- Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History
Michael L. Gillette has assembled an invaluable insider’s view of the planning, funding, and implementation of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Readers of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly will be particularly interested in this second edition of the book, which not only reveals the influences of Texas and the South on the making of antipoverty policy, but which also benefits from its use of LBJ’s tape-recorded White House telephone conversations. LBJ’s insights supplement interviews completed between the 1960s and the 1980s with forty-nine policymakers. Together, they provide a unique view of the best intentions, achievements, and limits of one of the farthest-reaching and most controversial flurries of federal social legislation in U.S. history.
Launching the War on Poverty offers a spirited defense of the antipoverty policies created between 1964 and 1967. Gillette’s emphasis on the enduring influence of the War on Poverty runs counter to much of the recent historiography of late twentieth-century politics, which focuses on the rise of the New Right and the concomitant collapse of liberalism. Yet Gillette insists that the War on Poverty remains relevant because every major program founded through the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) other than Neighborhood Youth Corps has survived nearly fifty years. Even the most controversial notion of “citizen participation has gained a wide acceptance, and a former community organizer occupies the Oval Office” (402).
Gillette also highlights the limits of U.S. antipoverty policy. The poverty warriors themselves looked back from the 1970s and 1980s with a critical eye. They noted that they had underestimated how difficult it would be to eradicate poverty, oversold the potential of federal action to reduce poverty in the short run, and never had enough funding to carry out their grand plans. Moreover, for policy wonks in the audience, Gillette’s subjects detail the bureaucratic challenges of innovating and coordinating programs in a new government agency like the OEO.
Gillette’s interviews paint a complex picture of LBJ’s influences on the War on Poverty. He was “a modern populist,” Gillette argues, who had learned the importance of helping the poor from his experiences as a schoolteacher in rural Texas and in his experiences with the New Deal’s National Youth Administration (xvii). The president gravitated toward the fight against poverty, and believed in the importance of the government in that fight. As one close advisor put it, LBJ was “the last New Dealer, in the sense that he would do anything to feed the kids . . . and for old folks,” and he would support clearing obstacles to civil rights [End Page 324] (388). Yet there were limits to his vision. He would not tolerate the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in the War on Poverty to challenge the political status quo. “I’d a whole lot rather have [Chicago Mayor] Dick Daley . . . handling millions of dollars” than private organizations, LBJ said in 1964 (90). And as it became clear that some local people would use antipoverty agencies as means to challenge their representatives for influence in their communities, Johnson was inflexible. “To hell with community action,” he declared. Johnson had to be convinced by Bill Moyers and others that they had to “prove that a community can get together to solve its problems” (148–149).
It is easy to get lost in the details of these interviews, but that is a small price to pay for a book that gives the reader such a unique view into American public policymaking. There is no better measure of the contingencies that shaped antipoverty policy than these interviews’ insights into the personal prejudices and rivalries, academic assumptions, individual aspirations for power, regional alliances, and even wagers on the golf course that determined the course of antipoverty programs.