Lyndon Johnson Helped Make Me A Better Person
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson ran for election to a full-term as President. He sought ratification as the first Southern President since the Civil War. His opponent was far-right Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater was running strong in the South. Many white Southerners were angry at Johnson’s support of Civil Rights. Despite the anger, Johnson insisted that he and Lady Bird campaign in the South.
While reasons of ego and campaign strategy were involved, Johnson also had a deeper motivation. Johnson said his support for Civil Rights didn’t diminish his understanding and concern for white Southerners who saw the basic assumptions of their society under challenge.
Here’s what Johnson said— “We didn’t want them to think they were left out. When a child feels he’s hurt and mistreated he goes on home and don’t come back and we don’t want that to happen. We love those people and we thought the only thing we could do was go tell ‘em we loved ‘em.”
When I read this passage in LBJ—Architect of American Ambition, I had to stop. I read it many times. I felt it had meaning in how I approach politics. I felt that it might even have meaning in how I approach my personal life.
Johnson wasn’t saying to love everybody. He made no effort to love the extreme-conservative base of Goldwater’s support. LBJ’s idea was that as a white Southerner himself, he understood what people were feeling. Johnson had no sympathy for people who bombed churches. The people Johnson felt for were average whites who had little in life but a feeling of superiority over blacks.
We all have to find the way to sympathy and understanding for people who have problems. We have to do this sometimes for people we may find frustrating.
Liberals often underestimate the pain of change. When you challenge people’s assumptions and beliefs, you’ll encounter anger and confusion. Surely the years since Ronald Reagan have shown us the pain and frustration of change and defeat.
Liberals must always work for needed change. We know that politics and issues must often have a winner and a loser. We want to win. We have no obligation to identify with people who are outright rotten. We don’t have act totally outside our natural individual personalities.
Yet we should never forget that most people—including ourselves— live in a world not of our own making. A major starting point of political liberalism, and of personal kindness, is the effort to seek out and act upon the things we have in common.