On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson called upon Congress to enact the first major anti-poverty legislation since the Great Depression. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” encountered its victories and its defeats; it nurtured heroes and scoundrels. In five hourlong segments that are gritty, often horrifying and occasionally triumphant, PBS’ documentary traces the origins of that war and its significant impact: the awareness that the American gravy train had the potential to run off the track.
The series holds attention through the understated horror of its imagery. It’s assembled from recent interviews intercut with archival footage.
Some of it covers ardent, fiery speechmaking by a generation of American social idealists, from John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King to Cesar Chavez (nicely punctuated by Nik Bariluk and Brian Keane’s subtle musical collage); some of it, like the scenes of angry crowds and hungry children, is wrenching.
California Gov. Ronald Reagan fingers the pinko menace in an inflammatory speech downplaying the plight of underpaid field hands. A few years later, Richard Nixon echoes Reagan’s words and attempts (unsuccessfully for once) to push through a rewrite of the welfare program that doles out an insulting flat-rate pittance to impoverished families.
Newark Mayor Frank Addonizio fattens his own political prestige by bulldozing black-owned tenements for a medical school that could just as easily have been built elsewhere.
The war goes on, its basic question still unanswered: How far can any government — federal or local — be expected to support its poor? America’s war on poverty may never be won.
Among the most eloquent old soldiers of the war is Sargent Shriver, who served as LBJ’s first generalissimo and who delivers the final words of this docu. Shriver no longer believes “that government should do it all. There’s a responsibility on all of us to serve, and the people who need the advice the most are the poor.”
After 30 years of warfare, and five hours of memorable television, it’s hard to argue with those sentiments.