Commiserator In Chief

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In 1965 I spent eight months at Bethesda Naval Hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds and two broken legs received in Vietnam. One day that fall, our corpsmen announced that some of us were to be wheel-chaired to a meeting with the President of the United States. Lyndon B. Johnson was in Bethesda for a gallbladder operation, and we had seen the famous picture of him pointing at his scar, presumably to reassure the American people that he was healthy and fit to run the country.

The young lieutenants and enlisted men sat dressed in their blue hospital garb, awaiting a thank-you or even a pep talk. Many in that room had ghastly wounds or missing limbs from high explosives, bullets, or fire. The President drew himself up and announced, “I know just how you boys feel,” then went on to explain that he had just felt the surgeon’s knife. The room was absolutely quiet, no response except silent amazement being possible. Lady Bird Johnson broke the strange miasma hanging over the place. After a Secret Service agent briskly walked in and called her out, she returned, beaming like a possum up a persimmon tree, to announce that she had some good news. Her daughter Luci had just got her first B in college!

Did President Johnson’s eerie speech to his warriors represent some kind of inability to articulate his war, politically or strategically? As I think back, there was a kind of spiritual brokenness hanging over the man even at that early stage of the conflict.

The redeeming part of the day was furnished by my future wife, Pam, who arrived by Greyhound from West Virginia to visit me at the hospital. Without a pause she walked right through Johnson’s security and unhinged a. guard at an elevator with the simple question, “Does this thing go up?”