By William Fisher
If you spend your life as a writer, you’re always concerned about who’s reading and whether they’re hearing what you thought you were saying.
I wrote a piece last week about Lyndon Johnson and the magisterial speech he made to Congress 40 years ago urging quick passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I used the speech to illustrate the ‘good’ LBJ. I used his disastrous Vietnam misadventure to show the flipside of his nature. And I drew a parallel between LBJ’s complexity and the position in which George W. Bush finds himself as he considers his legacy.
I concluded that “Quagmire, not Selma, is the word that has come to be associated with LBJ’s presidency”, and suggested that, if President Bush wants to leave us a history we can all be proud of, he needs to learn the lesson LBJ learned at such great cost to himself.
This little essay drew a ton of email. A few of the more temperate comments are below. You can decide if the readers were hearing what I thought I was saying.
Kevin H. wrote: “At first, when I read your article at Common Screams, uh, I mean, Common Dreams, I thought it was a great recounting of one of LBJ's best speeches. But at the end, I realized the first 90% was just a setup to use the last 10% to take a jab at George Bush. Actually, it was a horrible, or perhaps I should say, non-existent, segue. But, hey! who cares?, what can one expect from the usual crowd of sad-sack lefties that infest so much of the Web?”
Tim Anderson wrote, “LBJ's civil rights legislation is significant. However, that contribution to our society is no reason to soften a critique of his role in the destruction of Vietnam. To describe his participation in that atrocity as one of 'hubris', or of receiving 'bad advice' covers up his deliberate destruction of the people and environment of that country, and the lies he knowingly and repeatedly told the American public to continue his murderous policy. There is a notable continuity in US foreign policy over the last 50 years (Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua, Iraq, etc) regardless of particular individuals or parties in power.”
Some responses were short and to the point. One said, “Johnson rode Kennedy's coat-tails and took the credit for the work he implemented.”
Another said, “LBJ had two sides. Good and evil. You need to learn more about the latter side. Research some of the JFK assassination books.”
And yet another. “When was the only time we were attacked as a nation that resulted in no congressional hearings? Try the USS Liberty. Check out who covered it up. LBJ was a politician with agendas. He's as worthy as our current president. I'm sure you're quite versed in US history but you dropped the ball on this article. Come-on man...”
I found all these missives instructive and compelling. But the one that really moved me came from a reader identifying himself as the “Grandson of Jesus Inclan of Cotulla, Texas” (where LBJ taught school in 1928). It's a long message, but worth contemplating.
“Congratulations on well written article”, he began. “As a descendent and relative of the students LBJ taught in Cotulla, many things have changed and many still have not. LBJ would have been a fool not to have seen the great injustice done to Mexicanos in South Texas. Growing up there, segregation still exists and you find this region of the country still one of the poorest.
“What has happened is that through the injustice lived and (was) witnessed by countless veterans of many wars and the history of hatred and violent suppression in this part of the country, people have mobilized to be destroyed by projects such at COINTELPRO that suppressed with the support of the U.S. Govt. the promotion of true democracy.
“Many liberal and conservatives destroyed the Civil Rights and subsequent Chicano and Black movements with the support of LBJ. That is part of LBJ's legacy and why he is rightly labeled for his Vietnam folly.
“It is foolish to think that our current so-called head of state will listen or even cares. The change you wish for will not come from our society at large. The change if it is not crushed as it was in the past will come from the working poor and immigrants. Especially Mexicano immigrants who come to this country with a history of strife and revolution.
“If you follow Social Movements in Latin America this will soon follow in the next 50 years here in the U.S. A wealthy man like LBJ had the privilege and opportunity to be given what was basically dropped into his lap at the cost of thousands of lynchings and murders.
“True change will only come from those who understand what challenge is and not from the privilege class who wait for such opportunities to land on them. Sacrifice by people of color in war, in daily life, is what makes this possible. The privileged of this country only wait to learn different ways of taking advantage of the sacrifice of others. I view most in this country in power, privilege, with opportunity as such opportunists. Never really able or willing to make the kind of sacrifice and commitment necessary to truly follow through and the rhetoric.
“I challenge you as I challenge others to make the kind of sacrifice necessary for this as my family has for the past 200 years in South Texas.”
That email made writing the LBJ piece well worth all the effort to get every word just right. Here was an experience and a point of view I couldn’t possibly know about or appreciate from where I’m sitting.
As a consequence, I have begun to exchange emails with this Grandson of Jesus Inclan of Cotulla, Texas, for whom I have many questions and from whom I will doubtless learn much.
For a writer, being challenged is a huge dividend.