Monday, November 14, 2016

Channeling Two Progressive Presidents

Between them, John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's presidencies spanned my impressionable elementary school years. The latter left office in the middle of 8th grade, when Nixon's term began, and thus did Tricky Dick become the president of my entire high school experience. Kennedy and Johnson weren't great friends, though JFK had greater respect for Johnson than his brother Robert did. LBJ, for his part, resented JFK's popularity despite his relative lack of experience at getting things done, but was always respectful to him once he became president and seemed to genuinely want to honor his memory after his death. Both were part of a very special time in U.S. history, when all human problems seemed solvable and the road to the solutions was not yet strewn with wreckage.

In 1961, Kennedy famously told us that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. Fifty-five years later, I never would have thought that, at age 61, the two major candidates for the presidency would still be nearly a decade older than myself. It seemed at times like an affirmation of the long-time criticism of the baby-boomer generation, that it was the generation that never grew up. Yet, for all the muck-raking and emotionally immature behavior from both sides--which in my opinion derived more from the constant exposure and instant analysis that defines this age than from the actual character of the candidates--there was something uplifting in that election. I see it as yet another example of this country's surprising ability to re-invent itself.

For words that articulate prophetically what has just happened, we need look to the inaugural address of LBJ, the less gifted speaker of the two. The full text of his January 20, 1965 inaugural address can be found here:

Inaugural addresses are normally not something to get that worked up over. They are prepared in celebration of the beginning of a new presidential term, and most are quickly forgotten thereafter. Kennedy's is an exception, though it probably would have been no different had he lived to make many of the same mistakes Lyndon Johnson subsequently did. Johnson's own speech was well-received in its time, though one journalist stated that his delivery gave the impression that he was dictating to a stonemason.

Choosing several segments of it, we find some very insightful turns of phrase:

"Our destiny in the midst of change will rest on the unchanged character of our people and on their faith... It is the excitement of becoming-always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, and trying again--but always trying and always gaining.

"...We are a nation of believers. Underneath the clamor of building and the rush of our day's pursuits, we are believers in justice and liberty and in our own union, …and that is the mistake that our enemies have always made. In my lifetime--in depression and in war--they have awaited our defeat. Each time, from the secret places of the American heart, came forth the faith that they could not see or that they could not even imagine…

"For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest that is sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say farewell. Is a new world coming? We welcome it, and we will bend it to the hopes of man."

The final phrasing might be familiar to some as one of several quotations by former presidents to be found on the inside pages of U.S. Passports. For many, fear of the new world coming began with the election of our next president a week ago. Today, the current president made some interesting observations on his successor. He was clear to say that he had advised a certain change in tone, that the style shown during the campaign might not serve the new president-elect well in carrying out the awesome responsibilities of his office.

He also expressed some surprise with the pragmatic streak in Donald Trump. He seems to be driven by a desire to solve problems rather than by ideology. Why this would be so surprising, I do not know because I think it is at the very essence of the president-elect's flawed yet exceptional character. Trump understood that he needed to take over a major party if he were to have a chance to win, and so he did. On the national level--thanks to eight years of George W. Bush and the Iraq fiasco--it was an embarrassment and practically a sign of mental deficiency to claim anymore that one was a Republican. He took a moribund party on the verge of extinction, grabbed it by the horns, and re-invented it... all the while telling those who thought he couldn't do it to F-off. Historians might one day observe that, indeed, he saved the two-party system in this country, at least as far as national elections.

The world we once knew is gone. A new world is coming. As they used to tell us during my military service, today's army ain't what it used to be... and never has been. We are observing a miracle of transformation, an evolution that is not a break with the election of our first African-American president eight years ago, but the continuation of this evolution of always becoming. The evolution doesn't necessarily require us to have a female president here and now, though I'm sure it will eventually happen. Certainly, it doesn't require us to forever make everyone who isn't a "disenfranchised minority" the scapegoat for all the ills of society. If anything, his election signifies that everyone has rights, that no group should be expected to silently pay taxes while its interests are actively undermined.

The only issue that seems to matter to some is whether the president-elect at one time or another was a groper of women. Maybe he was, but he also lives in the era of the 24/7 news cycle and the instant social media posting. He was a rich celebrity, and in his younger years not terribly bad looking. Women are attracted to money and power like men are attracted to... other things. He wasn't exactly stating absurdities when he said--with little or no awareness that he might be videotaped--that he was allowed certain liberties by virtue of his wealth and power. I don't want to get into comparisons of who was worser, but two of the great progressive presidents of mid-century, JFK and LBJ, were not known for their great day-to-day regard for women, or for choosing their words on such matters with particular care.

We survived eight years of those guys, and--for that matter--eight of Hillary's not-so-virtuous husband as well. It's hard to imagine Nixon groping women or becoming involved in a sex scandal, but he had other problems and we survived five and a half years of him too. Many millions of women voted for the new president while keeping their eyes on the Big Picture. There were only two real choices, and if you discount those who voted early and often he probably won the popular vote as well as turning the electoral map a bright red with only a few streaks of blue.

Kennedy and Johnson were always bullish on the future, on the ability of Americans to improvise and, where necessary, change up the entire game. Neither intended for the New Frontier or the Great Society to last forever as programs. The latter had many unintended negative consequences, and began the half-century long cycle of institutionalizing the concept that anyone not white or male is automatically more virtuous than anyone who is. Just the same, I am no more afraid of the new world coming than they were in their own time. I also believe that anyone willing to think of us as a diverse union, but just the same a union worthy of our loyalty in all our daily pursuits, has nothing to fear.

We don't do everything right, but whether you see diversity as our strength or as a constant source of discord, this society supposedly created by white males for the benefit of white males handles it better than almost any society ever has.

JFK and LBJ had a good working relationship, though much
of the latter's staff was less than respectful toward Johnson.

LBJ and RFK were capable of working together, as when
Johnson supported Kennedy's 1964 campaign for senator.