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From the obituaries I read after Billy Graham’s death on Wednesday, I learned a lot about “America’s Preacher” that I hadn’t known before.
My colleague Mark Feeney, writing in The Boston Globe, noted that Graham made the Gallup Organization’s list of Ten Most Admired Men in the World more often than anyone else (59 times), and that at one point, 1 of every 6 American adults claimed to have heard Graham preach in person.
I learned that as far back as 1953 — when Jim Crow still ruled the South, and when Graham’s ministry was only four years old — he refused to preach to segregated audiences. In Chattanooga, Tenn., he personally pulled down the ropes that divided his audience by race, insisting that segregation has no Christian justification. “The ground at the foot of the cross is level ,” Graham said, “and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
From Terry Mattingly’s religion column, I learned that a young Bill Clinton attended Graham’s 1959 rally in Little Rock, Ark., and was “so impressed by the preacher’s message, and his refusal to bow to segregationists, that he began sending part of his weekly allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.”
But not everything in Graham’s record was admirable. Most of the obituaries noted one ugly moment in 1972, when Graham voiced what sounded like putrid antisemitism in a private White House conversation with President Richard Nixon.
“A lot of Jews are great friends of mine,” Graham told the president. “They swarm around me and are friendly to me, because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”
He also said that the Jewish “stranglehold” on the media “has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain.”
Graham apparently forgot about that conversation; there is no indication that he ever spoke that way about Jews to anyone else. Quite the contrary: Graham’s encounters with Jewish organizations were highly respectful, and he firmly opposed evangelical attempts to proselytize Jews. He was an avid defender of persecuted Soviet Jews. And he was stalwart in his support for Israel, even producing a film, “His Land,” which is still screened for Christian Zionist audiences.
It came as a shock, therefore, when tapes from the Nixon Library, released in 2002, brought that long-ago conversation to public attention. Graham, embarrassed by a conversation he said he had no memory of, apologized publicly and privately. But his relationship with the organized Jewish community was never again as warm as it had been.
So which was the real Billy Graham? The preacher who in public was such an influential ally of the Jewish state and friend of the Jewish people? Or the presidential pastor who uttered such bigoted sentiments?
In a biting column over the weekend, George F. Will suggested that Graham’s true sin wasn’t hostility to Jews, but a habit of buttering up powerful political leaders. “One can reasonably acquit Graham of antisemitism,” he wrote, “only by convicting him of toadying. ” If you place too a high value on access to those in power, in other words, you’re apt to find yourself saying or doing unseemly things to stay in their good graces. (This is hardly a newsflash. Look at all the people who have been willing to excuse or minimize the offenses of Donald Trump — or at all those who for so long shrugged at the depredations of Bill Clinton or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby.)
I would like to think that Graham’s anti-Jewish slurs during that 1972 Oval Office encounter with Nixon were a one-time lapse. There has been no evidence to the contrary. But even if he did secretly harbor such repellent views, it wouldn’t diminish my appreciation for Graham’s remarkable career and sustained public efforts on behalf of civil rights, racial integration, and the defense of the embattled Jewish state. I believe in judging people by their behavior, not by their private beliefs. The world is made better by people who act with goodness and demonstrate integrity, even if there are rotten thoughts or desires deep in their hearts.
A fairly reliable rule for life is that your enemy is the person who treats you with enmity — not the person who, despite his private animosity, stands by you with help and encouragement when you need it.
In his private diaries, Harry Truman disparaged Jews with deplorable epithets, disparaging them as “very, very selfish” and ranting that “neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment.” According to the historian Michael Beschloss, Truman acceded to his wife’s rule to never have Jewish guests in their home. In some early letters to her, he referred to New York as “kike town” and mocked someone in a card game who had “screamed like a Jewish merchant.”
But none of that diminishes Truman’s place in 20th-century history as a towering friend of the Jews. He was the president who, in the teeth of unanimous opposition by the State Department, recognized the state of Israel within minutes of its birth in 1948. Five years earlier, he was the US senator who appeared before a massive Chicago rally to fervently call for doing “all that is humanly possible” to help the Jews trapped in Hitler’s Europe.
Whatever Truman or Graham might have said about Jews, their actions when it mattered were those of friends and defenders. And as the old saying has it, actions speak louder than words.
Heroes of black history come in every color
It’s still February, which means it’s still Black History Month, which means I still have time to weigh in on the controversy that erupted in Boston when the Boston Police Department praised the late Boston Celtics coach, Red Auerbach.
In a tweet on Feb. 11, the department announced: “In honor of #BlackHistoryMonth, we pay tribute to Celtics legend #RedAuerbach for being the 1st NBA coach to draft a black player in 1950, field an All African-American starting five in 1964, and hire the league’s 1st African-American head coach (Bill Russell) in 1966.” The text was accompanied by a photo of the Auerbach statue at Faneuil Hall, decked out in a police cap.
Auerbach was indeed the first coach in the NBA to draft a black player, the former Harlem Globetrotter Chuck Cooper. And when, as president of the team, Auerbach later picked Russell to coach, it marked the first time in American pro sports, not just pro basketball, that a team was coached by a black athlete. If Black History Month is meant to honor significant people, moments, and progress in black American history, the accolade for Auerbach should have generated nothing but approbation.
Instead it generated a storm of denunciation. The phony-indignation brigade roared into overdrive. Critics blasted it as tone-deaf and disrespectful, and demanded that the police department apologize. Apologize for saluting a champion of racial equality and integration who happened to be white — and who acted at a time and in a city where most white residents had far less enlightened attitudes? Yes, for that: To the irate and the insulted, or to those pretending to be irate and insulted, nothing about Auerbach matters during Black History Month except the color of his skin. The content of his character? Irrelevant.
So the police hastily backtracked. Within an hour, the tweet had been deleted; the next morning the BPD posted a new one saluting Russell. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who would rather generate heat than shed light, put out a statement slamming the police department for its “gross misrepresentation of how we are honoring Black History Month in Boston.” The Boston chapter of the NAACP rebuked the BPD for its “perplexing” and “very sad” decision to “celebrate Black History Month by celebrating a white man for hiring black people.”
The whole episode should make anyone who believes in racial equality and colorblind dignity weep. What is the point of having a Black History Month if it’s going to be turned into just another way to inflame racial tension and grievances? How is the commemoration of black history in America enhanced by forbidding any reference to Americans who reached across the color line to advance freedom, equality, and civil rights? Why would any reasonable person want Black History Month to be rigidly segregated? Surely the best way to honor the great milestones of black history is not by scorning any mention of nonblack allies who helped achieve those milestones, but by applauding them. Right?
Right, says Mel King.
The doyen of Boston’s black community activists, Mel King is a former state representative, mayoral candidate, and educator, and, I might add, a pretty stalwart leftist. But his knee doesn’t jerk at every politically correct gripe voiced by racial pot-stirrers. Last week, in a letter to the Boston Globe, he came down firmly in defense of the Boston Police Department’s original tweet — and firmly against those who rushed to condemn it.
“Who’s important to lift up in black history?” King asked. He went on to write:
What does it mean when we sing “Lift every voice?”
I find it strange that there were objections to the Boston Police Department’s Black History Month tweet recognizing the role of Celtics coach Red Auerbach in, among other things, hiring Bill Russell as the first African-American head coach in the NBA. Doesn’t Abraham Lincoln get a lot of play for his role in freeing the slaves? What about the white Civil War soldiers who died to end the system of slavery? I think we need to lift up white people whenever they are doing the right thing.
I find it even more important when I think about what Russell then accomplished, not only through his leadership with the Celtics, but through his role in dealing with race discrimination in Boston housing and employment. How can there be an objection to recognizing someone who brought a man who accomplished all that to our city?
My hope is that the Boston Police Department sees Auerbach as a needed role model for the kind of relationships they should have with communities of color here in Boston, so that they also will be praised for their work. We need to see if they are taking cues from Auerbach — by providing the kinds of opportunities and services that will lift up all communities in the city. Auerbach is a model for not only how the department but how the whole city should function to bring out the best in all of us.
King commands considerable moral authority in Boston’s black, liberal, and Democratic circles; perhaps his words will chip away at some of the preening self-righteousness with which too many of the city’s black, liberal, and Democratic opinion-makers approach any issue involving race. Just as there are many black Americans who deserve recognition during Black History Month (and every other month), there are white Americans who do, too. What Auerbach did — and what Lincoln and the Freedom Riders and William Lloyd Garrison and Elijah Lovejoy and Harriet Beecher Stowe and the founders of the NAACP and Branch Rickey and Frank Sinatra did — are exemplary moments in black history. Not only is it OK to say so during Black History Month, it’s essential. Kudos to King for making that point.
‘Lift Every Voice’
In the letter quoted above, Mel King refers to “Lift Every Voice.” Those are the opening words of a song often described as the Black National Anthem. The lyrics are actually a poem, written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, a renowned black educator, diplomat, and man of letters. They were set to music by Johnson’s brother for a celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday in Jacksonville, Fla.
“The song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children,” Johnson would recall years later.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. . . The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.
“Lift Every Voice” has been recorded countless times, by artists and in modes of every kind. Here is one rendition, beautiful and stately, sung by the choir of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2016.
More skepticism, please
One proposal that has been much discussed in the wake of the massacre at the Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., is for classroom teachers to be armed. President Trump is one of those floating the idea. On Wednesday, after meeting with students and parents at the White House, Trump speculated that “if you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly.” He repeated the recommendation in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, declaring that had such a policy been in place at the Florida high school when the attacker began his killing spree, “a teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened.”
As with so much else, Americans are sharply divided on the idea. A new CBS poll finds 44 percent of respondents saying they’d support arming more teachers, while 50 percent are opposed. My own tentative view is that arming teachers is no panacea, but that it could be beneficial if implemented wisely and prudently. Unfortunately, public policymaking in 21st-century America doesn’t often overflow with wisdom and prudence. We’re great at virtue signaling, defamation of political opponents, and the frequent repetition of talking points. Thoughtful public discourse? Not so much.
Which brings me to a tweetstorm last week by Paul Musgrave, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In a series of 15 tweets, Musgrave posed a very long list of questions that, he suggested, should be asked about the prospect of arming teachers to defend students against attack. Here are some of the queries he raised:
Which teachers get guns?
Where will the guns be stored?
Who decides when guns can be brandished?
What penalties will apply if teachers mishandle a weapon?
Will teachers volunteer for gun duty?
Can teachers refuse it?
Who will audit their adherence to regulations?
Will students know which teachers have weapons?
Who will be liable if the teacher with the gun becomes the shooter?
What will be the consequences when students are accidentally shot by a teacher?
How will armed teachers communicate in a tactical situation?
Will teachers with a history of mental illness be allowed to use weapons?
Will teachers be required to disclose any history of mental illness?
Will teachers be issued a weapon? Reimbursed for purchase? For ammunition?
How will administrators conduct non-weapon-related discipline against a teacher?
Will there be armed assistance available to deter workplace shootings?
Who will shepherd the armed teacher’s classroom while the teacher is attempting to locate the active shooter?
What happens when a teacher misidentifies a student as a threat in good faith?
Will teachers who do not carry lethal weapons be offered non-lethal alternatives?
If an armed teacher is shot, can another teacher employ his or her weapon?
How will armed teachers identify themselves to arriving first responders?
Will armed teachers be required to learn how to give first-response medicine?
Will armed teachers be required to attempt an arrest before using lethal force?
How will insurers adjust health and other rates to account for the presence of armed employees?
Will teachers receive additional pay for being armed?
How often will armed teachers be re-evaluated for licensing purposes?
Will armed teachers leading field trips deposit their weapons in a personally owned vehicle or school-owned transport?
To be sure, Musgrave doesn’t really ask these questions in a spirit of neutral inquiry. He makes clear that he is against arming teachers, and that he believes such a policy would turn American society into something “that resembles an armed camp monitored by quasi-military figures at all times.”
Nevertheless, they’re good questions. They deserve serious answers. Proponents of allowing teachers or other school personnel to be armed should be expected to think through the issues Musgrave enumerates. A weighty change in public-school security protocols will inevitably lead to consequences intended and unintended. A serious policy debate would attempt to explore those consequences as carefully as possible.
By the same token, opponents of giving guns to teachers should be made to grapple with the ramifications of their position. Sticking with the status quo — requiring all public schools to be devoid of guns — raises an equally long list of challenges and concerns, beginning with the fact that gun-free zones have been the target of virtually every mass shooting in America since the 1950s. If you think arming teachers is a bad idea, that’s fine. But you, too, should be able to go beyond slogans and show that you have thought through the potential weaknesses and drawbacks in your position.
Sadly, this isn’t how policy is crafted in this country, especially not after calamities that generate intense public emotion. The temptation, almost invariably, is to rush to familiar rhetorical ramparts. Time and again, we proceed from the premise that our side has the right solution, and that the other side is being — pick your term of censure — benighted, obstructionist, reactionary, reckless, ignorant. More and more frequently, it seems, decisions are made on the basis of raw partisan tribalism. Huge legislative changes, like the Affordable Care Act or the recent tax-code overhaul, are imposed on the country via party-line votes. Sweeping regulatory rulings are imposed unilaterally by a president wielding “a pen and a phone” — only to be overturned, just as unilaterally, by the next president. Parties don’t reason their way to judicious compromise; they wage all-or-nothing skirmishes that leave behind a trail of resentment and bitterness.
The great British statesman William Gladstone famously described the American Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” The deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were conducted with such care and integrity that even after more than two centuries, the account of those deliberations are still studied for the insights they offer. When was the last time American leaders “struck off” a work capable of commanding the admiration of the world?
After every disaster or scandal, the cry goes out to “fix it!” or “do something!” There is always a clamor — fueled by 24/7 media coverage, intemperate social media, industrial-strength PR campaigns, and overpoweringly tribal politics — to pass a new law, issue a new regulation, deploy a new mandate, enact a new ban. Amid the din, we keep giving government more control and new authority, and government keeps right on blundering.
The Valentine’s Day mass murder in Parkland wouldn’t have happened if not for government failures across the board, from the ineptness of the FBI to the dereliction of Broward County Sheriff’s deputies. Yet the reaction is the same as ever: Impassioned voices demand new laws or more restrictions. Public discourse grows angrier and more accusatory. And prudent, measured, deliberative discourse becomes even harder to find.
We should all be asking a lot more questions. We should all be less sure that we already know the answers.
This point was made long ago in an astringent essay by Herbert Spencer, one of the most acclaimed English philosophers and political theorists of the 19th century. An excerpt:
The cautious thinker may reason — “If in . . . personal transactions, where all the conditions of the case were known to me, I have so often miscalculated, how much oftener shall I miscalculate in political affairs, where the conditions are too numerous, too widespread, too complex, too obscure to be understood. . . . [W]hen I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried — how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment — how my carefully-governed son has turned out worse than most children — how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good . . . whilst the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained — when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society.”
And just as nothing shakes our confidence that we know what public policies would be best, Spencer went on, nothing seems to put a dent in our conviction that some additional state action can right whatever is wrong.
Thus, while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired. Nowhere is the perennial faith of mankind better seen. Ever since society existed, Disappointment has been preaching, “Put not your trust in legislation”; and yet the trust in legislation seems scarcely diminished.
Spencer wrote those words 165 years ago. They are truer today than he could possibly have foreseen.
In countless ways, we are better off than our ancestors. In science and medicine, nourishment and wealth, transportation and longevity, we have far surpassed them. But when it comes to governing ourselves, we’re as clumsy and error-prone and pigheaded as ever. And just as certain that it’s the people on the other side who have it all wrong.
Site to See
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are extraordinary islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.
This week’s site is “The Great Ocean Liners” [URL: http://www.thegreatoceanliners.com/]. The creation of two Swedish shipping enthusiasts, the site tells the stories of the great transatlantic passenger steam ships of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a wonderful resource for anyone with an interest in maritime history — stylish, comprehensive, and filled with photos and historical detail. Here is an excerpt from the site’s entry on the great Cunard linerLusitania, which was sunk by the German navy in 1915:
At 12 minutes past 2, the track of a torpedo was spotted on the starboard side of the ship. The impact was inevitable and shook the ship violently when it came, just abaft the bridge and below the waterline. Distress calls were sent out by the wireless operators, and officers started to lower the lifeboats. Not long after the torpedo had hit, there was a violent secondary blast that opened a huge hole in the ship’s side. She began to settle rapidly at the head. Panic broke out, and the lifeboats were lowered in utter confusion. In just 18 minutes, the great liner was gone, taking with her 1,195 people, of whom 123 were Americans.
Want to recommend a website for this feature? Send me the link (firstname.lastname@example.org), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.
My last column, written for Presidents Day weekend, was about the 21st chief executive of the United States: Chester Alan Arthur. When he entered the White House, he was known as a thoroughly partisan hack. By the time he left, he had come to be admired as an honest and conscientious president, who had put country ahead of party and abandoned the cynicism in which he had marinated for so long.
The last line
“When I stepped up to the first tee, it occurred to me that if I had died before Red, and he came to Seattle for my funeral, when he returned home the next day, he’d have been sitting down to play gin at the club, smoking a cigar, and grousing: ‘Jesus Christ! Can we get the goddamn show on the road!’
“And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” — Bill Russell, “Red and Me” (2009)Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.