LBJ’S Great Society

LBJ signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Source: Wikipedia

Hello! In my last post, I began analyzing the metaphors used in the speeches of three US presidents famous for trying to revolutionize social programs – Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society and now Joe Biden’s Build Back Better program.  Having discussed the speeches of FDR last time, I now move to analyzing the speeches of Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president.  He became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. He served from 1963 to 1969.  He is most famous for his innovative social programs he nicknamed the War on Poverty and the Great Society.  Incredibly, many of the social programs that we may take for granted today were created by the Johnson administration. These programs include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Housing and Urban Development Act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Immigration and Naturalization Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Not too shabby for one president, eh?

Source: Wikipedia

Many of the recent initiatives in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan have reminded pundits of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.  So I was curious if the rhetorical strategies and metaphors used by LBJ in his speeches were similar to those of FDR and Biden. I am not a historian or political scientist, but I will try to give an overview of the importance of some of his speeches.  In the examples below, I will supply excerpts from his speeches within quotation marks with the targeted metaphors italicized.  I will also provide the exact date of the speech in case anyone would like to track down the speech in its entirety.  All of the quotations are taken from the book, The Speeches of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Filiquarian Publishing LLC, 2015). Finally, I will also note when a speech was particularly important as in inaugural address (IA) or one of the many State of the Union Addresses (SOTU). 

I was very impressed with the intelligence and wit in his public addresses, often delivered in a folksy style, perhaps not surprising given that he was from a small town in Texas. Some of his domestic programs seemed to have been inspired by his experiences teaching Mexican immigrants in a local high school before getting into politics.  

His views were also formed by the efforts of his father, a local politician.  In his inaugural address in 1965, he discussed the dangers of the Ku Klux Klan after the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo. He said, “My father fought them many long years ago in Texas and I have fought them all my life because I believe them to threaten the peace of every community where they exist.  I will continue to fight them because I know their loyalty is not to the United States of America but instead to a hooded society of bigots.” 3/26/65 

Source: Wikipedia

Despite these examples of a narrow focus due to his rural upbringing, he also had a wide worldview.  In his inaugural address in 1965, he became philosophical about the emerging space program and the future of America using a journey metaphor. He said, “Think of our world as it looks from that rocket that is heading toward Mars. It is like a child’s globe, hanging in space, the continent stuck to its side like colored maps.  We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth.  And each of us, in the span of time, has really only a moment among our companions.”  1/20/65 IA

He also showed a good sense of humor.  In 1965 he gave a brief speech at a meeting of political cartoonist. He said he was happy to meet with the cartoonists because, “…after looking at some cartoons you had drawn, I thought I’d invite you over to see me in person.  After all I had nothing to lose.” 5/13/65

Rhetorical Strategies

In terms of the rhetorical strategies used in his speeches, I was a little disappointed.  Given that he was a colleague and good friend of two of the best orators of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, I was expecting many rhetorical flourishes in his speeches.  However, there were only a few that I could find.  He did deliver one clever chiasmus.  As discussed in other blog posts, a chiasmus (kye-AZ-muss) occurs when there is a two-part expression in which the subject and object in the first part are reversed in the second part.  Perhaps the most famous example in US politics is JFK’s expression, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  A week after JFK’s assassination, Johnson stated, “We will demonstrate anew that the strong can be just in the use of strength; and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 11/27/63 

Source: Wikimedia commons

He also used the strategy of repetition a few times, most markedly in a section of a speech to students at the University of Michigan in 1965.  He repeated the military metaphor of a battle to challenge them to help him build the Great Society.  

Example:  “So, will you join the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?

Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace—as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?

Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is the only foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?” 5/22/64 


Given his folksy speaking style and the fact that he was surrounded by brilliant orators, I was not surprised to see that LBJ (or his speech writers) used a wide variety of metaphors in his speeches.  Also, not surprisingly, since he was from the Texas hill country, he uses a few metaphors from nature and animals to describe and explain his points in his speeches.  


For instance, he uses the common metaphor of the yoke of an animal to describe people being oppressed in society, as if people are restrained by their circumstances in the same way that farm animals are restrained by a heavy yoke around their necks.

Source: Wikipedia

Example: “We have shown that we can also be a formidable foe to those who reject the path of peace and those who seek to impose upon us or our allies the yoke of tyranny.”  “…the yoke of dictatorship and the yoke of colonialism is being thrown off of nations all around the world, and new nations are being born, and independence and freedom are on the march.” 10/9/64

Example: “…to cast off the yoke of discrimination and disease…” 2/23/66

He also compares people who preach violence as venom or poison into the bloodstream of the country. 

Example: “The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another.  So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence.  Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of the law, and those who pour venom into our Nation’s bloodstream.” 11/27/63

Example: “It is this work that I most want us to do: to banish rancor from our words and malice from out hearts; to close down the poison spring of hatred and intolerance and fanaticism…” 11/28/63

Example: “Let us close the springs of racial poison.”  7/2/64

In one of his last State of the Union Addresses, he uses the common metaphors of mountain peaks or clouds on the horizon to measure economic indicators or to signify possible trouble in the future. 

Example: “True, there are some clouds on the horizon.  Prices are rising. Interest rates have passed the peak of 1966; and if there is continued inaction on the tax bill, they will climb even higher.” 1/17/68 SOTU

In an extended sequence, LBJ compares the plight of African-Americans (commonly called Negroes at the time) to two rivers in the country. He contrasts these rivers by using metaphors of light and darkness. 

Example: “Three and a half centuries ago the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown.  They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom.  They did not mingle fear and joy, in expectation that in this New World anything would be possible to a man strong enough to react to it.

            They came in darkness and they came in chains.” 

“The stories of our Nation and of the American Negro are like two great rivers.  Welling up from that tiny Jamestown spring they flow through the centuries along divided channels.”  8/6/65 

“It was only at Appomattox, a century ago, that an American victory was also a Negro victory.  And the two rivers—one shining with promise, the other dark-stained with oppression—began to move toward one another.”  

“So we will move step by step—often painfully but, I think, with clear vision—along the path toward American freedom.” 8/6/65

Light and Dark

LBJ used metaphors of light and dark in several other speeches.  In one of his first speeches, he praised the accomplishments of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. A few months later, he talked about the future of his own presidency.

Example: “3 years as President the world became a little safer and the way ahead became a little brighter.” 12/17/63

Example: “Our tomorrow is on its way.  It can be a shape of darkness or it can be a thing of beauty.” 8/27/64  Democratic National Convention acceptance speech

He referenced the Bible several times in his speeches with references to light and dark metaphors.

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “The scripture promises: ‘I shall light a candle of understanding in the thine heart, which shall not be put out.’

Together, and with millions more, we can light that candle of understanding in the heart of all America.

            And, once lit, it will never again go out.” 6/4/65

Up until the end of the very end of his presidency, he was very optimistic about the future, even when faced with the interminable war in Vietnam.

Example: “By shining a light of inquiry and discussion upon very dark and isolated conflicts, it has pressed the nations of the world to conform their courses to the requirements of the United Nations Charter.” 6/25/65

Example: “The high hopes of the aggressor have been dimmed and the tide of the battle has been turned.”  2/23/66 

Example: When the US proves that guerilla warfare cannot succeed… “Once that lesson is learned, a shadow that hangs over all of Asia tonight will, I think, begin to recede.” 7/12/66


Another way of showing his optimism was through metaphors of vision or looking towards the future.  In an extended passage, LBJ used the rhetorical strategy of repetition once more. 

Example: “In short, it is no time for delay.  It is time for action—strong, forward-looking action on the pending education bills to help bring the light of learning to every home and hamlet in America—strong, forward-looking action on youth employment opportunities; strong, forward-looking action on the pending foreign aid bill, making clear that we are not forfeiting our responsibilities to this hemisphere or the world, nor erasing Executive flexibility in the conduct of foreign affairs—and strong, prompt, and forward-looking action on the remaining appropriation bills.” 11/27/63

Example: “A great leader is dead; a great Nation must move on. Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.  I am resolved that we shall win the tomorrows before us.  So I ask you to join me in that resolve, determined that from the midnight of this tragedy, we shall move toward a new American greatness.”  11/28/63

Body Position

Politicians use metaphors of body position to describe parts of the country or the viewpoint of the US compared to other countries.  We often say that countries or situations have faces, a country is strong, or a nation can shoulder its responsibilities. 

Source: Public domain pictures

Example: “I want us to wipe poverty off the face of the South—and off the conscience of the nation.” 10/9/64

Example: Roosevelt’s four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. 

Americans “…will be anxious to shoulder the responsibilities that are inseparably bound to freedom.” 2/23/66 

Example: “No longer are we called upon to get America moving.  No longer do we doubt our strength or resolution.  We are strong and we have proven our resolve.” 

“In Asia, communism wears a more aggressive face.  We see that in Vietnam.  Why are we there?” 1/4/65 SOTU

In an extended sequence, he described the war in Vietnam as having many faces.

Example: “The war in Viet-Nam has many faces. There is the face of armed conflict—of terror and gunfire—of bomb-heavy planes and campaign-weary soldiers.” 

“The second face of the war in Viet-Nam is the quest for a political solution, the face of diplomacy and politics, of the ambitions and the interests of other nations.” 

“The third face of war in Viet-Nam is, at once, the most tragic and most hopeful. It is the face of human need.  It is the unintended sick, the hungry family, and the illiterate child.  It is men and women, many without shelter, with rags for clothing, struggling for survival in a very rich and a very fertile land.” 5/13/65


One of his favorite types of metaphors is describing political situations as something that is being built, like a new building with a strong foundation.

Example: “We can build together a much better world.” 12/17/63

Example: “Last year’s congressional session was the longest in peacetime history.  With that foundation, let us work together to make last year’s session the best in the nation’s history.” 1/8/64 SOTU

Example: “In establishing preferences, a nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’  But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?’” 1/8/64 

Example: “And let us build something much more lasting: faith between man and man, faith between race and race.  Faith in each other and faith in the promise of beautiful America.” 7/27/67 

Example: “This battle will not be easy or it will not be swift.  It takes time to educate young minds and to shape the structure of a modern economy.” 4/20/64

Example: “We build this nation to serve its people.” 

“We want to build and create, but we want progress to be the servant and not the master of man.” 1/4/65 SOTU

Rooms, Doors, Gates

Similarly, LBJ liked to describe situations as if they were a part of building with rooms, doors or gates. He used these metaphors in his first mention of Vietnam on April 20, 1964 and in several other descriptions of foreign affairs.

Example: “Once war seems hopeless, then peace may be possible.  The door is always open to any settlement which assures the independence of South Viet-Nam, and its freedom to seek help for its protection.” 4/20/64 

Example: “Asia is no longer sitting outside the door of the 20th century.  She is here in the same world with all of us—to be either our partner or our problem.” 7/12/66 

Example: “The people of Asia now know that the door to independence is not going to be slammed shut.” 

“The doors of the billion dollar Asian Development Bank…are already open.” 1/10/67 SOTU

Example: “The struggle is not merely long.  The struggle is unending, for it is part of man’s ancient effort to master the passions of the mind, the demands of his spirit, the cruelties of nature.  Yes, we have entered a new arena.  The door has closed behind us.  And the old stage has passed into history.” 4/20/64

Source: Public domain pictures

He also used these gate metaphors to describe the beginnings of the US space program, poverty and voting rights. 

Example: “All of us are conscious that we have crossed over the threshold of man’s first tentative and experimental ventures in space.” 3/26/65 

Example: “…Negroes are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gate-less poverty.” 6/4/65

Example: “So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.” 3/15/65 

Physical Forces

Given the turbulent times of the 1960s, it is not surprising that he used metaphors of strong physical forces such as tearingshaking and uprooting. For example, he described the assassination of JFK in this way.  And he used these metaphors to describe the complexities of the world. 

Example: “A deed that was meant to tear us apart has bound us together.” 11/28/63 

Example: “We will not, and should not, assume that it is the task of Americans alone to settle all the conflicts of a tornand troubled world.” 1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “Ours is a time of change—rapid and fantastic change—bearing the secrets of nature, multiplying the nations, placing in uncertain hands new weapons for mastery and destruction, shaking old values and uprooting old ways.” 1/20/65 IA

War and Peace

Similarly, given that the Vietnam War was growing out of control during the 1960s, he used metaphors of war and peacein some of his speeches.  He famously created the phrase war on poverty in his first State of the Union Address as part of his plan to build what he called the Great Society.  He also described it as a battle to be waged in the economy.  And he poignantly described the forces working against a growing economy as enemies

Source: The public domain review

Example: “…the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” 1/8/64 SOTU

Example: “For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington.  It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.” 1/8/64

Example: “This battle will not be easy or it will not be swift.  It takes time to educate young minds and to shape the structure of a modern economy.” 4/20/64

Example: “This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease.” 3/15/65


In one memorable passage of a 1968 State of the Union Address, he described the challenges of building an economy as a great ship crossing an ocean. 

He claimed that the US was in a period of great prosperity but there were still problems. 

Example: “Why, then, this restlessness?

Because when a great ship cuts through the sea, the waters are always stirred and troubled.

            And our ship is moving. It is moving through troubled and new waters; it is moving toward new and better shores.” 1/17/68 SOTU


Finally, as all politicians do, LBJ used metaphors of journeys to describe the progress made in the past or the hopes for progress in the future.  One of the main goals of a good political leader is to instill confidence in citizens that their country is getting better.  This goal is often accomplished by using journey metaphors such as taking stepsclimbing peaks, following paths or roads, and moving forward instead of being at a standstill

Source: Public domain pictures

Example: “We must be ready to defend the national interest and to negotiate the common interest. This is the path we shall continue to pursue.” 11/27/63

Example: “Our view is outward, our thrust is forward, but we remember in our hearts this brave young man who lies in honored eternal rest across the Potomac.” 11/28/63

Example: “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles, and it must be taken one step at a time.” 12/17/63

Example: “But it is not a standstill budget, for American cannot afford to stand still.” 1/8/64 SOTU

Example: “In this period we have taken more steps toward peace—including the test ban treaty—than any time since the Cold War began. 1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “We worked for two centuries to climb this peak of prosperity.”  1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.” 1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “The United Nations is already setting up new mechanisms to help carry forward the work of development.” 5/13/65

Example: “The Great Society leads us along three roads—growth and justice and liberation.” 1/22/66 SOTU


President Lyndon Baines Johnson was clearly a gifted orator.  He used specific rhetorical strategies and metaphors in his speeches to inspire his colleagues in the government, national politicians, students and ordinary citizens to create a Great Society with many innovative social, judicial and environmental programs.  It was a joy to read and analyze his speeches.  However, it was also sad to see a marked decline in his rhetoric as the years went by.  Starting off with unbridled enthusiasm for his programs and optimism for the future, a reader can almost feel his energy waning as the Vietnam War dragged on. By the end of his term in 1968, his optimism turned into frustration and he famously announced that he would not be seeking a second term.  Sadly, his great presidency was blemished by the stigma of the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, we should all remember him for his great accomplishments. 

Next time in this space, I will be discussing the speeches of President Biden. Cheers!