The Rehabilitation of LBJ


I saw a movie this week on Neflix called “All the Way.” It’s about the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ. In this film, Johnson is portrayed as one of the great political heroes of our time. It was LBJ who pushed through the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill which effectively ended segregation in the South. He did it the old fashion way, through back room deals and political arm twisting. By using his deep knowledge of the American political system and his own highly honed political skills, LBJ changed the moral direction of America.

Now, this film could just as easily have been called ‘The Rehabilitation of LBJ.’ Because if in 1968, the idea that someone would make a film depicting Lyndon Johnson as a hero would have been seen as the craziest idea in the world. Johnson was twice hated. First he was hated because he wasn’t Kennedy. He wasn’t handsome and charismatic. So, when Kennedy was assassinated and then vice president Johnson became president, America felt cheated.

And, then five years later, Johnson was reviled because he had escalated the Vietnam War. And, he became the arch-villain of that war. So, the idea that nostalgia for Johnson’s leadership should emerge from progressive circles in 2016 is profoundly ironic, and very strange. How can we explain that?

Well, if we look at today’s parasha, Bechukotai, I think we will find that there is something deeper at work here. The parasha begins with the words ‘im bechukotai teileichu’/if you, the Jewish people, follow my laws, then I will bless you with prosperity. And, if you don’t, you will suffer devastation.

At a first glance, it looks as though “follow my laws” refers to all the laws of the Torah. But, the ultimate punishment that resulst from not following the laws is exile from our land. And, when the Torah describes this exile, it says ‘az tirtze ha’aretz et shabtoteha’/then the land of Israel will finally get its sabbatical which you the Jewish people didn’t give it when you were supposed to.

Why? Because the purpose of the sabbatical and jubilee laws which immediately precede today’s parasha was to create an egalitarian society based on economic and social justice. In the seventh year, the land was to lie fallow, and, everyone could eat from it, rich and poor alike. Debts were cancelled and the poor got a chance to start over.

But, the Torah foresaw a time when the Jewish people would not observe the sabbatical year. And, God’s message is: you don’t want to give the land a rest for one year to help the poor? I will give the land a rest for many years, until you figure out why I gave you this land in the first place.

In other words, the land is a means to an end. The end is to create a righteous society. When the means becomes more important than the end, that is idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of the concrete symbol over the value which underlies the symbol. If we put the flag out in front of our house on memorial day, but we engage in racist behavior, then we are idol worshippers. We have forgotten what the flag stands for.

And, the truth is, anything can become an idol. Lyndon Johnson understood this. He was a Democrat. And, he was warned that if he pushed through the civil rights bill, Democratic voters would abandon him. So, loyalty to the Democratic party required him to abandon the cause of civil rights.

But, for Johnson, loyalty to the ideals of democracy were more important than loyalty to a political party. Johnson understood that even the most high minded ideas can become rigid. A party organizes to promote a certain ideal. But, over time, loyalty to the party replaces loyalty to the ideal. We become more attached to the label than the values that are supposed to be represented by the label.

One of the journalists who has made this point very courageously in Nicholas Kristoff. Kristoff is a writer with impeccable liberal credentials. No one has written more eloquently about human rights than Kristoff.
But, Kristoff wrote this week that terms like liberal and diversity have been emptied of their original meaning. He says that classic liberalism exalted tolerance which means “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But, on university campuses today, he says, this has been updated to “I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.”

He says that university campuses can no longer be consider diverse in the truest sense, because in these settings we may be fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us. So, if you’re a political conservative, or an evangelical Christian, you have no place on a university faculty. And, Kristoff believes that’s wrong.

Unfortunately, the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ no longer signify genuine openness. They have rigidified, and they too often signal blind loyalty to certain opinions and closemindedness towards anyone who would challenge the political orthodoxy of the day.

What happened at the Cincinnati Zoo this week is a good example. A young child found his way into the gorilla enclosure. Even though the gorilla was at times gentle with the child, the zoo officials quickly realized that the child’s life was in danger and they put the gorilla down. Incredibly, there was a huge public outcry against the zookeepers and the mother of the child. It made national news for two nights.

This is turning the cause of environmentalism into an idol. There is a rigidity of thinking here that is stunning. In this world view, the animal has now become the underdog, and the human being the aggressor, even if that human being is a three year old child. I am trying to figure out by what intellectual sleight of hand does the desperate mother become the villain of this story? This is ideology gone haywire. But, in a way, it is the logical outcome of a way of thinking that is all too familiar to us.

For example, Franklin High School was a Camelot of diversity in the 1960’s. Whites, blacks, Asians, Jews, Hispanics all attended the same classes together and were friends. It was a beautiful expression of the American dream. This was diversity at its best.

But, not any more.  A member of our community, Daniel Wodaje is an Ethiopian Jew who only discovered his Jewishness when he was sixteen. Once he let his friends know that he was Jewish, he became the target of anti-semitic hate speech. Students would tell Holocaust jokes in his presence, as just one example

On Israel Independence Day, Palestinian students and their supporters staged a demonstration outside of Franklin High School after school hours in honor of Nakba Day. Nakba means catastrophe and that’s the term Palestinians often use to describe the establishment of the State of Israel. The principal of Franklin High School stood with the Nakba Day demonstrators waving a Palestinian flag in her hand. So, if you are pro-Israel or you wear a kippah on your head, there is no place for you at Franklin High School. That’s what happens when people treat diversity as an idol and forget what it really stands for.

But, not everyone has forgotten. Nicholas Kristoff has not forgotten what it means to be a liberal. And, Mitt Romney has not forgotten that when loyalty to his party becomes more important than loyalty to democratic values, that’s idolatry and it’s time to speak out.

And, that’s why there is nostalgia today for LBJ. Lyndon Johnson was not a perfect president. I have yet to hear of one. But, he was famous for putting principle over political loyalty. He was known for working both sides of the aisle. He excelled at focusing more on the value than on the label. He brought America to a higher place not by castigating our political system, but by working within it. He changed America, not by insulting people, but by working with people, very different kinds of people, and bringing us together.

Everything about LBJ epitomized the uselessness of careless and superficial labels. He was a tough, Southern macho male, yet he spent a year teaching school to poor Mexican students. He was a backroom, political infighter, not an inspiring, Martin Luther King type. In many ways, he was the least likely candidate to be a hero of the civil rights movement. Yet, he was a hero.

We need more LBJ’s, more Romney’s, and more Kristoff’s, people willing to look beyond rigid categories to underlying principles. As we face a very important American election, let us look beyond superficial labels and loyalties. Let’s ask ourselves what are the values we want America to stand for? And, let’s vote accordingly.