The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."

It was an effort that had been explored under President Kennedy, but it firmly — and quickly — took shape under Johnson.

On Nov. 22, 1963, just hours after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson was meeting with advisers in Washington to get the affairs of state in order. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Walter Heller, mentioned to Johnson that under Kennedy, he had begun looking at ways to help those in poverty — about 1 in 5 Americans at the time.

"And Johnson slams the door shut so he can talk to Heller another couple of minutes about it, and Heller asks him, 'How fast do you want to move ahead with this program?' and Johnson says to him, 'Full tilt,' " historian Robert Caro tells NPR's David Greene. Caro's most recent book, The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in his biography of Johnson, recounts the early weeks of the Johnson presidency, when he launched the war on poverty.

That ambitious initiative would help Johnson politically. Many liberals, who had rallied around the cause of poverty, were suspicious of him — but it was something he knew the pain of personally.


Interview Highlights

On Johnson's face as he delivered the State of the Union speech

He had a very tough face, and sometimes his eyes narrow and his lips get into a very thin, grim line, and they're sort of pulled down on the corners so they almost seem like a snarl. The senators and representatives sitting below him as he was making the speech were suddenly looking into a face they knew from his time in Congress, the face of a Lyndon Johnson who was determined to win. He put everything into that speech because it was something he believed in so deeply.

On Johnson's personal connection with poverty

His father failed. He once had been a very respected state legislator and businessman, and he totally failed. And as a result, for the rest of his boyhood, Lyndon lived in a home that they were literally afraid every month that the bank might take away. There was often no food in the house, and neighbors had to bring covered dishes with food. In this little town, to be that poor, there were constant moments of humiliation for him, and insecurity. It was a terrible boyhood.

On the phrase "war on poverty"

He loved that phrase, and it was part of his hatred of poverty. Johnson could be a very ruthless man. I wrote [in Passage of Power] he knew what to do. He says [the causes of poverty may lie] "in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live." These were to Johnson real-life foes, and Johnson knew what to do with enemies: You destroyed them. So he loved the word "war."

On what the war on poverty tells us about Johnson

To me, Lyndon Johnson, in everything he did, there was always a political calculation. But in some of the things that he did, there was ... something more, something that had to do less with strategy than with memories. And I think that driving him was not only the political calculation to make himself more palatable to liberals, to put his own stamp on the presidency because he was going to be running for re-election; there was also the memories of his youth and what poverty meant to him, and how it hadn't been his fault that he was in poverty. And that translates in the [State of the Union] speech into the sentences where he basically says too many people are living on the outskirts of hope. "Some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On the evening of November 22, 1963, just hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his newly sworn-in replacement, President Lyndon Johnson, met with advisors in Washington to get the affairs of state in order.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At the end of that meeting, a top economic advisor, Walter Heller, told the new president that he had been directed by Kennedy to find ways to help people in poverty.

ROBERT CARO: And Johnson slams the door shut so he can talk to Heller another couple of minutes about it and he says to Johnson: Well, how fast do you want to move ahead with this program? And Johnson says to him: Full tilt.

MONTAGNE: That's LBJ biographer Robert Caro describing a moment that would lead six week later to a now-famous speech, Johnson's first State of the Union address. We're marking its 50th anniversary today.

GREENE: LBJ laid out an ambitious plan to fight poverty. It would help him politically as many liberals who supported more help for the poor were suspicious of the new president, but poverty was also something this president knew personally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: We shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

GREENE: NPR is spending time this year looking at whether the nation has won or lost the war on poverty. Now, with the help of biographer Robert Caro, let's return to the moment that war was declared in that speech by Johnson.

CARO: To look at his face as he's saying those words, you know, Johnson did not have a handsome face, but he had a very tough face, and sometimes his eyes narrow and his lips would get into a very thin, grim line, and they're sort of pulled down on the corners so they almost seem like a snarl.

I wrote in my book that the senators and representatives sitting below him as he was making the speech were suddenly looking into a face that they knew from his time in Congress, the face of a Lyndon Johnson who was determined to win. He put everything into that speech because it was something he believed in so deeply.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about why he believe in it so deeply. A lot of it goes back to his childhood in Texas.

CARO: Yes, you know, his father failed. He once had been a very respected state legislator and businessman, and he totally failed. And as a result, for the rest of his boyhood, Lyndon lived in a home that they were literally afraid every month that the bank might take away.

And there was often no food in the house, and neighbors had to bring covered dishes with food. In this little town, to be that poor, there were constant moments of humiliation for him, and insecurity; was a terrible boyhood.

GREENE: You wrote in one of your books that he hated poverty so much that there were moments when, for example, someone would point out some children passing by and say that they were wearing rags and he would get very offended by that and say, those are not rags.

CARO: Yes. Offended and hurt. You know, one of the time that happened was when they were on - he was still vice president and they were on a motorcade in Iran and they passed a group of children and one of the people with him, A Dr. Hurst, his cardiologist actually, said to Johnson: Look at the rags those children are wearing.

And Johnson just exploded and he said: That's not rags. Those are patched clothes. That's a lot different from rags. And Hurst said I realized then how much he hated poverty. And the reason, of course, that rags meant something very specific to Johnson was that he had younger brothers and sisters and they were wearing patched clothes because they were so poor.

He didn't want them called rags. Rags meant something even worse.

GREENE: This speech, the War on Poverty, where did those words come from? Did they come from Johnson himself?

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: Well, it's very interesting. Nobody really knows that. I talked to Ted Sorensen who was Kennedy's, you know, great speech writer.

GREENE: Speech writer and advisor and...

CARO: And immense help to me. He lives near me and we used to talk in the afternoons about these things. He once said to me, you know, that sort of - he didn't use the word corny. I can't remember his right word. He said President Kennedy would never use a phrase like that. However, looking through Kennedy's speeches, he had used and probably in a speech Sorensen wrote, that phrase.

GREENE: Sorensen just forgot about that it might have been his words.

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: Absolutely. But, you know, I wrote in this last book, "The Passage of Power," I said, but he loved that phrase, and was part of his hatred of poverty because Johnson could be a very ruthless man. And I wrote he knew what to do. You know, he says poverty is ignorance, lack of education...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

JOHNSON: ...and a lack of education and training. And a lack of medical care and housing. And a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

CARO: These were, to Johnson, real-life foes, and Johnson knew what to do with enemies; you destroy them. So he loved the word war. Now he didn't see anything wrong with it.

GREENE: Robert Caro, can you help me make sense of this moment in history? We have Lyndon Johnson giving this War on Poverty speech. You're talking about how personal this was for him, but you also have spent a lot of time writing about how politically calculating this man always was. I mean, what does this moment in this speech tell us about this president?

CARO: Well, to me, Lyndon Johnson, in everything he did, there was always a political calculation. But in some of the things that he did, there was - I wrote in "The Passage of Power" the phrase - I just found it here, is there was something more, something that had to do less with strategy than with memories. And I think that driving him was not only the political calculation to make himself more palatable to liberals, to put his own stamp on the presidency because he was going to be running for re-election, there was also the memories of his youth and what poverty meant to him, and how it hadn't been his fault that he was in poverty.

And that translates in this speech into the sentences where he basically says too many people are living on the outskirts of hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

JOHNSON: ...of hope. Some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

GREENE: Lyndon Johnson speaking 50 years ago today. We were speaking about that moment with historian and biographer Robert Caro. His most recent book, "The Passage of Power" recounts the early weeks of Johnson's presidency and the launch of what we now know as the war on poverty.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.