President Bush criticized the "Great Society" Saturday on the very platform where President Lyndon Johnson proposed the massive social program three decades ago.
In a commencement address at the University of Michigan, where he received an honorary doctor of laws degree, the president charged that the sweeping programs put forward by Johnson in 1964 backfired and proposed instead a less ambitious "Good Society" based on more voluntarism and less government interference.Bush acknowledged that Johnson, who delivered his speech in an Ann Arbor commencement address May 22, 1964, "applied the wisdom of his time" and had only the best intentions in crafting the plan to revitalize cities, strip racism from society, save the environment and better train students.
But, said Bush in sounding some of the very themes in describing his own administration's more limited domestic plans, Johnson mistakenly relied on greater government spending to aid the poor.
"He believed that cadres of experts really could care for the millions," Bush said. "They would calculate ideal tax rates, ideal rates of expenditures on social programs. In many ways theirs was an America by the numbers: If the numbers were right, America was right.
"Gradually, we got to the point of equating dollars with commitment, and when programs failed to produce progress, we demanded more money. In time this crusade backfired," he declared.
Bush's criticism of Johnson was surprising under the circumstances but seemed to spark little response from the mostly exuberant crowd of 68,000 graduates and family members gathered to hear their second presidential address. The crowd was distracted several times by pockets of demonstrators dressed in red to protest Bush's Persian Gulf policy.
"We need to rethink our approach," Bush said in the partisan strike at past liberal spending policies. "Let's tell our people we don't want an America by the numbers, we want a community of commitment and trust."
Bush has been under pressure to articulate his own low-key domestic agenda and on Friday flew to St. Louis to promote a community-inspired housing program for low-income areas. He has openly admitted the domestic arena is not his favorite and in fact had planned to address the graduates on the Middle East situation but was forced by the current standoff on peace efforts to turn to domestic issues.
Johnson pushed through Congress the nation's first Medicare program, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act, federal aid to education at all levels, Headstart, public housing, child and maternal health assistance and several first environmental and beautification laws.
"We should have learned that while the ideals behind the Great Society were noble, the programs weren't always up to the task," Bush said. "We don't need another `Great Society' with huge ambitious programs administered by the incumbent few. We need a `Good Society' built upon the deeds of the many, a society that promotes service, selflessness, action."
Bush's theme echoed his calls in the past for average Americans to take up volunteer tasks and to put responsibility for many of society's problems in the private sector.