In 1964, while working as a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, Jim Lehrer began writing a novel about the most famous site in his hometown of San Antonio. No, it wasn’t Joske’s. It was the Alamo, the Shrine of Texas Liberty, as local patriots were inclined to call it, a place so sacred visitors had to go across the street to use the restroom.
Lehrer’s first book was Viva Max!, one that is more interesting for its conception than for its literary qualities. Published in 1966, it recounts the quixotic plan of a likable Mexican general named Maximilian Rodriguez de Santos who commands a small garrison in Nuevo Laredo. He and his men are accustomed to purely ceremonial functions, such as attending the annual parade celebrating George Washington’s Birthday, held in Laredo. Until, that is, Max comes up with a bold idea that is sure to make him a hero of his country.
Without telling his troops their goal, he marches them north, passing through little towns like Dilley, which the book calls the strawberry capital of the world. Accosted by the city’s marshal, Max explains that he and his men are going to San Antonio to appear in a John Wayne movie about the Alamo. In reality, Max plans to seize the mission and reclaim it for Mexico.
When they reach their objective, the soldiers easily enter the Alamo and take 27 hostages. (One, a woman who belongs to an organization modeled after the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the group that runs the mission, denounces Max as a Red and fumes throughout the siege.) To express their love for their country, Max and his men take a painting of John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Laurence Harvey representing Alamo defenders Crockett, Bowie, and Travis and turn it to the wall.
Soon the national press gloms on to the story, and Lehrer reveals a sure understanding of how the media can define and distort reality. The president, an LBJ-figure known simply as “the Chief,” who proves to be a humane and masterly exponent of political savvy, is brought into the action. After he meets with Max at the Alamo, the novel cuts to its close, in Mexico City, where an exact duplicate of the Alamo has been constructed. Max has won the battle; viva Max!
In 1969 the novel was made into a film that starred Peter Ustinov. Lehrer’s mild depiction of DRT outrage failed to match the intensity of the real thing, however, when the movie was filmed on location. The president general of the DRT fought to keep it from being made and refused to allow the crew to shoot inside the Alamo. In that instance, at least, its defenders were successful. Lehrer continued his writing career but became more famous as a wise man of public television. He can still be seen in the evenings hosting his program NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.