President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that the government, working with a citizenry motivated to improve community life, had to make cities more livable, protect the natural environment, and provide education that gave all citizens regardless of race or class the chance to rise in society and find meaning in life.
The speech was a spiritual invocation as much as a political statement to fulfill Jefferson’s promise in the Declaration of Independence to give all the right to “pursuit of happiness.”
“The Great Society,” Johnson declared, “…demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” but it also had to be “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent…where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”
The Great Society, he added, meant making the nation’s cities places where “future generations can come together, not only to live, but to live the good life.” It was a place where “America the beautiful” and “our natural splendor” were protected from the pollution that threatened to destroy “the water we drink, the food we eat, the very air we breath.”
While Johnson’s 1964 speech dwelled on the problems of the cities, the environment, and education, the constellation of programs that came to be known as the Great Society addressed a much wider agenda. They included not only Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights legislation but also the creation of a department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, to name just a few.
“The liberal assumption that rising wealth more widely distributed would liberate Americans for the ‘pursuit of happiness’ had proven…inadequate,” [principal drafter Richard] Goodwin wrote of the genesis of the speech. The address, he argued, represented “the only possible direction for liberating, progressive change”.