President Johnson signing the Immigration Act. [LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto. #C666-11-WH65]

Shouldn’t we all be Americans first?

Sep 05, 2012

by Lee Hamilton

I was first elected to Congress in 1964. That was the year Lyndon Johnson won a full term as President in a landslide. If ever a President had a popular mandate to pursue his goals, it was LBJ in the few years that followed that election.

Yet one of my strongest memories of him is not of a President reveling in partisan supremacy, but of his cautioning against it. Johnson used to love meeting with freshman members of Congress, and after taking office we Democrats who’d been elected along with him had every expectation that he would allow us to bask at the expense of our Republican colleagues. He didn’t. “I’m an American first,” he told us. “And I’m a Democrat second.”

It was a bracing affirmation of a quality essential to national leadership — a firm conviction that the good of the country comes first, even if it runs counter to the interests of one’s political party. I can’t help thinking of it today, in an era when deep, seemingly unbridgeable differences divide Democrats and Republicans, and when these divisions are being stoked by the current Presidential campaign. read more

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.