Essays - Autumn 2011

LBJ’s Wild Ride

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Hanging on for dear life during the 1960 campaign

LBJ and Lady Bird in 1959, on the dam that was also a bridge to and from their ranch on the Pedernales River (Frank Muto/LBJ Library)

By Ernest B. Furgurson

August 25, 2011


 

 

As the Luci B banked low and slow over Stonewall, Lyndon Johnson’s neighbors ran into the streets of the little Texas town to wave up and welcome him home. The twin-engine plane circled once, then headed for the LBJ Ranch, two and a half miles east, and blew up a cloud of dust as it settled onto the landing strip. It was the first time Johnson had come back to his home by the Pedernales River since starting his campaign as John F. Kennedy’s vice presidential running mate.

That summer of 1960, America was not yet familiar with Johnson’s outsized personality, or with his beloved home place in the Texas hill country. In the next few years, prime ministers and generals would shuttle in and out of the LBJ Ranch when he was vacationing there, and the White House press would spread tales and pictures about his Texas-scale generosity when he was playing host. Stonewall and nearby Johnson City would become datelines flashed around the globe, and the ranch by the river would be remembered in world history.

During Johnson’s vice presidential campaign, however, only a handful of reporters traveled with him. He was Senate majority leader and had been a national political figure longer than Kennedy, but the nation’s eyes were on the sexy young presidential candidate. The Johnson entourage was an intimate group, rather than the increasingly huge extravaganza of staff, security, reporters, and cameramen that accompanies today’s presidential contenders. When Johnson returned to Texas during that 1960 campaign, the few journalists covering him stayed at the ranch as his guests.

When we arrived that first time, the senatorial staff had sent names ahead and had listed me by nickname. Lady Bird and I had never met, so she didn’t know where to put this Pat (Patsy? Patricia?) Furgurson. Somebody with a clipboard pointed me to a bedroom upstairs in the ranch house, and I was unpacking my bag when one of the young secretaries walked in with hers. She and I were booked to share the room, which seemed a pleasantly progressive concept until the error was corrected and I was banished to the guesthouse along with the other traveling males.

That night we few reporters sat by the pool under the brilliant stars and listened to Lyndon’s version of how and why he had accepted the vice presidential nomination at the Los Angeles convention. Next day we took a dip while Johnny Mathis crooned “Chances Are” from a loudspeaker in the overhanging live oak tree; Johnson tolerated but did not enthuse about the jukebox favorites of his daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. With him we did the ceremonial tour of the ranch as he talked about expanding the airstrip and pointed out the attributes of his prize bull. Occasionally he invited one of us to have breakfast, featuring what he called “deer meat” sausage.

It was up close and personal coverage. Given the standards of the day, none of us had serious reservations about the impropriety of accepting Johnson’s hospitality while covering him, or if we did, we didn’t voice them. Being there was invaluable to our work, indeed was the only way we could cover him during those occasional breaks from the road. Although there was no discussion about ground rules, everything said casually was assumed to be off the record, but would inform our reporting as we went along. He and we were getting to know each other better. We couldn’t have done that if we had been in a hotel room back in Austin while he was at the ranch. But in later campaigns, especially after Watergate, we would shy away from the slightest appearance of being in any way indebted to a politician. Suspicions rise, standards change.

One night we flew back to the ranch from Rochester or some other place in upstate New York, riding in a chartered Lockheed Electra, a wonderful plane except that others like it were dropping like shot ducks across the country. As we approached the thinly paved airstrip near the house, Johnson sat himself in the jump seat of the big, four-engine turboprop, wearing yellow-and-white-plaid, Bermuda-short pajamas and peering out between the pilots. In one hand he held a Scotch and soda, and with the other he pointed, directing the pilot to circle around here, go over that barn, and drop down just over that telephone pole with the red light on top at the end of the strip. The pilot glided down, then suddenly gunned the engines, pulled up, and went around again. This time he committed himself (and us), plopping that big plane down so hard it bounced several times, then backing up the props and sending us straining against our seat belts. After we all said whew and unloaded, he taxied to the end of the strip, pivoted about, and ran his engines up to maximum rpm before he let off the brakes. The plane lurched ahead and rotated abruptly upward, its folding wheels barely clearing the telephone pole with the red light at the other end.

The next day, Johnson took us to inspect the deep dents the landing had left in his airstrip. He wanted the pilot to come back from Austin and pick us up. Lady Bird said, No way is that big plane coming back in here in the heat of the day. Johnson insisted, and called the pilot, who emphatically agreed with Lady Bird. So we squeezed into a couple of light planes and ferried to Austin before heading back into the campaign.


At the ranch again 11 days before the election, four of us piled into Johnson’s white Lincoln Continental, with him at the wheel, and drove to a speech he would give at Marble Falls, about 35 miles from the ranch. As I recall, the four were Dick Lyons of The Washington Post, Bill Becker of The New York Times, Murray Fromson of CBS, and myself of The Baltimore Sun. Maybe there was one other. The speech was in an old movie theater, remindful of the one in The Last Picture Show. While Johnson assured a few hundred sun-bronzed ranchers that “Jack Kennedy believes in separation of church and state,” a thunderstorm boomed outside, drowning out much of what he said. We emerged into a cloudburst, rain sheeting down, and ran for the car.

Johnson decided to stop on the way back at his close friend Judge A. W. Moursund’s house. When we splashed in, the judge and Mrs. Moursund greeted us with Lone Star enthusiasm, as if  they had been expecting us for days. After a couple of drinks, perhaps more, we headed out into the storm again. Johnson carried his Scotch and soda, and before he opened the car door he stopped and sat the drink atop the car. As he said goodbye over his shoulder to the judge and his lady, who were standing on the porch, the Senate majority leader and candidate for vice president of the United States stood there in the storm, unzipped, and relieved himself beside his Lincoln Continental. Then he zipped up, and we headed into the night.

There were no lights along the narrow ranch roads. The rain was still gushing down. The windshield wipers had no effect at all. I sat beside Johnson in the right front seat. The only thing we could see ahead was the reflection of the headlights against the rain, just beyond the bumper. Lyndon drove with one hand and sipped his drink with the other. Then he had an idea. “Pat,” he said, “look in that dashboard and see if there isn’t some candy in there.” I looked, and pulled out a Whitman’s Sampler, a one-pound box of assorted chocolates. He passed me his drink and took a few. Then he alternated chewing chocolates and sipping Scotch, as I handed him one and then the other. I thought of some bovine similes from my boyhood: the world around us was as dark as the inside of a cow, and it was raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. We were not as concerned about it as we would have been cold sober.

When we had left for Marble Falls that afternoon, the Pedernales River was trickling about an inch deep across the little dam that served as a bridge to and from the ranch. Returning, we heard it before we saw it. Johnson slowed but kept driving. Visibility was so poor that he didn’t realize what lay ahead until the front wheels were at the end of the dam. A torrent of water roared just beyond the bumper. Johnson eased the low-slung Lincoln closer, trying to make up his mind whether to cross. We sat there at least two minutes as machismo and Scotch whiskey wrestled against common sense. I wouldn’t be telling this if common sense hadn’t won.

Johnson reached for his CB radio and called the ranch house. There was a lot of crackling. “Tell Marvin to get in that pickup and come over here and get us,” he shouted. We sat staring, marveling at the flood until pinpoint headlights appeared across the dam and crept slowly toward us. The roaring river skimmed the frame of the truck. The driver was Marvin Watson, later a White House insider, U.S. postmaster general, and president of Occidental International. Johnson backed the Lincoln far enough to allow the pickup to clear the flood and turn around so that we could pile in. I lucked out again by getting into the right front seat, while two or three of my colleagues were in the open truck bed. I forget whether Johnson sat on my lap, or I sat on his. The truck pushed a bow wave as it eased back across the narrow dam, and the rushing water pushed at the bottom of the door. At last we made it to the ranch house and dashed in, soaked through and laughing, as the river kept rising. There we had another drink to celebrate what seemed at the time a hilarious adventure, and went to our quarters to turn in.

Next day, the Austin newspaper reported on the storm. “Giant, swirling walls of water, spawned by torrential rains of up to nine inches, snuffed out at least two lives,” it said. “Cars were being pushed around like floating beer cans.” The Associated Press, which wasn’t there, alleged that Johnson had “watched the normally placid Pedernales roar by on a 25-foot rise.” The following morning, the Austin American-Statesman updated the storm’s damage: “Several motorists were washed away in their cars, bringing the final death toll to 11.”

By pure luck, one of those 11 was not me and not anyone I knew, including the senior senator from Texas. And so our lives and that of the nation proceeded, as if the great flood of October 28, 1960, had not happened. On election day, thanks to Johnson’s full-throated campaigning from Houston to El Paso and many points between, John Kennedy won a two-percentage-point victory in Texas and thus the presidency of the United States. Three years later, Kennedy was murdered in Dallas and Johnson became president. Within months, he pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed by Medicare, and a week after that the 1965 Voting Rights Act—and plodded deeper into the morass of Vietnam.

In the half-century since that crazy night, I have often contemplated how different American and world history would have been if we had stayed at the judge’s house for yet another drink, if Johnson had not been overtaken at the last moment by common sense, or if Marvin Watson and the pickup truck had not been there to ferry us across the raging river.


Ernest B. Furgurson is a former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and has written six books of history and biography, including, most recently, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.


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