Lyndon Johnson was fond of quoting the prophet Isaiah (1:18), "Come let us reason together". I've been thinking about that on this Inauguration Day as Barack Obama launches his second term. Johnson, the consummate consensus politician, was a master negotiator whose success came in part from knowing when and where to strike. Most notably, he leveraged Jack Kennedy's assassination to gain passage of landmark civil rights legislation. He was also a tough horse trader who would literally hold a legislator by the lapels and not let go until his offer — perhaps some earmark in exchange for a vote — had been accepted. His skills as president-negotiator were of course honed during years as Senate majority leader and before that in being schooled by his mentor and fellow Texan, Speaker Sam Rayburn.
Critics complain that Barack Obama is not a good negotiator. You might think that can be attributed to a political resume that, in contrast to Johnson, is to say the least anemic. But I think it's more the case that Johnson's 1960s approach wouldn't and doesn't work at this moment. Reason is simply out of sync with an unreasonable time. And unreasonable is just what we are facing in the second decade of this century. Let us reason together requires a two-sided commitment to consensus and that surely is lacking in the polarized atmosphere that pervades both Washington and the country. We are a nation divided, one in which adhering to narrow ideology is given far greater currency than compromise. There seems to be no middle ground, except the mythical one claimed to exist among the electorate at large.
Robert Caro has devoted nearly thirty years to LBJ, but I certainly don't look back on the Johnson years or at him with any nostalgia. To me, he was a tragic figure who drove us into a state of collective schizophrenia. We half loved him for his social legislation and ability to reason together and we half hated him for escalating a war that profoundly damaged his own country, perhaps more than its adversary. Indeed, I would submit, that the bitter ideological divide that pervades today has its roots in the Johnson years. Not only did Viet Nam divide the country, it birthed an environment of either/or caricatures: hawks and doves, capitalists and socialists, red and blue. We have become a nation of one-dimensional labels that we simplistically and thus inaccurately apply to others and also to ourselves. It's a very broad brush that paints the narrowest of strokes.
The inauguration was held on Martin Luther King Day and in the same month that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago — full of symbolism. It was held just a stone's throw from where, 50 years ago, King and others including my own father spoke of the better world that the President evoked and embodied today. Lincoln's time was also divisive, in fact the most divisive in our history. 618,222 Americans (North and South) lost their lives and over one million were wounded. And for sure one thinks of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, probably the greatest, and his supreme effort to bring the nation together, to reason if you will together. It was a deeply religious speech, sermonic in language and tone. Every school child, certainly in my day, committed its peroration to memory:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
It is remarkable how timeless those words remain.
I thought of Lincoln today and of the speech, but more so how times do change. Just as Johnson's invocation of reasoning together seems so out of sync with our time, Lincoln could never have obtained the Republican nomination in 2012. In fact, he would have been more likely to win the Democratic one. How the tables have turned upside down. Today it is the Democrats who are really the party of Lincoln and Obama's Second Inaugural evoked just that spirit. One broadcast commentator characterized it as a civil rights speech. Lincoln's America was much smaller and less complex than Obama's, Martin King's civil rights much more, though not exclusively, focused on fulfilling the Emancipation dream. Obama spoke to women, gays, immigrants and Hispanics, people who in many ways have been treated as what Michael Harrington called "The Other America". Harrington was talking of the poor, but all of these have been, if not totally disenfranchised, then certainly "under franchised".
As both our leader and the father of Malia and Sasha Obama declared:
We are true to our creed, when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
Perhaps most significantly, because it was the first time any president had incorporated such words in his inaugural, he said:
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
Obama himself has come a long way in these past four years. It was also in this portion of the speech that he gave a clear signal to what will undoubtedly be a primary legislative agenda in the months to come:
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
As to Hispanics, rather than rely only on words, the President invited Richard Blanco whose family fled here from Cuba, to write and deliver the inaugural poem, much as Robert Frost had done for Kennedy in 1961.
Obama's speech had its references to the campaign, for example, when he pointedly said, Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security...do not make us a nation of takers. In the same vein, he touched on climate change and the need to respond. Some may still deny, he said pointedly, the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. One commentator suggested that this was more like a State of the Union than an inauguration speech. Bob Schieffer of CBS complained that it had no great quotable line, no ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do... Perhaps, but read it through and you'll find enough soaring rhetoric, perhaps not a Second like Lincoln's, but right for its time, our time.
Come let us reason together, how quaint, how yesterday. The problem is that we have rarely needed to reason together more than now. Lyndon Johnson understood that getting things through Congress required both leadership and the ability to compromise. They call that the democratic way. I don't know if President Obama will have greater success in doing that in the four years ahead than he has in the past. Again, Johnson's times and ours are very different. But if I hoped for anything as the quadrennial ceremony of inauguration took place today, it was that we can reason together. There is much to do, so many real problems to solve. Reasoning together might well be our best hope.
I call them Transcenders. To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default. Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. My book is now available in print at Amazon and as in e-book form at Kindle, Nook and iBooks.