A president also must possess moral leadership
It was obviously an earlier, less cynical time when the president of the United States could explain an unscheduled drive from the White House he had once taken. “I was outraged,” the president wrote when he was out of office, “when I read in the newspapers about a black family. … The husband and wife were both employed in a government printing office. They had been harassed and a cross had been burned on their lawn.” The president and the first lady had driven, without fanfare, from the White House to the family home of Philip and Barbara Butler, which was in a predominantly white subdivision in suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland. The president added, “Our motorcade had naturally been noticed … and our farewells at curbside were warmly applauded by the neighbors.”
The year of that visit was 1982, and the president was Ronald Reagan, who understood that the president is the only American who can speak to all of us and speak for all of us. That simple presidential visit was testimony to Reagan’s personal identification with and support for the victims of a racial attack and also expressed the nation’s sympathy.
As a candidate, Reagan had not always shown the same sense of moral clarity. In a still-unexplained decision, Reagan chose to launch his 1980 general election campaign with a speech championing states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That town was known to the country for one reason: There, 16 years earlier, three young Americans — Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney (two whites and one African-American), who had been registering black voters in the state — were, after being stopped, allegedly for a traffic violation, kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a gang of Klansmen.
Presidential moral leadership was the hallmark of the historic civil rights laws of the 1960s to end segregation of public places and to federally guarantee the right of African-Americans to vote in America. Five months before an assassin ended his life in Dallas, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation: “If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him … who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”
But the most indispensable moral leader on civil rights to be president since Abraham Lincoln was the son of a segregated Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson was 6 feet 4 inches tall and often used his size to invade the personal space of his political adversaries, which is exactly what he did to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a 5’7” presidential challenger, in a private White House meeting at the time of the tragic “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. With Wallace sinking on a couch and Johnson sitting upright in a rocking chair, Johnson concluded their nearly two-hour conversation, according to presidential adviser Richard N. Goodwin, who was in the room, this way:
“Now listen, George. Don’t think about 1968. You think about 1988. You and me, we’ll be dead and gone then, George. Now, you’ve got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. You can do a lot for them, George. Your president will help you. What do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads, ‘George Wallace — He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, ‘George Wallace — He Hated’?”
That same week, the president went to the Capitol to challenge a joint session of Congress and the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act, reminding his countrymen: “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” And so it was again at Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, when Americans tragically recognized that there is no guarantee that our president will meet the challenge of providing the nation with moral leadership.