Mob Rule: Part 35
Breaking bread on the campaign trail leaves Jack with a stuffed gut and a deeper view of the divide between North and South
By John Armstrong
We left the ranch early the next morning for San Antonio by car with Lyndon, Vanessa, and myself together in one with Otis so he could coach me and fine-tune the speech for that night. We left so fast we took breakfast with us, coffee in jugs and tortillas and scrambled eggs and sausage in tinfoil packages. The cars had shown up that morning before sunrise and the line of black limousines made for a strange motorcade through the scrubby Texas badlands, like a funeral that had badly misread its directions to the churchyard.
It was about a four-hour drive and we made San Antonio well before noon, in time to nap and shower. It was going to be a long, hot day – in fact, it already was. We had a DAR picnic with one group at 2 p.m., a church supper at five and two speeches in different locations that night.
I read the schedule and tossed it across the seat. I have only so much of the smiling affability that politicking requires to begin with and the internal reservoir needs to fill up between uses. I was going to be running on fumes long before we finished and I said as much to Lyndon. He was lounging in the back seat, squeezed up into a corner so his legs would fit long ways in the car.
“My daddy used to say, the true test of a politician was if you could take a bite of your third slice of homemade pie with one hand and shake hands with the other while holding a baby that’s just crapped its diaper, and keep the smile on your face while you did it, you were a real politician. I seen him do it, too.” Then he pulled his hat down over his face, stretched his long legs out and went back to sleep.
“My daddy used to say, the true test of a politician was if you could take a bite of your third slice of homemade pie with one hand and shake hands with the other while holding a baby that’s just crapped its diaper, and keep the smile on your face while you did it, you were a real politician…”
Despite my complaints it wasn’t so bad, really. The picnic was less work than I was used to as there were no speeches, although I did get introduced to the usual whirlwind of faces and names but I’d been hardened to that over the last six weeks and now that I no longer tried to remember any of it longer than I needed to, it was much less of a strain. I did discover occupational injuries I wouldn’t have guessed at before I entered politics: I could see the endless handshaking causing problems in the arm and shoulder (baby hoisting was another; babies are heavier than you’d think and the fatter they are the more the mother wants you to admire them) but did you know your facial muscles can actually ache after a full day of non-stop smiling? They can, believe me. By the time we were done that day my lips and cheeks had frozen in place like some horrible death grimace and I was afraid they might have to beat the smile off my face with a hammer.
But hands-down the worst of it was the eating and if this was really how he did it, Lyndon’s daddy had earned every vote he got. I’d never eaten so much bad food in my life as I had since entering politics; between the roadside diners on the freeway and the political dinners that preceded my speech, I’d arrived at the theory that if this was how they did it in the old days, the actual voting was probably unnecessary. Just keep the candidates on the campaign trial until there’s only one who hasn’t succumbed to the cuisine and is still standing.
Once we hit the church social and community covered-dish circuit the food we were being given by supporters had improved greatly – those ladies could cook and it was easy to see why most of the men wore suspenders. Braces just give a man more room for comfort and contemplation than a belt does.
The problem was simply quantity and frequency: we had no sooner said our goodbyes to the DAR ladies and wiped the baked beans, apple brown Betty and corn muffin crumbs from our faces than we were whisked across town and seated at the Little Zion church supper with heaping plates placed in front of us.
Everyone wanted us to try their specialty and render a verdict and you couldn’t just tell them it was delicious, you had to prove it – they stood there and waited for you to swallow. By the time we got to the speeches late that night, it was everything I could do to keep it all down and I was too full to even think about a drink. For the first time since Utah I did my act cold sober and while that’s a low sample size, I’m convinced that politics should always be lubricated with high-proof alcohol. The words may stick in your throat without it.
The Zion church was all black, as was the audience for the first of the two speeches. I felt awkward to begin with but in ten minutes I forgot how far from home I was and how much I stood out, they were just that friendly and welcoming. We got back to the hotel past midnight and it seemed I had barely got my pants off when the phone rang to wake me so I could go out and do it again. I never did get to see the Alamo.
For the first time since Utah I did my act cold sober and while that’s a low sample size, I’m convinced that politics should always be lubricated with high-proof alcohol. The words may stick in your throat without it.
The big surprise was that after San Antonio, we travelled by train. Lyndon suggested it and it was a smart call: the masterminds had more room for their meetings, it was just as fast as driving and we could actually stretch out in the observation cars or even sleep lying down in our compartments. Consequently we arrived in much better shape at our destinations.
First up was Dallas. Nothing memorable happened except that were preceded by a man who managed to go on longer than any of the other introductory speakers despite speaking so fast I expected the audience to start bidding. Interestingly, while the speech was about us and our cause, most of what he said seemed to be about him. Finally he stopped to take a drink and Lyndon was at the podium in a flash, shaking his hand and thanking him for the kind words, firmly guiding him away from the microphone with one of those big mitts planted on the man’s back. He didn’t want to go, but he went.
Once again Lyndon wowed them and I coasted home on his momentum, bringing him back up at the end of my speech for a final bow. He grabbed my hand and held it up with his in a victorious looking pose, like a pair of champion wrestlers. Sydney tracked down a photo and used it afterward for everything he printed up, and for the rest of the campaign that’s how we ended each night. I had to keep reminding myself that we hadn’t actually won anything and anyway, it was all pretend. (Just to be clear, all the printed material was carefully presented as being from the American Business Association, our cover for the tour, and made no mention of politics, elections, or other subversive activities. But I don’t see how anyone could have missed its intent anymore than they would a burlesque poster labeled ‘prayer meeting.”)
The hardest part of it was remembering who I was. I don’t know how actors do it, walking into the theatre as one person, spending a few hours as another and then putting their own personality back on to go home in, like it was an overcoat. I had to be Jack the Willing Candidate every second, unless I was alone with Vanessa, otherwise I knew I’d slip up. Fortunately Sydney and Bobby would usually say something to remind me what side I was really on.
The hardest part of it was remembering who I was. I don’t know how actors do it, walking into the theatre as one person, spending a few hours as another and then putting their own personality back on to go home in, like it was an overcoat.
We followed a meandering route that made little sense if you were plotting it on a map but worked out nicely with the train schedules. From Texas we rolled into Louisiana and Mississippi, then Alabama and Florida and back up the coast for Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas.
By the time we were in the heart of what the locals referred to as The Deep South, “Cotton Country”, Lyndon was as indispensible as an interpreter as he was politically. You don’t know what the word ‘incoherent’ means until you’ve seen a New York Jew trying to get directions from a Georgian farmer. The more frustrated each got with the other, the less intelligible they became until none of us could understand either one of them. Seeing them red-faced, shouting back and forth in their own language, was an instructive lesson but in what, I’m not sure. Maybe just that Sydney was wrong and that louder isn’t always better.
What else do I remember about the South? It was like a trip to Mars and so overwhelmingly alien it’s hard to convey in words. One last note about food – Do you have any idea what chitlins are? Let me just advise you, if you ever plan on eating one, don’t find out. Grits, on the other hand, sounded terrifying and turned out to be nothing but fried mush, like leftover polenta.
It took some getting used to the names. Orval Faubus? I almost asked the man to prove it. Then again I suppose “Meyer Lansky” or “Albertus Anastasia” would sound unlikely to his ears, too. I did find the multiple first-names most Southern males have to be gallant and dashing sounding, Robert Lee Thisguy and James Earl Whoever. There’s something formal and elegant about the sound, even when the man using it is wearing bib overalls and muddy boots.
It was strange to see rebel flags everywhere, waving from every rooftop and on every pickup truck bumper and store window right down to children’s lunch kits, and especially jarring when the bearer was a Negro. Lyndon said, yes, it might seem odd but “it’s their flag, too. I know it’s different up North but down here, it doesn’t just stand for slavery.”
(Not that there was just one flag – they have dozens, unique to each state and its regions, and all of them striking. The one we northerners know on sight, the famous – or infamous, as you prefer – “southern cross” with its great blue X and stars running criss-cross it from corner to corner, was actually the standard of the Army of Northern Virginia. The official flag of the confederacy was the proper “stars and bars”, blue and red horizontal stripes with a circle of 13 stars representing the rebel states in the canton, the upper lefthand quadrant. I’d never seen it before. Which just goes to show – you can’t trust Hollywood.)
Gunfire was as commonly heard as car horns; it seems that below the Mason-Dixon line the answer to the old question “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”, is “Yes.” Where we might cheer or whistle, they just shoot a few rounds into the air to show their appreciation. I learned that the first time someone expressed approval during one of my speeches by squeezing a few off into the ceiling. I was already under a table by the second shot, which got sustained laughter. I ad-libbed that “ducking should not necessarily be seen as an admission of guilt.”
Gunfire was as commonly heard as car horns; it seems that below the Mason-Dixon line the answer to the old question “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”, is “Yes.”
It also took some getting used to the sight of men in uniform and I never really did. The South was filled with militias in either the soft grey or butternut brown Confederate colors, the crossed swords insignia on their flat-topped kepi hats. These sort of armed, trained groups were forbidden by the Bosses but down South they got around it by calling themselves historical societies and those in power exercised the better part of valor by letting it go. I think that was a wise choice; every so often we’d come across several hundred of them out in the woods “recreating” some battle, the air filled with gun smoke and bloodcurdling Rebel yells, which until you’ve heard it in full cry, can’t really be described. I wouldn’t have wanted to try taking their guns away. It’s a “Wa-Hoo” holler, part Indian war-whoop and part wild animal scream, that encompasses sheer joy at the thought of mayhem and murder and a matter-of-fact, don’t-give-a-damn-if-I-die, cheerful indifference. If I ever get to hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a lot of it but I’d as soon never hear it again while I’m still alive.
They wore their uniforms to our speeches as well, and if I’ve given the impression we just coasted along from success to success, that all changed in Alabama.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.