A couple of nights ago, Garry and I watched an episode of “The American Experience.” It was part two of two and it focused on Lyndon Baines Johnson, Selma, Alabama … and the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights acts.
This is American history, but it’s also part of our personal histories. Those were titanic times. Garry was already a working reporter. I was finished with college and out in the real world.
We remember. It was a very big deal. It was a massive shift in our culture and the reality in which we lived. It was the consummation of centuries of racism and oppression plus decades of the ongoing battle for equal rights — still a work in progress. Of wondering, doubting, if change was even possible.
After John Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson, a traditional Southern politician who had never shown any special liberal or progressive leanings, came forward and decided enough was enough. Of all the presidents I would never have expected to be the one who would make it happen, LBJ did it. He decided it was time, that this unfairness had gone on long enough.
Against all odds and current political wisdom, he succeeded. Not because he was the most honest politician. Not because he was the most popular guy on Capitol Hill. Possibly the reason he could get it done was because he was a practical, pragmatic, politician who did whatever he needed to do to get an enormously important task accomplished. A freshman senator or any of those idealistic pie-in-the-sky guys couldn’t have done it. A newbie wouldn’t even know where to start.
Later, after he’d gotten mired in Vietnam — huge mistake — he knew that his running again would blow up the party, so he did the unthinkable. He stepped aside.
Who in the modern political pantheon would do that? Is there anyone concerned more with America than with his or her own career? Do I hear any names?
We don’t just theorize the possibility that it could work. We know it can. We’ve seen change happen. We’ve been part of that change.
We know politicians don’t have to be the most honest or idealistic to do great things. In fact, often the most effective people are the ones who’ve been around a long time — and know where the bodies are buried.
The system can work. It does work. It has worked. We’ve seen it at its best. Right now, I think we are seeing it at its worst.
That things are ugly is not a reason to give up. Exactly the opposite. Now is the when we need to put shoulders to the wheel and exert some effort to make things better. To elect responsible, intelligent, sensible, practical people who know how to get stuff done and have a grasp of what the issues are. And who believe their first loyalty is to the country and its people.
It’s not “outsiders” who accomplish great things. It’s insiders who care enough to do it.