Monday, March 20, 2017

Thoughts On Visiting The LBJ Library

I'm at the end of a short spring break jaunt in Austin, Texas. It's been great to hang out with an old friend and do the kinds of things together other people might find lame, like exploring a historic cemetery and trolling for old country music records. Yesterday we went to the LBJ presidential library, which prompted a great deal of reflection on my part.

I've been to a lot of presidential libraries, and for the most part they are their to burnish the historical reputation of their subjects. I know that when the library was being built that Johnson himself wanted it to not shy away from mentioning things like Vietnam. The exhibits have been recently updated, so I have no way of judging what they used to be like. While there is a great deal of elision when it comes to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the museum was not simple hagiography.

As I looked at the exhibits, I could not help but contemplate the current occupant of the White House. The LBJ library shows well Johnson's commitment to the poor, and his desire to use the government as a mechanism to help the less fortunate. Exhibits touted accomplishments like Medicaid and Head Start, as well as non-poverty related initiatives like the NEA, NEH, and PBS. Everything was something that the current president and his gang of supporters wants to destroy. A great deal of space, as you would imagine, was devoted to the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965. We are now living with a president who decries "illegal voters" and a Republican Party that has successfully rolled back many of the Voting Rights Act's provisions. Being confronted yesterday by all the things about to be destroyed by the current regime was profoundly depressing.

As greatly flawed as Johnson was in regards to Vietnam, his occasional foot-dragging on civil rights and his inability to make the recommendations of the Kerner Commission a reality, he used his power to do more good for common people in this country than any president since at least FDR. There's a clip of him at the end of his presidency on a film at the library, and he basically says that improving the lives of regular Americans was his primary goal, and that he wanted to be remembered for doing that, or at least trying. The party and the man in charge of this country today seem to have the opposite impulse. They want to punish the poor, enrich the wealthy, and disenfranchise voters. The modern day Democratic Party has failed in many ways, but its inability to get this very basic message across to the voters may have been its biggest one.

Beyond the fact that the current regime is poised to destroy what's left of the Great Society, I was particularly struck by the Oval Office exhibit, common to many presidential libraries. In that section there's an audio portion where Johnson is talking about the awesome responsibilities of the office, and how humbling they are. As far as I understand, this is something that all of the presidents in my lifetime, good or bad, took to heart. All except the current president. He has shown absolutely no sense of responsibility, no sense of public service, no sense of the possible negative consequences of his actions. Johnson agonized over escalating the war in Vietnam, while I imagine that Trump would not think twice about launching a nuke if the fancy struck him. If someone like Johnson could get America mired in Vietnam, I can't even imagine what someone like Trump is capable of doing. So far his incompetence has been our saving grace.

To keep my sanity while living in Trump's America, I have to wake up each morning and not contemplate the total, full, enormity of what I am living in. I tend to focus on little pieces of what's happening at a time. Yesterday I was confronted with the big picture again, and the fact that the full power and might of the American state is in the hands of a dangerous person driven by a bigoted, nationalistic ideology. I am fighting as best I can, but I am fighting with the understanding that things are going to get a whole lot worse, possibly in ways that we will never recover from in my lifetime.

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