Farewell to LBJ: A Hill Country Valediction
The land that made him takes him back, and many of the goodbyes aren't said at the funeral.
Never in memory had the hill winter been so hard and insistent and the sun so shy. Men talked of it on the town squares as they backed up to stoves and toasted their behinds. It wasn’t idle talk of weather, but the real thing, as if some elemental malevolence was in the air. Twice an icy sheet had covered the whole of Texas, and out here in these runty ruins of some ancient, geologic upheaval, young and old counted a dreary run of coughs and colds and liniment-filled nights.
He, of course, had not died of pneumonia, being too robust for that. Like strong men do, he had been up one day, planting trees, and was gone the next. A turbulence inside himself that had nothing to do with the weather.
That day of his burial we all looked to the sky, and the sun tried to show itself, kept poking here and there through the pall over the Twin Sister Mountains, giving rise to all kinds of false hopes and comment in the people about.
The matriarch of the Johnson clan was Aunt Jessie Hermine Johnson Hatcher, at 88 the ninth and last surviving child of Grandfather Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr. Now there was never any question about Aunt Jessie’s attendance at the graveside services. The doughty old girl would be there to see her Lyndon off. The prayer was that she would not catch her death of cold.
The petition on Red Casparis’ chapped lips was that he could wet a few whistles before George Byars’ proclamation went into effect. George, being the mayor of Johnson City, had deemed it proper that business establishments close for the funeral, so Red got up early that dark Thursday to try to sneak a little daylight by the rooster that would crow on curfew.
It isn’t that Red is a crassly commercial man; he couldn’t be and keep the kind of saloon he does on the square behind the courthouse. All he sells is beer. It is about as private a club as goat ropers can have. And innocent, I thought. You never see any women in there and the male mainstays seem to be Red and Ted and Austin, Casparises all, Pancho Althaus, the barber, and Lyndon Johnson’s common cousin, James Ealy. Ted is Red’s cousin and Austin is Red’s daddy. Austin is 94. Austin and his late wife, Fannie, used to serve Lyndon chili a lot when they had a cafe and he was a kid, so I asked Red if the old man would make it to the cemetery. He smiled and said he doubted it.
“Like to,” he allowed in his gravelly whisper, “Sure Daddy’d like to, but he’s a little under the weather, too much to drink last night. Yessir, he put one on.”
As I left, Red had lit the stove and was, with a feather duster in hand and an appreciative smile on his round, rich face, carefully examining and dusting what he called his Texas primitives—a rusty assortment of odds and ends he had found in the ruins of barns and artfully arranged about the walls of his joint.
It was hard to imagine the authorities closing him down from time to time for fights and trouble there. Hell, who would be fighting? Not Red and surely not Ted. Behind the Falstaff fog or whatever brand of balm he used, Ted Casparis was a man of mind who hid behind his war wounds. The barber was a good humored man, well known and respected. Old Austin was out of the question and as for James Ealy, well, heck, he wasn’t that ambitious. Had to be out of town tush hogs. Damn shame what a little boom like the Presidency will do to the old hometown.
The air was a damp fist in the face as I walked out Red’s door and stumbled over a dog that had taken shelter there. The mutt whined and shivered, its thin legs veined as thermometers. Rain. It had begun again, the kind of drizzle that gives gravediggers a bailing-out fit. Down the street the mercury on Pancho’s barber pole was just a little above freezing.
Sure, I thought, he had his fat-butted cronies in boots, greed and gabardine, but he also had Roosevelt and Rayburn.
By noon, everything in Johnson City was shut down, even the cafes out on the highway, and by 1 o’clock a steady stream of cars began heading out Highway 290 toward Stonewall and the LBJ Ranch, where, in the old family cemetery beside the Pedernales, he would be placed beside his mother and daddy. The ceremony was not to start until 4 o’clock, when Lyndon’s body would be flown in from the state funeral at the cathedral in Washington. But the impulse, in spite of the cold, was to hurry to the cemetery and get a good spot before the crush came. What you did if you were an ordinary citizen was park your car in the LBJ State on Ranch Road 1 south of the Johnson place, and catch one of the army shuttle buses that took you across the river and into the trees that hung like mourners over the huddle of tombstones. Thousands did this, or walked the winding road to the graveyard where they stood in puddles for hours awaiting his last trip home. What you did if you were the press was sign in at the park office and get a badge which gave you precedence over the run of the mill mourner for a bus and a front row position. Still the press bitched, because the dignitaries were given reserved seats on exclusive buses, because there were only nine phones for calling out, because it was wet and cold and difficult to set men and machinery into motion.
Sam Wood, the veteran Austin editor, was in a better humor than most. He sat in one of the shuttle buses beside his reporter, Nat Henderson, his head down in a deep study. Directly he looked up and out at the clouds. “Say,” he said to Henderson, “I’ll bet you $10 it stops raining and the sun comes out.”
“Because,” Wood chuckled, “St. Peter doesn’t know what he’s up against.”
Lyndon would have loved that.
The little rotund Lutheran pastor, Wunibald Schneider, was of the same mind, only in his German way much more earnest about the theological import of rain or shine. He stepped out of his church across the river from the cemetery and looked up for a sign, for some show of a benign and benevolent benediction on what was about to transpire.
I doubt Lyndon would have liked that. If the sun had come out it probably would have scared hell out of him.
Between 9th and 12th I think, somewhere in there between Grover Cleveland, James K. Polk and Dwight Eisenhower. That’s what I would tell Saul when we got back to Austin and the Villa Capri. It would enrage him I knew. I hadn’t seen Friedman in years, but he’d never liked LBJ. But I’d hold to it, warts and the war and all.
Word came that the body would not arrive by plane at the airstrip on the ranch, but was being brought by hearse from Austin, down 290 through Oak Hill and Dripping Springs and Henly, Johnson City and Hye. I looked at Bo Byers’ watch: 3:15. Wally Pryor said the entourage was now passing through Oak Hill, less than an hour away. Was it sudden sentiment to have him brought by car along that road he had known so well? Whatever, I approved, and thought of the places along the way, the people I knew who might watch the procession pass. Dick Polk, the calf-roping, guitar-picking, gas-jockeying postmaster and feedman at Oak Hill. At Henly if they knew maybe the twin sisters who had married brothers would be out on their porches. That would be Ella Mae and Hazel Herbest, who had got the Smitherman boys. Hondo Crouch wouldn’t be at Hye but at Luckenbach.
Wayne Jackson and I were crunched up against the low stone wall that rectangled the cemetery, but we made room for Ronnie Dugger. The rest of the reporters were exchanging stories but Ronnie remained quiet. I wondered what sense he would make of it. For years, he had been coming to grips with Lyndon Johnson, mostly in The Texas Observer. Now he was writing a book about Johnson, had been for some time. Dugger is a discerning man, mentally quick on his feet but deliberate and philosophical in print, and since the fifties he had quarreled with most that Johnson had stood for. Saul came up, and we asked Ronnie to join us later at the Villa Capri. It really wasn’t hard to understand the Texas liberals’ long war with Lyndon. On the Potomac he may have made like FDR with his programs for the poor, but down here on the Pedernales he ran with men who put more money in a fat steer than they would in a house full of starving Mexicans.
I looked at the hole they would lower him into and wondered if he had ever heard of the Smithermans. I doubted it, though he must have passed their place hundreds of times over the past 55 years. Of course they knew him, as obscure and modest neighbors know a great and public figure, but they also knew him better than that implies. Part of it, I figured, had to do with the Presidency itself. For the Smithermans and for most Americans, I felt, there was still a magic in that office. Yes, because of its incredible and growing power, but also because it was, in Clinton Rossiter’s words, “a breeding ground of indestructible myth.” As soon as a man stepped into that office he became a flesh and blood democratic distillation of us all. If we loved and hated him, it was because we loved and hated ourselves. And there was no question about it. Lyndon Johnson had engendered those extremes. Why, I asked myself, when I thought of LBJ I always thought of old D and Jody and Jesse?
They had moved into Blanco County back in the summer of ’27, just a few months after Lyndon had left for college. He had gone off to San Marcos with $75 borrowed money, a hell of a lot less than D and Jody and Jesse had brought with them. Why, they had something like 2000 head of cattle, which they pastured on a 1280-acre lease along Flat Creek.
Funny how things turn out.
For the next 36 years—the time it took Lyndon to rise to the Presidency—D and Jody and Jesse wore themselves to a frazzle trying to make a living out there on what has to be the sorriest land since Terlingua. While Lyndon had gone from student to teacher to congressional secretary to bureaucrat to Congressman, Senator, Vice President and President, the Smithermans had gone from 2000 cows to less than 50, from 1000 acres to 300. Why, they’d even gone to sheep and goats, which made them beyond redemption as far as cowmen were concerned. About the only thing sassy they managed to bring off was marrying sisters, Jody and Jesse that is. D never married. Jody finally removed himself from the partnership and he and Hazel moved into Henly. Out on the ranch fat D spent most of his time trying to coax fig trees out of the caliche and limestone, and out in the barn frail Jesse was always raising a racket inventing contraptions like self-feeders and hayloft lifts which never got off the place. And all the time Lyndon Johnson making millions and moving in high cotton. Did they give him hell like J. Evetts Haley? Were they bitter? When he passed on the road in his Lincoln did they cuss? Why hell no, D told me one day as he fried a sausage patty to a black crisp, it was nice to see somebody get ahead. And when he became president, it kind of perked them up.
Ella Mae, Jesse’s wife, started melting down beer bottles which she made into LBJ ashtrays to sell to tourists.
Jesse commenced to talk seriously about putting in a barbecue stand on 290. Why, it was bound to be a money maker. It looked like Lyndon was going to be president for nine years, and if he wasn’t the best advertisement for barbecue and beer Jesse didn’t know one. Might even put in a motel. Ella Mae could sell her ceramics and D could do the cooking. Jesse got so excited he poked a finger into D’s chest. “I’ll tell you somethin’ else,” he declared. “We ought to think about gettin’ some Holstein cows, some milkers.” He knew damn good and well people were going to keep on drinking milk. By God, the country was beginning to look up with Lyndon in there.
Well, none of it came to pass.
Not the Great Society.
Not the nine years.
Oh, Ella Mae sold a few ashtrays, but not from any Smitherman Bros. Barbecue Stand.
Jesse got sick and died and that was that.
D, in his seventies, had no heart for it or for the milkers.
And when Ella Mae got glaucoma and had to have two eye operations, she stopped melting down beer bottles.
I spent a few hours with them, the widow and the bachelor, one day back in January of 1969, shortly after Lyndon Johnson had called it quits to retire to the ranch. Ella Mae hadn’t missed her ceramics. “It’s a small thing to have to give up after losing a husband,” she said. “Just look what Lyndon’s given up.”
And we did look, for there on the television screen was Richard M. Nixon, taking the oath as 37th president.
The inauguration saddened them, not because they had anything against Nixon, but because they felt so sorry for Lyndon Johnson.
“I know that seems a silly thing to say,” Ella Mae said, “especially when you consider how far he has gone in the world, and from such a little place like Johnson City! But I feel for him and I can’t help it. The country turned crazy on him, and he had to step down to save it. People don’t seem to appreciate that.”
D Smitherman died in April of ’72. I knew that as I stood next to the cemetery wall. But I did not know that at that moment Jody Smitherman lay in a San Antonio hospital trying to make it back from a heart attack. As Hazel was to put it, “They helicoptered him there just ahead of Lyndon.”
Now, just behind Lyndon, after the hearse that bore his body, came the family in limousines, and after the family came friends and business associates in limousines, and after them came buses, many buses, unloading important people, many of whom we recognized—Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie—but mostly they were VIP’s of the Texas Establishment who had not made it to Washington for the more formal services. Anyone who was anybody or who wanted to be was there. One fair young man caught my eye in the forest of great coats. Although he stood taller than the men around him he was somehow subdued and lacking in stature. Perhaps it was what I knew of Ben Barnes that gave him this rather contradictory diminution.
The man whose body the military pallbearers were carrying now to the grave had singled out this young man as his political son, had coached and counseled and favored him to the point that everyone said it was a matter of time before Barnes would be governor and maybe president. It was said that the mantle of greatness had been laid upon him. But just as the young man made his first big move he stumbled, badly, and the people turned from him. I looked at him now and wondered if the men who used to buoy him up had also left him like a leper. I had never thought much of him myself, but now he fascinated. He was becoming either a very wise man or a very bitter one, depending upon his inner character, and the latter, of course, had never come to light in the days of his public apprenticeship.
Before that particular young man had been favored by the departed, another had been his favorite from the time they had been novices in the pursuit of power. Now he came, tall and handsome in his maturity, to eulogize the dead man. And surely the common thought—it caught your breath—was that here, embodied in both, might well be the once and future kings.
At one point in his eulogy, John Connally quoted Lyndon Johnson as having said, “I guess I’ve come a long way for a boy from Johnson City, Texas.” Certainly Connally had come a long way himself, but I couldn’t help but think, as we watched him read over his friend, that the truly stunning turn in his life was not the years between the Floresville farm and the governor’s mansion, but rather those of late.
Who would have thought, say in 1960, when John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sent Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge to the sidelines and beckoned Mr. Connally to Washington as their Secretary of the Navy, that it would be President Nixon, not President Kennedy or President Johnson, who would set John Connally up for a run at the White House? Not even our knowledge then that Connally was a counterfeit Democrat would have prepared us for such a turn of events.
Maybe that was premature, putting Connally in the White House when we still had a Texas President to put in the ground. Well what of him, this Lyndon Johnson who yet made such sounds in the earth? The Graham cracker generalities that the Rev. Billy Graham was serving up over his grave did not hit home. What occured to me then (and I hold to it now) is that not since Andrew Jackson had a President contained such an abundance of both virtue and flaw. In his character and manner and sympathies, Lyndon Johnson was in that great rough-hewn line of succession that began with Old Hickory and found such full expression in our towering genius, Abraham Lincoln. It was passed down, in part, to Theodore Roosevelt and then to Truman, this rude kind of humanity, but of all of them, LBJ was the closest to Jackson.
It doesn’t surprise me that Jackson’s great friend and spiritual brother was Sam Houston. If Houston was a colossus in buckskin, LBJ was the colossus in khaki. It is uncanny how alike they were. Houston was in Texas because of President Jackson’s bidding, and their intent was empire. Sam Houston came to Texas on borrowed money and made a pot while becoming President of the Republic. His sins were human ones. Lyndon Johnson went to Washington on borrowed money and made a pot while becoming President of the United States. His sins were human ones.
They wanted everything, and they went out and got it, power, money, land, a place in history among the titans. Everything but love in their own time and on their own terms.
Both Houston and Johnson were larger than life incarnations of Western Man. They believed, by God and by their own prowess and passions, that everything was possible in this world. Chaotic men of massive contradictions, they ruled with rage as well as reason, and left in their wake both good fortune and calamity.
Both fell from power because the people turned against them, Houston for trying to prevent a war, Johnson for pursuing one. Both retired from the public arena with heavy hearts and died, if not in disrepute, then in disregard.
The way we stood in concentric circles about the casket reminded me of the circles of life in a fallen oak, with the dead man our common core. The simile even carried over into how we were arranged about the grave. The first influences on Lyndon Johnson had been those of his hill country boyhood, but as he grew they receded from his center toward the bark of his background, to make room for each succeeding stage of his life. And indeed the “plain people” as John Connally called them, were at our backs, making a great outward circle of several thousand persons. In front of them, in a smaller circumference, were the politicians he had known in his middle stage, and in front of them were those who had served him in the White House. And at the heart of the goodbyes, of course, were the old friends and business associates, and the kin.
A fifth circle was wedged in as close to the family as the stone wall and the secret service would allow: the press, rapacious and rude in its appetite for one final insight and intimacy into the man and what he had meant.
History redeemed Houston.
We tended to think of him as a consummate politician, but I wonder. Of course he was with the boys in the backrooms of Congress. He came to rule the Senate as no man in our history. If it hadn’t been for Senator Johnson and his majority whip and carrot, Eisenhower would have been left out on the fairway.
But God was he a bore on the podium, speechmaking! Somebody’s middleclass Masonic Uncle, beaming a benign conservatism through his bifocals, when you knew damn well he had just broken somebody’s back for crossing him. Up close, pressing your flesh and looking you in the eye, or at his leisure with a Pearl beer in one hand (Jesse was right} and a barbecued rib in the other, he was as winning as John Wayne.
The cinematic Wayne.
Not the new nominating one. He’s as dull on the podium as Johnson was.
As Billy Graham.
Lady Bird and her girls bore up beautifully, Lynda in her proud, Protestant singing along with Anita Bryant (who was magnificent), Lucy in her Catholic quiet.
But the old aunts, Aunt Jessie Hatcher in particular, you could tell they were chilled to the bone.
He was a genius in the Senate, gloried in it.
The Presidency was something else. I don’t think he ever felt quite at home there, never really hit his stride. Like Andrew Johnson after Lincoln and Chester A. Arthur after James Garfield, he came to it sadly with a nation in tears. Jack Kennedy had been so beautifully young and vibrant.
But after a time, he made it his, came into his own enough to pass the most comprehensive and far reaching civil rights legislation of any President. In this he was a second Lincoln. He put into law what Lincoln had dreamed of and what Kennedy had schemed of. What he did for the minorities was the high mark of his five years in the White House.
But it was not legislation calculated to make him a popular President. In this he led the people and the Congress instead of following. Our inclination as a people was toward racial injustice, and had Lyndon Johnson been a weaker man, it would have been easier to ignore the militants and go along with the country’s prevailing opinion. But he saw the light, and the right, though it was against our grain. The irony, and it was a bitter pill to swallow, was that not even the black people loved him for it.
Our mood, as a people, was contentious, as it was in Jackson’s time, Lincoln’s time, and we barked and bit at him, and at one another, like dogs.
It was not consensus, but contention; and he was miserable and must have commiserated with the ghosts of past Presidents. Now he knew why Washington had left the Presidency sore in heart and mind, eager for the seclusion of Mt. Vernon. Jefferson had called the Presidency the road to splendid misery and Jackson had sworn it more curse than honor.
That was what Vietnam was for Lyndon Johnson. More curse than honor was his Waterloo, and it doesn’t take history’s long view to see how tragically absurd his position was. Here, on the one hand, he was pouring manpower and billions of dollars into the making of our own Great Society, while, on the other, waging one of the longest and costliest wars in our history, not against a major power, but on a tiny country in support of a corrupt regime.
It is true he inherited the commitment from Kennedy; and the policy of containment from Truman, but he let both get away from him. He paid for it, and we are still paying for it.
The 21-cannon salute fell short by two. A howitzer misfired twice.
It hurt me to think back over his last lameduck days in the White House. No President since James Polk had worked harder and enjoyed it less. He had wanted to take the country by the tail, but gargantuan that he was, he reached for more than he could handle.
But great men always do. Because, I guess, they are metaphors for the best and worst in all of us.
Red sold four beers all that morning.
Dugger never did make it to the Capri, and Saul and I talked of Nixon.
Neither did Jody make it out of the hospital. Hazel said he died two weeks later.
So did Aunt Jessie Hatcher, two weeks to the day. She caught a cold and it went into pneumonia. They buried her in the same cemetery.