Politics is not a profession that encourages moral reflection or insight. “The ends justify the means” is good enough for most practitioners. But every now and then, you see someone in politics who raises the questions that confront many of us at some point in our lives: Are we living a moral life? By “moral,” I mean are we living with empathy, love and forgiveness for others? Are we encouraging the voice within that asks us to help more than hurt? Are we ready, as Richard Ford’s narrator asks in “The Lay of the Land,” “to meet our maker”?
Today’s sermon is inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. LBJ was a man of such complexity and power that the great biographer Robert Caro has dedicated 45 years of his life to psychoanalyzing him and still hasn’t finished. But whatever Johnson’s sins, he could frame a basic question of life, one that is rarely contemplated in politics. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, with the blood of voting rights advocates flowing in his home state, Alabama Gov. George Wallace came to Johnson’s Oval Office to try to put the onus on the federal government for the violence. A famous transcript from a recording device reveals a remarkable conversation. Wallace complained about the violence. Johnson commiserated for a moment and then said Wallace could end the protests simply and swiftly by extending the right to vote. Wallace whined that he didn’t have the power. Johnson exploded, “Don’t you s— me, George Wallace. Who runs Alabama?” Then referring to Wallace’s interest in running for president himself in 1968, Johnson got to the heart of the question: “George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1968. We should be thinking about 1988. We will both be dead and gone, by then. What do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says, ‘George Wallace: he built?’ Or do you want little scrawny pine board laying there that says: ‘George Wallace: he hated?’ ”
Years later, sick and in a wheelchair from an assassin’s bullet, Wallace repented. So, too, did the original modern bad boy of Republican politics, Lee Atwater. Dying at age 40 from an aggressive brain tumor, his boyish face swollen beyond recognition by his steroid treatments, Atwater apologized to those he had hurt. Tom Turnipseed was one who received an apology; Atwater had floated the rumor in Turnipseed’s congressional race that the candidate has once been “hooked up to jumper cables” for a psychiatric condition. I wonder whether Karl Rove thought about his former mentor, Atwater, when, according to reports, he said the other day that Hillary Clinton may be suffering from brain damage in the wake of a fall two years ago. It is a tactic right from the pages of Atwater’s playbook: float an ugly, false rumor and let it worm its way into the political consciousness. One presumes people like Rove keep two sets of moral books: one professional and one personal. On the professional side, the only judgment is winning; the personal side is reserved for more evolved and moral actions. But Wallace, Johnson and Atwater all show how those worlds, in the end, are hard to separate.