“I Reckon You’re One Of Them New York Doves”

Showing tourists through the Oval Office replica in his library in 1971.
lbj library/frank wolfe2006_6_56

During my two years of Army service in the early fifties I had worked for a brigadier general in Alabama as a military public relations man, a job mysteriously requiring a high-grade security clearance. Now I remembered that when I was being discharged from the Army, I had been told by a soldier in personnel that throughout my service I had been “tagged,” though never harassed, as a possible security risk. Why? Because, he said, I was a graduate of Chicago, which at the time was considered a “Commie institution” by many Illinois lawmen.

Had I also been tagged for my appearance at the National Book Awards seven years later? Yes, indeed. A friend, who had also been at Philharmonic Hall that night, years later showed me his Freedom of Information Act file, which included portions of the Times story and disapprovingly mentioned both of us.

I reached the ranch in the late afternoon, having been passed through a barrier by an agent in plain clothes, and pulled up in my rental car alongside a handsome two-story house and, I was amused to see, three identical Lincoln Continentals. I literally followed my nose into a kitchen, guided by the splendid odor of baking bread. The two bakers were a hefty, smiling black woman with a kerchief on her head and Lady Bird Johnson, who greeted me warmly as she wiped the batter off her hands. Quickly disposing of her apron, she briskly said, “Let’s go, he’s waiting for you.”

She picked one of the Continentals and drove me a mile or so, where another Lyndon Johnson appeared before me. He had shed suit and tie in favor of a cowboy outfit and was standing close to and in earnest conversation with a handsome thirtyish woman, pointedly introduced to me by Mrs. Johnson as the wife of their ranch foreman. LBJ came over to us and dryly asked me if I had decided to walk from Austin. I remember replying, in a compliment to the land he loved, that the walk would have been very beautiful.

How did I feel about the difference between my beliefs and the contents of the manuscript I’d be editing?

He was eager to show me the ranch before twilight and took Lady Bird’s place at the wheel. As she moved in beside him, I climbed into the back seat. But the car remained still for a few moments, and as we sat in silence, I began to wonder if there was a mechanical problem—until another Continental pulled up next to us. LBJ turned toward me and asked, “What’ll you have?” I realized that the two men in the car beside us were Secret Service agents acting as sommeliers. The Johnsons were already being served, and I asked for whatever my hosts were having. That indeed turned out to be bourbon.

And so, off we went—not at 90 miles an hour but at a more or less moderate pace. We often slowed and stopped for closer looks at the African animals—kudu, impala, wildebeest, eland—gifts from this or that tropical president. LBJ was particularly proud of his ability to summon these creatures from the wilds with a variety of whistles and calls. In fact, the rapport of animal and man was extraordinary.

The Secret Service men kept pace with us as we drove through the fading daylight in the vastness of the ranch. We stopped a number of times for bourbon refills, and we got back to the house in deep dusk. Mrs. Johnson excused herself to see to dinner, but LBJ wanted to show me still more. By this time I was close to staggering with weariness and drink and the utterly unexpected events of the day. What LBJ proudly showed off—what little I could see by then—was, as he told me, a newly installed covered pool that would allow for winter swimming.

It was nearly dark by now, and I was following my host toward the house when he suddenly stopped. So did I, fortunately, as I could hear the familiar sound of an ample urination.

We entered the house, I just in time to avoid following his example.

At the table in the unpretentious dining room, I bowed my head while LBJ said grace, and a Filipino cook served pork chops and the freshly baked bread, which tasted as good as it had smelled. I remember my fear of falling asleep as Johnson quizzed me in detail about New York City politics. Then he slipped out of the room without a word, leaving me to chat with Mrs. Johnson. He soon returned, in yet another outfit, only to disappear wordlessly out the door. Mrs. Johnson said that her husband was going to the dance in town.

Lady Bird (as she now told me to call her) soon kindly showed me to a secondfloor bedroom. This room, she informed me, had been renovated six years earlier for President and Mrs. Kennedy after their visit to Dallas. “They never arrived,” she said.