Why an Obama Loyalist Is Speaking at Liberty University About Moral Leadership

Why an Obama Loyalist Is Speaking at Liberty University About Moral Leadership

“We no longer expect our political leaders to tell us the truth,” he will say. “We no longer expert our political leaders to play by the rules. Our expectations of our political leaders have sunk so low we now accept from them personal behavior that would be unacceptable for our children, our students, our employees, or cadets, soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines under our military command.” He will say that “leaders too often seek to gain attention by pandering to our fears, our suspicions and our prejudices.” He will cite the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would have them treat you. Treat others as you would have them treat your wife, your husband, your parents, or your children.”

“I wanted,” he told me, “to give that speech for some time now.” And he called Liberty “the perfect venue” because he believed it “would resonate with people of faith.”

Robert Hurt, the former Republican congressman from Virginia who’s now a dean at Liberty’s Helms School of Government, when we talked the other day described Johnson as “a patriot.”

“A Homeland Security secretary who wants to give a talk on leadership?” Hurt said. “We love it. And I would like to say his message is exactly what we want our students to hear, and they need to hear it.”

I asked Hurt whether he thought students might hear in Johnson’s words a tacit rebuke of Falwell and Trump. “I’m not going to characterize the leadership styles of other, you know, current and former leaders,” he said. “But my job as the dean of this school of government, and as a part of this Liberty team, is to bring to the students these kinds of opportunities. And then the students are smart enough to apply what they’ve heard in the way that they see fit.”

It’s definitely what two students I talked to heard.

Joel Thomas, a senior biomedical sciences major from Charlotte, North Carolina, was one of the students in a small question-and-answer session with Johnson and also watched an early cut of the talk—as did third-year law student Andrew Lopiano. “Even though he didn’t specifically say, ‘I’m talking about the president of the United States or the former president here at Liberty,’” Thomas told me, “absolutely that’s something that went through my mind.” He expects many of his fellow students to have a similar sense. “It’s going to really hit home,” Lopiano said.

Might the sprawling Liberty community interpret Johnson’s talk as a subtweet of sorts of Falwell? “I can’t speak for them,” Johnson told me. “I was very upfront from the beginning of our discussions about what I wanted to discuss.”

And might they see it as a condemnation of Trump?

“I’m not naïve,” he said. “Certainly, many people will read it that way.”

Earlier this month, the first time Johnson and I talked, it was hard not to consider the reality that Americans are in this together, in ways that can be uncomfortable, and whether we like it or not.

“My great-great-grandmother was born a slave in Lynchburg,” he said, “spent her entire life in that area, was a nurse, a midwife, and there’s a little excerpt from the local paper when she died—you know, thought well of, worked for rich, white families. And she’s buried in an integrated cemetery in Lynchburg called the Old City Cemetery, which is a really beautiful place, but she had no headstone. Her daughter, who was half white, my great-grandmother, is buried there, too. And what’s interesting about that is they’re buried within a stone’s throw of Confederate soldiers.”

Proximity, connectivity, commonality—these were themes Johnson invoked three years back, too, when he and Falwell actually shared airtime on “This Week” on ABC, in August 2017, in the wake of the deadly rally for white supremacy in Charlottesville.

“Sometimes,” Johnson said during that program, “people have more in common than one might realize. Like Mr. Falwell, I’m an attorney. Like Mr. Falwell’s father, Reverend Falwell, my great-grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher born in Lynchburg, Virginia. My great-grandfather was born a slave in 1860 in Lynchburg. He was freed by Abraham Lincoln when he was a child. He taught himself to read and write. He put himself through school, and he founded a church called the Lee Street Baptist Church, in Bristol, Virginia, in 1890, which is still there.” Johnson also used the platform to try to speak directly to Trump. “I would encourage him, through his words, to try to … not just speak to his base, but to speak to all of America,” he said. “He’s the president for all of us in this country.”

Last November, Johnson gave a speech to the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP, and the News & Advance sent a reporter. Hurt read the article. And he contacted Johnson to gauge his interest in coming to talk to students at Liberty. Johnson eagerly accepted an invitation.

But this past spring and summer, after Falwell agitated to reopen the university at the beginning of the pandemic and tweeted racist imagery, Johnson started to have second thoughts. “And so I called Tim Kaine,” Johnson told me, referring to the senator from Virginia who would have been Hillary Clinton’s vice president. Kaine, who confirmed the conversation and the nature of his counsel, told Johnson to go ahead and give the speech. “‘Bernie Sanders has been there. Ted Kennedy’s been there. I’ve been there,’” Johnson said Kaine told him. “And I said, ‘All right. I’m there.’”

He started writing. “And it was one of those speeches I wrote in like an hour. It just rolled right out,” he said.

“I knew what I wanted to say.”

Johnson, who lives in New Jersey, spent the better part of a day at Liberty. He did a Q&A session guided by a pastor with a small group of students, socially distanced and masked. To another collection of law and government students, he gave a lecture on war powers. But the centerpiece of his time on campus was the speech about leadership, which he delivered to a camera in a studio, creating the recording students will see today not in the usual convocation facility due to pandemic-related protocol but by logging on live. His remarks will be accompanied by pictures and information about his family history in the area, and also music he was asked to select—“Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” from which he drew inspiration as an undergrad at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“It was just a really interesting exercise, you know, crossing the bridge,” Johnson told me. “There was nothing overtly political about the whole visit.”

Except, of course, there was, especially right now. And so Friday at Liberty here’s what they’ll hear.

“For me,” Johnson will say, “today marks a day of life and death: 9/11 happens to be my birthday: September 11, 1957, to be exact. It is also a day of great tragedy: September 11, 2001 … but out of that day we saw great acts of courage, selflessness, heroism and leadership.”


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