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The man from Stonewall

By February 6, 2015 One Comment

Here’s the story the way the docent tells it. There are two halves to the boyhood home of Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of these United States. You can pick them out if you look. The close side belonged to the Mr. Johnson, himself a politico, father of the President; and the far side–the side beyond the center section– belonged unquestionably to Mrs. Johnson, an educated woman of significant standing and righteous determination despite the lamentable excesses of the occasional rapscallion she married.

Look closely at the far left of the picture.  A railing surrounds the far corner of the house, a railing that encloses what amounts to an open classroom where Mrs. Johnson created something of a school. She taught local kids–children of low means–the social skills she believed they needed, including lessons in elocution. Her prize pupil was her son Lyndon, the future President, who learned right there on the far side of the house how to speak with style and grace.

In the foreground, where the bush stands, LBJ’s father created a wholly different place across the road from propriety, where he and his male visitors held forth while managing a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigar in the other. Here political talk went on for hours, and a whole backroom of jokes were repeated in sometimes luxurious profanity, a different species of elocution. Once in a while, Little Lyndon, out of his mother’s sight, would sneak into that side of the house, lie on a couch or chair, and listen in through the window screen. 

I don’t know that any of that really helps us to understand the nation’s 36th President–we’re always a bit more than the sum of our parts–but the mix of righteousness and ribaldry, of moral commitment and foul language that characterized LBJ was likely born here, at this two-sided house and home. 

I haven’t seen the movie, but the word went out quickly that former aides were less than thrilled at the way LBJ was featured in Selma. Their claim is that not only did LBJ not stand in the way of what Martin Luther King was fighting for (as suggested in the movie), he actively supported MLK and racial equality and did so heroically, given the deeply-held prejudices in places like Stonewall, the Texas village where young Lyndon grew up. 

The defense, created by Ava DuVernay, who directed and, in part, wrote the script for Selma, was simply to say that Selma didn’t purport to be academic history; instead, it wanted to tell a grand story that would illuminate the character of MLK as well as that dark and heroic period in the history of American race relations. 

That defense suggests LBJ’s old friends were probably right. But then, for years, LBJ has been easy to kick around.

Still, it was his mother’s Lyndon who wouldn’t buckle to the opposition and his father’s Lyndon who bullied Congress into enacting the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It may well have been both of his parents’ Lynden who took on the “war on poverty” and created Medicare and Medicaid, “Great Society” legislation. After all, both mother and father were old-fashioned Democrats sworn to get the work done that FDR could not. It may well have been only Lyndon’s Lyndon who made him the hero the movie didn’t. 

I’ll admit it. LBJ was never among my favorites. 

In 1964 and 65, I was a high school gym rat, oblivious to what was happening beyond the signs at either end of Main Street in the small town where I lived. By 1968, four years after LBJ whacked Barry Goldwater in one of the most lopsided elections of all time, I was politically engaged enough to cheer when LBJ announced he would not run again for President. I was on a Ft. Lauderdale beach, at a dance, where someone shouted the news into a mike after some local band played something akin to “In A Gadda-Davidda.” It was Spring Break ’68, and in a crowd of college students I was, well, anti-war.

What on earth did I know?

We visited the man’s boyhood home this week, found it haphazardly along a obscure Texas highway; and as I walked the grounds I realized that LBJ didn’t stand a chance of gaining my favor. In high school, when what politics I had was my father’s earnest Republicanism, LBJ was the enemy, creating social programs as if government were the savior it would never be, Dad would say. What’s more, LBJ sided with a known socialist agitator named Martin Luther King.  So said my father. Case closed.

In the Sixties, when my politics took a 180-degree turn, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a bloody villain for stepping up the Vietnam War when the whole Southeast Asian war was a moral horror.

From the right and from the left, he was reprehensible. 

He became–and I’m sure I’m not the only one to say it–yet another victim of the Vietnam War. He didn’t spend a day in a rice paddy, probably never shouldered a M16, may never have smelled napalm; but the man who grew up in Stonewall, Texas, surrounded by poverty, got himself slain by a war he had himself escalated, a war that changed all of us. 

In my mind the poor guy never really had a chance to shine, and he really was “the little fellows friend.” 

This is a shed just out back of the house where he grew up. Thought you might like to see it. It doesn’t make him a hero any more than his mother made him a Senator or his father a wheeler-dealer politico. It’s simply the place the man lived, the 36th President of the United States. 

Like all of us, I guess, he was part-this, part-that, and part-mystery. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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