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When we speak of legacies, we think of trust funds passed to descendants—or, at least, the handing down of Great Aunt Hattie’s antique vases. But all that we do or say or are becomes part of reality that permeates the future like heavy perfume in a crowded room. A few make such a huge impact that the society preserves their names as part of history. But everyone—yes, that means you and me, too—creates the future.
Now and then, someone realizes the responsibility of legacy and has to choose whether to go for instant gratification—fame, wealth, and influence—or for a change that will make the future world a more beautiful, kinder place. According to the film LBJ (starring Woody Harrelson), Lyndon Baines Johnson was such a person. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it looked like his vice president was about to realize his lifelong dream of stepping into what was then the most powerful office in the world. At last a Southerner was going to control the reins of State.
But if LBJ had decided to continue his former political dedication to defeating civil rights, he knew his tenure as president would be brief and easily forgotten. LBJ was not beloved by the masses. The time for past attitudes was over. Young Kennedy had been elected because of his promise of a better future—including a civil rights bill—and his murder highlighted the morality of his promises. The people wanted to think their children would grow up in a country that offered more opportunities for all classes amid fair-minded diversity, a country devoted to moving forward.
LBJ chose to use his long experience in Congress and shrewd strategic abilities for goals that were not ostensibly his own. His legacy would be to fulfill JFK’s vision, even though it alienated his Southern allies. He helped enact not only Civil Rights, but also Headstart, Medicare, and Medicaid. He was elected to the presidency the following term by a landslide vote.
I was very young and not particularly well-informed during LBJ’s presidency. I thought he was stodgy and a terrible speaker. But now that I understand the difficult choice he made, I respect him more. As J. K. Rowling wrote in a speech for Professor Dumbledore, standing up to your enemies is difficult, but standing up to your friends for something you know is right is a far greater challenge. Not everyone has the character. LBJ succeeded young, idealistic Kennedy as Trump succeeded young, idealistic Obama. The comparisons of their results are yours to make.
I think my greatest legacy will come from the lives I’ve touched—family, friends, students, and strangers. I’ve tried to spread loving encouragement and critical thinking together, one balancing the other, since we need both to grow. Lately I wonder if it isn’t easier to spread love than logic. I clutch desperately at a hope that my vote will be the tiny difference that heralds a kinder future for us all. Please vote. It’s a part of your legacy. Design it wisely. The future is counting on you.