1. The Once & Future Larry King
A FEW YEARS AGO, IN a brief but characteristic moment of reflection, Larry King attempted a survey of all that he had mastered, and he was not greatly reassured. “Success and I are strangers,” he said. “Failure and I are such old friends he drops by the house for coffee. I have wearied of his company and bid the stranger come in…”
To lend some sense of proportion to this austere summing-up, it is necessary to remind oneself that King’s standards and his hard-scrabble work ethic compulsions are seldom fully satisfied. He was the son of an impoverished West Texas dirt farmer, blacksmith and occasional fundamentalist preacher. The most money his father ever had at any one time in those early years was $88, after he’d sold an unusually good crop of turkeys. “He was on the fringe of solvency for exactly two hours before some city slicker from Cisco picked his pocket of every last dime.” Worse than poverty and endless farm demands, King remembers “eternal days of rain and cold with nothing to do but huddle by the open fireplace where your front roasted while your rump grew icicles, or vice-versa should you turn around.” But the primary agony was “the awful grinding boredom…nothing to read, no radio, nobody to talk with. The isolation was close to maddening.”
All of which might give some hint of the nature of King’s energy reserves, propelling him through some improbable adventures as small town football star, postman, oilfield roughneck, reporter, broadcaster, political aide to Congressmen and future Presidents. After ten years of hunkering up at the feet of the mighty in Washington, D.C., he concluded that he might as well step on a few as well. He became one of the country’s most successful magazine writers and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. Not long before he was provoked to his melancholy reflections on success and failure, his by-line had appeared in literally dozens of publications. His opinions were sought on network radio and television in the United States and Canada; his novel, The One-Eyed Man, was a book club alternate; a collection of articles, …And Other Dirty Stories, was widely acclaimed; he won a year’s study at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow; and his most recent work, Confessions of a White Racist, was a National Book Award nominee and inspired John Kenneth Galbraith to wonder: “There may be a better and more compelling writer around than Larry King, but I certainly don’t know his name.”
All of which hopefully provides suitable background for reporting our recent happy confrontations with the old wordsmith himself. We were locked in the planning stages of an article (scheduled for March TM dealing with those exotic South of the Border English language radio stations, powered by monster wattage and hellfire fundamentalist hucksterism), and we dimly remembered an experience of King’s recounted to us a dozen years ago. We wrote to him for a little amplification, and he responded by telephone from Washington. King advised us to hold on, ole buddy, he’d be in Texas in a day or two and fill us in. In the background, we could hear the voice of George Jones painfully spinning out his heart or some equally irreplaceable vital organ, all in the service of bucolic love and down-home dalliance. We were compelled to speak well of his taste in music and the quality of what he called his Home Entertainment Center.
“Listen,” he said, “I am trying to make myself write two magazine articles, both seriously overdue, on the boring subjects of Jane Fonda and Jack Anderson. I am having trouble doing any kind of work at all, in fact, for the first time in my life. So I think I am going to ask Life Magazine to let me choose a more congenial assignment. I think I will watch a movie being made of Larry McMurtry’s novel by the name of Leaving Cheyenne, though they are calling it something else of course.”
2. The Next Picture Show
They were calling the movie Molly, Gid and Johnny, we remembered, and the low, scruffy hills southeast of Austin were alive with the sound of assistant directors screaming for “QUIET, please.” Larry King, a day or two later, led us on a whispered tour of the set: “This here’s a sure-nuff live take—ain’t that right, Steve?” Steve was the nice, bright young man from New York who that morning had driven us out to the set, an abandoned ranch house near Bastrop. “Steve Friedman, our driver,” King had said, introducing us. Now Steve nodded and stared transfixed as the scene unfolded (there is an uncommonly huge amount of standing and staring and transfixation on motion picture sets). Director Sidney Lumet put Beau Bridges and Tony Perkins through their cowpoke paces, a puffed-up, pot-bellied Bridges hammering on a gate post, wiping his face, then joining a skinny and wizened Perkins on the porch for some careless beer-drinking and nostalgic repartee having to do with the perils of seeking shelter from hailstorms on the underside of cow ponies. At length, Lumet said “Cut and print,” and King ventured to interpret this as meaning we need not stand and stare transfixed for awhile.
In the chow line, Bridges had stripped down to his pot belly, which was revealed as a sort of inflatable girdle. Everyone sat in the open, plates piled with simple country grub, and King had to admire the tough-minded, unpretentious visitors, hard at their tasks since daybreak, engaged in a business that seemed about as glamorous as clearing railroad right-of-way. “Look at ’em going after that meat loaf,” he said, “just like it was edible.”
Steve Friedman offered to line up a few interviews, but King said he would prefer to stare transfixed for a few more days. He had read the script the night before and was much impressed by its faithfulness to the McMurtry novel. Who had written it? “Steve Friedman here,” said King, and Steve went off to discuss technical problems involving the use of biodegradable mothballs in the synthetic hailstorm to be whipped up later in the week. He seemed awfully busy for a script writer; it developed he was also the film’s producer; he was further revealed as producer of The Last Picture Show (another McMurtry creation, along with Hud).
Later, we hitched a ride back to Austin with Assistant Producer David Golden, who was headed for Georgetown where the next day’s shooting was scheduled alongside a railroad spur and cattle pen. “Your friend McMurtry is due in tomorrow,” Golden said, and King said his fellow writer had hired out as consultant for 24 hours. We asked Golden if he hoped to move up to full producer status, and Golden rather gently admitted he had already worked a few on his own as executive producer. Really? Which ones?
“Well…There was Love Story…“
King slapped his knee and hooted. “I’ll bet you made better than two dollars an hour on that one, right?”
3. The Last Larry McMurtry
In various memoirs, Larry King has referred to himself as “the Obscure Famous Arthur.” He tells the story of returning to his hometown of Midland upon the publication of his first book. He had appeared on TV and radio, was photographed in the newspaper, was welcomed in lights on the marquee of the Holiday Inn, and was strutting to coffee with a high city official, feeling very famous indeed, whereupon he encountered an old school chum he had not seen in 20 years. “Hah, thare, Larry!” the fellow called out, “You still workin’ over at the post office?”
Similar horrors of comic opera pathos have overtaken Larry McMurtry in the years since he began writing of his hometown of Archer City, Texas. For a while, possibly in response to the treatment afforded his work by the big-time literati up East, he affected a T-shirt labeling its wearer as “Minor Regional Novelist.” For some years he taught on the English faculty at Rice; lately he has been living in rural Virginia and operating his own bookstore in the Georgetown section of Washington, D. C.
McMurtry also makes periodic rueful appearances on college lecture circuits when he’s not doctoring movie scripts, preparing magazine articles, or working to complete his new book, the last of a trilogy which includes Moving On and All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers. For a time, he told us, he enjoyed a brief celebrity in Georgetown society, his popularity deriving not so much from literary merit as the hilarious assumption he had made a fortune from The Last Picture Show. “Actually I could have made a pile, though hardly a fortune,” he said. “They offered me a percentage, and I turned it down for a guaranteed upfront $10,000 plus a few thousand more later on.” And what was the percentage figure? Two and one-half percent. Of what? Well, you figure it—Picture Show grossed $30 million at last report.
McMurtry’s consultation with the film-makers was mercifully brief. He had watched the day’s shooting, picked out a few technical flaws having to do with cowboy authenticity, and was gently critical of the “sissy look” of a fight between Bridges and Perkins. He also questioned the too-literal translation of book into film. “It’s flattering,” he said, “but not necessarily the soundest approach for pictures.” When Lumet ventured his directoral feeling about the story (“It’s about the glory of no reward.”), McMurtry’s response was as laconic as any cowboy’s. “Hmmmnn,” said the Minor Regional Novelist.
Later, he sipped soda pop with King and gleefully recounted the recent ordeal his father had survived on the McMurtry ranch. Attempting to rope and rescue an outraged mother cow from a ditch, the well-aged McMurtry had very nearly got himself killed. “He was butted in the head, nearly tore off his ear, and he got hooked in the leg,” Larry described. “Took him half an hour but he finally got that old cow out of there. Then he made it back to the house, poured blood out of his boot—and passed out looking happier than I’ve seen him in 30 years.”
In New York Magazine last month, on assignment to cover a rodeo in Madison Square Garden, McMurtry took this occasion to reflect on the real heroes of the West, the “thousands of embittered farmers and stockmen…who have lived in one place, loved the West and its ideals and increased only in despair—as the oil industry ruined their grass, as the air and water grew foul, as the land taxes rose…as their life-styles were scorned and then parodied, their children drawn away to the cities and there subverted. In these men one finds a love of the Old and a hatred of the New so passionate and intense that it makes the beery rebelliouness of rodeo cowboys seem like a half-hearted posturing…”
He notes the moral and physical astringency of the lifestyle and allows that it is probably just as well that prosperity has largely eluded them, “For if one thing is evident about cowboys it is that they are men who show their best qualities only under the worst of natural conditions. It is poverty and drought, isolation and toil that bring out their richest humor and strongest loyalty, their deepest feeling for nature and their keenest joy in life. Give them money and creature comforts, and everything that is lean, well-crafted, enduring and humanly beautiful in them disappears and they quickly degenerate into mindless and tasteless suburbanized slobs.”
RECENTLY WE SPENT A COLD, drizzly winter day canoeing down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, in northwest Dallas County. The occasion was an environmentally-oriented canoe trip sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which had asked environmental groups to view the ecology of one of the only semi-polluted stretches of the Trinity, before it is glutted with the refuse and effluent of Dallas and Fort Worth to the south.
Such an opportunity was too good to pass up, since the Corps rarely asks environmentalists to do an ecological trip; and besides, we’d never done that stretch of the Trinity.
There were 28 canoes that made the trip. It was a bit surprising, really, to see that many people interested in taking a trip down the Trinity on such a miserable day. It was overcast, and drizzly and we had forgotten our gloves, a serious omission in cold-weather canoeing.
The put-in point, as canoeists term the place where they launch, was where Sandy Lake Road meets the Trinity. We were bound for Valley Mills Drive, some 4.5 miles downstream. (If you’re interested in making the trip yourself, both roads are easy to find; they are marked exits off Interstate Highway 35E in the Farmer’s Branch-Carrollton area.)
There are plans to turn that section of the Trinity into a flood control channel, so that when the Trinity floods, the water will flow out faster than it does now. What that really means is that some people interested in growth want to make sure that the river doesn’t overflow; if it doesn’t, then they can use the banks that are currently flood plain for, in the words of the Corps, “industrial development and some houses, country clubs and so on.”
Along on the trip were John Whittington, who represents northwest Dallas County on the County Commissioners’ Court, and the mayors of Dallas suburbs of Coppell, Farmer’s Branch and Irving. The Corps says that nothing will be done to the river unless local officials want it done.
Like all canoe trips, this one was a little late pushing off, as people shuffled around on the concrete floodway below the Sandy Lake bridge over the Elm Fork. It was extremely muddy in the parking lot, the chill was biting, and we stamped our feet to keep them warm while canoes were loaded and Corps officials explained the trip.
Finally it was water time. The canoes gathered first in the pool below the bridge and then went one by one into the small rapids coming out of the pool into the river.
As rivers go, much of the area along the Elm Fork is not unique. But there are stretches that are truly beautiful, that environmentalists say would take 200 years to replace if destroyed. In addition to willows, there are tall cottonwoods, birch trees, and various other bushes, shrubs, trees, vines and flora that together make a picturesque area. The Corps man said there are beavers along the stretch, and we saw some of the chewed residue of their presence.
There is something about being in a canoe on moving water, something which unless you feel, and feel the need for, is difficult to explain. When there is talk about turning a stretch of moving river into an area of motionless lake, then that is well and good, if you happen to like lakes. We like lakes, and have nothing against them. But the comparison between boating on a lake and canoeing on a moving river is something like that between flying a power plane and flying a glider. Flying a power plane, you may feel like part of the plane, and in a power boat, like part of the boat; flying a glider, you feel like part of the wind, and paddling a canoe on a river, you feel like part of the river. You help nourish the trees that you pass. And they help nourish you.
The Elm fork section is a nicely winding stretch; you appreciate the wooded banks shaped by nature rather than treeless ones scraped by a bulldozer as along channelized streams. An environmental study commissioned by the Corps says that the channelization would lower water quality (in the least-polluted stretch of river in Dallas County) and destroy unique forests and animal life. The study recommends that the channelization project be abandoned.
There is an alternate proposal that would allow levees to be built out some distance from the winding river channel, providing flood control but leaving less land for industrial development. The land would instead be used for parks and an environmental corridor.
The question Dallas County and Texas residents face is whether the apparent desire of suburban towns to attract new industry, at the potential cost of some of the few remaining trees along a river in the county, will overwhelm the desire of other county residents to support their local river. There is to be a public hearing on all this sometime early this year, to let the public have a chance to say how they feel about the proposed channel project.
One suspects that the Corps, which is not necessarily bound by its environmental impact study, is somehow caught in the middle of all this, trying to escape some of the bad image it gathered in recent years for allegedly wanting to dam, ditch or divert every natural stream in the nation. Perhaps from such a direction will come new thoughts about ecology; the Corps is, after all, like a hired gun that shoots where it is told.
For what it’s worth, we did finish the trip, in a little over two hours. It was still cold, and we were still wishing we had brought our gloves. But given a chance to go again, we would. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon in Dallas.
EVERYTHING’S UP TO DATE IN BEAUMONT
The Beaumont Chamber of Commerce distributes a small sign which reads, “For information on what’s happening in Beaumont, Texas, please call 838-3634.” Late last year we had occasion to place such a call. A pleasant recorded voice read us a detailed list of semi-interesting events which were to occur on November 29 and 30 and December l and 2. We were calling on December 6.
COALITIONS THAT HAVE MARKED THE political landscape for the last 40 years seem to be coming apart these days. Perhaps the most vulnerable has been the alliance of labor unions, minorities and professionals which was put together during the Depression by Franklin Roosevelt and which formed the cornerstone of the Democratic Party until affluence, racial consciousness and social issues began to split it up.
A somewhat similar coalition in Houston celebrated its fifth anniversary recently in a rather robust state of good health. The Citizens for Good Schools (CGS) began in the wake of the removal under fairly questionable circumstances of a young research chemist named George Oser from the runoff ballot in the 1967 School Board Election.
Oser, his wife and some friends had no money, but began a long and time-consuming research effort into the affairs of the state’s largest school district. As the predominantly white, middle class group began to focus on the administration of the school district and its handling of desegregation and federal funds, it began to get the attention of the press and to pick up allies, particularly among minorities.
By the 1969 school election, the CGS had grown to a stunningly effective political organization. A slate of three whites and one black was put forward. The candidates were furnished with a massive, detailed source book which dissected every aspect of the school district’s operation; augmented by a whole platoon of backup speakers; and carried forward by a precision-like political network that extended down to the precinct level.
The campaign was a textbook example of citizen organization. CGS won all four seats and captured control of the school board. On election night the victorious candidates drove around the massive new school administration building, looking at it with a mixture of determination and awe. They had really pulled it off, and they didn’t quite believe it.
The four new board members—Oser, the Reverend D. Leon Everett II, Dr. Leonard Robbins and Mrs. James Tinsley—were plunged immediately into a flurry of activity, reorganization and crisis, punctuated by the trenchant opposition of the three holdover school board members. They drew up desegregation plans; decentralized the school district; brought in three new educators to fill the top three positions; established new management systems; actively sought federal funds; expanded vocational and special education programs; set up magnet schools; began a community college.
In the process the new board had to deal with a large administrative staff and 10,000 teachers as well as a community which at times lagged behind them. They soon learned that deciding something at the board table did not mean that out in the schools it would actually happen. It was all reminiscent of President Eisenhower’s first years in office, when he would give an order or make a decision and expect that, like in the military, it would be carried out.
“We probably were better prepared than most new school board members when we took office, at least so far as knowing facts go,” Oser says. “We learned from experience that what is needed is a lot more than knowing facts and laying our new plans on top of old ones. To change an institution like a school system, you have to change the mood, attitude and direction of the people involved. Our job now is to develop the esprit de corps and direction of our staff; or, better yet, to support its own welling up.”
Oser himself is not the domineering, willful type. He seems more comfortable in the background, giving other people credit, smiling shyly like a proud father whose son just won the grand prize at the Science Fair. Some people take this easygoing attitude for softness, forgetting that Oser has been at it for over five years, through the sort of personal and political setbacks and sacrifices that would have long ago driven out a softer, less determined man. Even when he mumbles, he is generally saying something of importance; when he speaks clearly he usually has the facts in hand to carry the day.
“People have to be able to step aside. Otherwise movements are caught up in them and can only be as successful as they are. You either have to have lots of star performers or no star at all.” When Oser spoke at the CGS anniversary he could look out and see the results of his own philosophy. Oser was introduced by Mrs. Robbie Hayes, a young, articulate and determined black woman who is the current president of CGS. The board of directors of CGS has a majority of blacks and chicanos.
Such changes have not set well with all of the old-time CGS members. Some of them bitterly fought both the endorsement of chicano activist David Lopez for the School Board in 1971, on the grounds that he would drag the whole ticket down to defeat (Lopez got more votes in the city-wide election than either the white or black candidate on the slate, both of whom also won), and the election of Mrs. Hayes and the majority black and chicano CGS board in March, 1972.
Their opposition was based largely on an unwillingness to give up control to blacks and chicanos, who as groups compose a majority of the school district’s student population. When enough white CGS board members joined the blacks and chicanos then on the CGS board and voted to make the board conform to the student population’s ethnic makeup, CGS became the first multiracial political organization we know of anywhere to be controlled by minority groups. In practice, such control has not meant all that much change.
What change there is has come when the leaders of the organization had to race the fairly heady situation of not being outsiders trying to get in, but of controlling every seat on the School Board.
The choice was simple: either remain an organization designed simply to win elections or develop a justification for a permanent, year-round existence. The first choice would have been fine if CGS was a straight, garden variety political organization with loose civic goals like so many other, roughly similar organizations around the state involved in both city and school board politics. Such a choice, however, would have left CGS members feeling unsatisfied and, one suspects, a little unclean.
“Some people feel CGS should do nothing but campaign,” Mrs. Hayes says. “I don’t. We offered our candidates to the public and told them they were the best to lead our schools. We owe it to the community to make sure they are the best and that they remain aware of what the community thinks. We owe it to the community to stay on the school board members and the school district. Being a watchdog in a constructive sense is the position CGS has to take.”
CGS is not adverse to calling school board members and administrators on the carpet. A critical, skeptical attitude built up through years in opposition is hard to break. The 47-member CGS board meets once a month; its members are generally not shy, retiring types or simple yes-people. They are as diverse and potentially as volatile as the city itself.
Mrs. Hayes, who presides over it all, has the seriousness that seems common to many CGS and school board members. Perhaps such seriousness is the result of the involvement of people in active politics because of their children. When we talked to her on the phone her children were loudly preparing dinner in the background; when we visited Oser, his children crawled over us on the couch. Oser and the other board members are not the typical sort of limousine liberal common in the East, who preach high principal for the masses and send their children to private schools. Both Oser and Dr. Robbins have children who transferred voluntarily from predominantly white schools to predominantly black ones. Such people have the flexibility that comes from overriding purpose.
Mrs. Hayes can be radical or conciliatory with equal charm and aplomb; Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, presiding official of the Democratic National Convention, has nothing on her so far as practical politics goes. “The main thing is that CGS stay alive. I’ve talked to people in similar organizations all over the United States who have failed because they only got together for elections,” she told us. “CGS is going to function in between.”
Part of that function seems to involve sniping at the very school board members it helped elect. Some take it well, others reflect the sort of exasperation that most elected officials or administrators seem to take when criticized by outsiders who, well, just don’t know how difficult it all is, just aren’t aware how many things have to be, well, balanced just to keep going. CGS members don’t buy that. At the same time events are putting pressure on CGS. Integration and busing strain a coalition of blacks, chicanos and whites; pressures for community control and separatism are at work to divide up the school district; the white student population continues to decline.
The school board elections this fall will show just how well CGS can hold together and how well Houston has accepted the CGS-controlled school district. It is possible that a new coalition will sweep CGS out as dramatically as it swept in four years ago. New coalitions like CGS bring forth new opponents and the school board has had to make hard decisions that have alienated some supporters. To continue to win they must capture literally all of the black vote plus between 30 and 40 per cent of the white. Less than that among blacks must be offset by gains among whites; less than that among whites, who form the majority of voters if not of students, would mean defeat, since there are no more black votes to be had.
Looking back on his term, Oser told us, “When you get right down to it, I don’t believe we really had a philosophical position. We just attempted to bring fairness and reasonableness to the solution of the problems we faced.”
Fairness. Reasonableness. Novel ideas in the highly charged world of politics today, and Houston school politics has been as highly charged and bitterly fought as any. Whether the voters of Houston or CGS itself want fairness and reasonableness remains to be seen. We certainly approve of both, wherever they may crop up.
HOW TO GO TO THE RODEO
NOW THAT THE SCHOOL BOARD Meetings are tamer, the Livestock Show is the best entertainment Houston has to offer. In 1972 visitors took a look at over 17,000 animals, each one cleaner than a baby at baptism. Brought into the 16-acre, air-conditioned Exposition Building are sheep in London Fog raincoats, bulls the size of street-sweeping machines, pink hogs, chickens straight out of Greek mythology, turkeys that gobble in unison as if on signal, goats, horses, and rabbits. It is the finest selection of livestock in the world, brought here to be judged and sold in an arena built for just that purpose near the center of the Exposition Building.
Here are some tips on how to see the show:
—Go Western. The reason cowboys wear boots becomes immediately apparent. In lieu of boots, wear washable tennis shoes.
Look for the action, there’s plenty. Sheep are sheared, shampooed, fluffed and combed; steers are bathed in the shower rooms, dried with hair dryers and back-combed endlessly. Squealing swine are shaved under the chin; cows are milked.
Plan to see the horses in the judging areas since horse-lovers under six feet tall will have trouble seeing into the high wooden stalls. The cutting horse contests, by the way, make the best show.
Also be sure to see the Future Farmers of America Children’s Barnyard, an exhibit of mother animals with their nursing young. A view of the sow and her squealing piglets has been known to send the squeamish straight to Planned Parenthood.
For the slightly less squeamish, it is a short walk from the Exposition Building to a seat in the Astrodome for the rodeo. The Houston Rodeo is BIG. Originally held in the now defunct Democratic Convention Hall, the rodeo drew a total of 2000 people in 1932. Most of them had front row seats. Now in the Astrodome, the rodeo draws 700,000 people and has become a three-hour, action-crammed spectacle that includes a concert by country and western singers.
The show begins with the Grand Entry, a parade of hundreds of horses and contestants led by the Harris County Sheriff’s Mounted Patrol. The action begins with the relay races. About fifty horsemen tear about the Astrodome in a gutsy, exciting race that leaves the audience ready for bear. They get their money’s worth in the Rodeo Cowboy Association contests—bareback and saddle-bronc riding, calf roping, bull dogging, barrel racing, and bull riding. The awards to the champions are presented the last Sunday of the rodeo.
Traditional to the Houston show are the calf scramble (boy against little beast with the winning boys receiving certificates for the purchase of a calf), the chuckwagon races (six-horse wagons in hell-bent-for-leather chases), and finally the serenade by the star.
This last event is the crowd drawer. Appearing on a rotating, blue satin stage atop a dirt floor have been the likes of Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, and the 5th Dimension. After the singing, the star rides (by horse if he’s able, by car otherwise) around the ring for the audience to see up close. At this point the people with the front row seats would gladly swap tickets with someone in left field, since frenzied children, frantic for a better view of the conquering heroes, trample everyone in the front rows. The 1973 show will feature Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, Sonny James and Donna Fargo—all of country fame; and, Rick Nelson, the 5th Dimension, Englebert Humperdinck, the Jackson Five and Sonny and Cher—not “country” so they must be “Western,” as in Hollywood.
Suggestions: Don’t sit too close if you mind children climbing on you; don’t sit too far back unless you have a telescope. Dress Texan again. The wives of the officials wear the Diors of the Western world.
PART WAY WITH LBJ
It was a cold, icy day late last year when the civil rights papers of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration were opened to the public. Many of the famous and near-famous Americans invited to the ceremony were delayed by the weather, and the published agenda was deviated from several times, both because of such natural causes and because of some unscheduled intervention.
As we sat in the audience it seemed somehow appropriate that a seminar entitled “Equal Opportunity in the United States” should not hew to schedule, and that we as a seminar should have to backstep, rearrange, advance, retreat, regroup and advance again, just as we as a nation have moved in civil rights.
The cast that came to Austin was as impressive a collection of political dignitaries as has been assembled in many years. The seminar had something of the air of a reunion of old classmates, where the award to “The Graduate Who Has Made the Most Impact on Our Times” was given to former President Lyndon Johnson, whose name and record were unfailingly lauded by black and white speaker alike, including a few from whose lips such words would not have come quite so trippingly to the tongue back when Mr. Johnson was president.
President Nixon did not come out so well at the seminar, with speaker after speaker attacking his record in civil rights and with only President Johnson himself offering some measure of understanding for the current President’s position. Even Mr. Johnson’s softer words were somewhat charged, however, and bore strong resemblance to the sort of comradeship the commander of a navy destroyer might feel toward the commander of the enemy submarine on which he was dropping depth charges.
In a deviation from his published text, Julian Bond, the young black legislator from Georgia, looking like a sleek model out of the Sears catalogue and speaking like a black Adlai Stevenson, commended the president he had prodded, chided and criticized throughout the 1960’s: “When the forces of events demanded it, and when politics permitted it, a human man was there when we and the nation needed him; and oh, by God, I wish he were there now.”
At the close of the seminar, when Roy Innis of CORE and a young black minister named A. Kendall Smith took over the podium to attack the group for being too complacent, too “liberal” and too backward-looking, President Johnson was still given his due. “Black people still honor your record in civil rights,” the Reverend Smith said, nodding to Mr. Johnson.
It remained, however, for Mr. Johnson himself to show why he loomed so much larger than President Nixon, who for all his efforts at lessening international tension and his historic trips to Peking and Moscow, still seems colorless, in much the same way that the current leaders of France pale before President DeGaulle and those of Great Britain before Winston Churchill.
Because Viet Nam casts its dark shadow across so much of his presidency, we cannot look on Mr. Johnson’s record with the sort of uncritical praise that the seminar participants, with President Nixon’s rather dismal civil rights record before them and with a little selective forgetfulness, were able to do. Even so, we cannot help but imagine how much gusto and earthy class the former President would have put into the trips to Moscow and Peking. But such thoughts are only vague mental longings, and foreign policy was never his strong suit, anyway. These men of politics, hard workers, gathered in Austin understood him best, and he understood them. By being adversaries throughout his term of office, but adversaries in the best, political sense of the word, they were able to put together the legislation that dismantled illegal segregation and took the first halting steps toward solving the problems of race and poverty.
President Johnson was in a mellow mood. He walked slowly, attentive to each step; his wife kept a sharp eye out for his every move and sign. He looked older, like, well, a statesman. When he entered he shook hands with everyone on the front row: former Chief Justice Earl Warren, Vernon Jordan of the Urban League, Mrs. Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Congresswomen-elect Barbara Jordan and Yvonne Burke, Julian Bond, Congressman Henry Gonzales, Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, and a gallery of civil rights leaders.
His speech was something of a valedictory address, a retrospect by a man who had come a long way—in stature, in position and in understanding. This was not the President Johnson, exhorting us by his record, that we remembered, opinion poll in his pocket. He was even downright humble. “I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and didn’t do more than I did. But of all the records housed here [in the LBJ library], it is the record of this work that holds most of myself within it, and holds for me the most intimate meaning.”
If the rest of the participants had been rudderless and leaderless, looking back to the past and uncertain of the future, Mr. Johnson had some advice. “All is not lost, all has not been in vain. We have to reorganize and re-evaluate what we have done and where we are. We can’t overcome all injustice and make this a perfect world overnight.”
Mr. Johnson was concerned that while some speakers had taken the positive approach and appealed to President Nixon’s great opportunity to do for civil rights what he did for China, others had claimed that he was out to dismantle all that President Johnson had accomplished. To Mr. Johnson, that wasn’t the sort of problem you sat around and mumbled about among yourselves. Why, you got out and did something about it!
“If they are going to dismantle all of this work we’ve done, why, then we need to bring it to the attention of the nation. You all get together and go see the President. He’ll see you. And don’t start out by telling him that he’s terrible, because he doesn’t think he’s terrible. Just tell him, ‘Mr. President, we know you want to do what’s right, and we know it’s a lot easier to want to do what’s right than to know what’s right.’ And then you tell him what’s right. He’ll do it.”
Mrs. Johnson was standing up by the podium now, and her concern was no longer hidden. Mr. Johnson had not been supposed to speak at all, according to his physician, and here he had not only given his prepared text, he had handled a potentially serious crisis when the seminar was threatened with disruption, and then had risen to address the crowd extemporaneously. She looked terribly proud of him, but also protective and worried. The former President was not to be denied. The event was just too important to let it end on the wrong note.
And so, looking out at the crowd, his eyes twinkling but his gestures slower, more measured, he offered his help.
“I can’t provide much go-go anymore, but I can provide hope and encouragement—sell a few wormy calves now and then—to see that we continue.”
As he left, the group broke up again into little pockets of divided leadership. Somehow we felt that we had seen the last of the great cooperative efforts on civil rights, at least for a long while. It is as easy for us to imagine President Nixon speaking about selling “a few wormy calves” as to imagine him speaking to a collection of civil rights leaders with the same hard-won wisdom and the same sincerity as Mr. Johnson did.
President Johnson was a giant, and remains one. What he did wrong, he did royally wrong; what he did right, he did royally right. Events are out of his control now, and we seem fated to be led by less imaginative, less colorful, less real people.
As for the seminar on “Equal Opportunity in the United States,” what it left was a big, hovering question mark. The legislation is passed, the departments created, the federal registrars sent, all years ago. While most of the leaders at the seminar agreed that the problem now is not so much racial as economic—with blacks, chicanos and poor whites all pretty much in the same boat—none of them knew what to do about it, and few of them had much confidence.
The only person throughout the two-day seminar who said “we shall overcome” was President Johnson. He seemed to believe it.