Mob Rule: Part 31
The campaign begins to blur into a never-ending series of speeches, hotel rooms and handshakes until Lyndon B. Johnson offers Jack some Texas-style hospitality
By John Armstrong
It was just after ten when the phone rang. Personally, I had no plans to get up ever again unless forcibly removed at gunpoint. We were still in bed with a room service breakfast going cold on a tray; somewhere between the coffee and the first slice of toast it had been jettisoned in favor of more pressing activities.
I stuck a pillow over it and it stopped for second then began ringing again almost immediately. Ignoring it further would just bring someone to knock on the door, so I kissed her one more time and picked it up and was told my presence was required in Bobby and Sydney’s war room. I begged 10 minutes to shower and then had to drag a naked woman halfway to the bathroom before she let me go. I tell you, that kind of thing does wonders for a man’s self-image.
Two floors up the masterminds were sitting on the couch, a coffee table covered in the ever-present piles of paper and a carafe of coffee in the middle. In the guest chair across from them was a large man with a baggy, hound-dog face and a white Stetson hat on his knee. He was wearing something I’d never seen outside the Saturday matinee, a dark blue suit with whipcord piping and shoulder yokes cutting a shallow V on each side of the jacket. The pants ended without cuffs and showed highly buffed cowboy boots with heels. He didn’t need them. Even sitting down I could tell he had several inches on me. I wanted to look out the window and see if there was a big convertible with a set of steer horns on the hood waiting outside at the curb.
Bobby stood up. “Jack, this is Lyndon Johnson. Jack, Lyndon is going to be on the ticket with you as vice-president.”
I hadn’t even considered that. In all the times the presidency had been discussed, at least with me, no-one had mentioned a vice-president and I felt foolish it hadn’t even crossed my mind. In my own defense, I hadn’t had much time to think about anything besides studying for the next stop on the tour. And Vanessa.
Johnson got up and I saw he was at least four or five inches taller than my five-eleven. He stuck out a hand the size of a small ham that swallowed mine up, but didn’t crush it. I instinctively liked the man, before he’d said a word.
“Pleasure to meet you, Jack.” He had a soft voice with just enough drawl to let you know he was a Southerner, but well-spoken and clearly educated. The term Southern gentleman could have been coined for him.
“Lyndon’s a very successful rancher and cotton dealer in Texas and the head of several businessmen’s associations. He was also a schoolteacher. We’re counting on him to help us in the South.” Bobby poured me a cup of coffee and sat back down. I took the other chair, facing Lyndon and the others.
“Does Lyndon get to do the speechmaking when we go down South?” I asked. Lyndon laughed at that and wiped his eyes.
“Well, my only experience at public speaking has been at Grange meetings and calling the square dance at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church Hall. I don’t know that you want me making any speeches. We might have to nail the doors shut to keep them in their seats.”
“You’ll both be giving speeches, lots of them,” Sydney said. “Don’t worry about it, Lyndon. When we started out Jack sounded like the man reading the departure schedule over the PA at Grand Central. Now he whips them up like Billy Sunday.”
“It’s the sort of thing you can get to enjoy while you’re doing it, but you still want to scrub hard with a stiff brush when it’s over,” I said. Johnson laughed again, his shoulders bouncing. There had been a real lack of good humor on the campaign to date, barring Sydney and myself, and when Sydney cracked a joke it was like biting down on what looked like a chocolate and getting a chunk of lye soap.
Sydney pulled out two plastic binders and handed them to Johnson and myself.
“This is the itinerary. Each night you’ll get new sheets with the next day‘s schedule and briefing notes. We’ll run over them with you, but you can get a jump on it and we’ll save time. Now, the travel schedule …”
I was already looking at it and there were a lot of stops on it. If you ever want to find out just how big this country is, set out on a political campaign.
We started the next leg in the Northwest, with Seattle. From what I could see, whoever worked up the schedule had also had hand in designing the game of Snakes and Ladders. We went up and down through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and then down to Colorado, through Nebraska and Oklahoma, and from then on we were really in the South.
(At some point I know we were in Arizona, but for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about it except the heat and the desert, worse even than Vegas. Nevada we sidestepped, so completely was it Mob-run everyone thought it best to tiptoe past as quietly as we could. Utah we had two stops in, Provo and Salt Lake City, and they were the most difficult of the entire trip.
The Saints run Utah like a Sunday School with armed guards and if you like law and order, they have a surplus of it. Personally, I think it’s unfair to ask a man to engage in politics without the aid of alcohol or cigarettes, but we didn’t dare even bring them into the state, not in a place where you can be put in the stocks for drinking a Coke. Half of Vanessa’s wardrobe was illegal to wear and we didn’t even dare sneak down the hall to each other’s rooms; not with ‘chaperones’ on each floor to prevent any such sinning. They don’t insist you become a Mormon to visit Utah, you just have to behave like one. Cohen had said the Siegel group more or less ignores the place, even though it’s in their territory. They collect tax and leave it alone – anything else would be more trouble than it’s worth. I had about the same opinion.
Utah was also the first place the stump speech really changed, full of ‘putting on holy armor ‘and ‘smiting the wicked’ and ‘rooting out sin’. It was grim stuff and they ate it up like ice cream on a hot day. There’s nothing the righteous like so much as punishing the wicked, maybe because all the less violent forms of recreation are denied them. After all, when you take away sex, liquor, dancing, gambling, smoking, and dirty jokes, what the hell else is there to do? I got the impression if they ever did conquer sin, they’d just take turns punishing each other.)
There was a red line across the page after we hit Texas with a speech set for Dallas, then: Stopover, Fredericksburg. I was so used to reading lists of cities and states I thought for a minute it was some town named Stopover in a place called Fredericksburg. I’m from New York, a state with both Cat Elbow Corner and Yaphank. Stopover didn’t even slow me down.
Lyndon said, “No, no – it’s in the Hill Country, West Texas. I thought after all that you might need a bit of regrouping so I’d like you all to be our guests at the ranch for a day or two. These boys say you’ve never been in the Southland before, is that right?”
I said that until this the farthest south I’d been was Manhattan Beach, but I’d been told the South was like going to another country.
He ran his fingers along the brim of his hat and said, “Son, it’s like going to another planet. And I’m from Texas.”
I’m going to skip over a lot of the Northwest. As I’ve said before, every night was much the same thing and you’ve heard it nearly as much as I did. Bobby and Sydney seemed happy with our results and I had Vanessa, which made things far more palatable. I missed Lyndon after he went back to Texas to get his private affairs set up so he could go campaigning but he did come up to Tulsa as he had business there and gave the introductory speech.
For a man who didn’t have any experience in speechifying, as he called it, he seemed born for it. The Oklahomans were his people anyway and he spoke their language. It’s a state built on oil, wheat, and cattle, three subjects a Texan knows firsthand, and the natives of both states are as fiercely independent as alley cats. He got up there and played them like a banjo at a barn dance.
I was struck most by how theatrical he was without actually acting, simple things like raising and lowering his tone, taking his glasses off to speak man-to-man with a room of 400 other men who all felt afterwards they’d shared a private moment with him, even stopping to take a drink. He just simply had a natural talent for being in front of a crowd and getting them to listen; he knew how to get them.
When he got to me he went off script and talked about how though we came from different ends of the country and very different backgrounds, we both believed the same things: Men had a right to choose their leaders, and they had the right to get rid of them them, too. No one should have to pay tax without a say in how the money was used, and that a benevolent dictatorship was still a dictatorship, abhorrent to Americans in principle and in practice. That freedom of religion meant freedom from religion, too, and I had never really thought about it that way. On the East Coast, you didn’t necessarily have to be a Catholic to do business, but you did a lot more of it if you were.
By time he introduced me I knew two things: he truly believed every word of what he said, and if we had to have a president, Lyndon Johnson was the right man for the job.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.