LBJ: The Tall Tale Texan

Say what you will about Lyndon Baines Johnson — and people have said all kinds of things about him — the man who was born this week (Aug. 27) in 1908 had a razor sharp wit. Once, as vice-president, LBJ went on a “fact finding” tour to Africa, and at one stop an African leader said to him, “Mr. Vice President, is it true that you were born in a log cabin?”

“No, no, you are confusing me with Abraham Lincoln,” Johnson replied, before pausing and adding, “I was born in a manger.”

He was also a great storyteller, as are most denizens of the Lone Star State, but our 36th president — famous for landmark Civil Rights legislation as well as the debacle in Vietnam — truly had a Texan’s knack both for telling a good story and using it as a political parable.

To illustrate American grit and flexibility in the face of hard times, for example, Johnson loved to tell the story of the Depression-era job applicant desperately seeking a teaching position.  A member of the school board asked him if the world was round or flat.

“I can teach it round or flat,” the applicant responded without hesitation. “You make the call.”

But one of Johnson’s (and my) favorite stories was the one he would tell to illustrate the fact that absolutely no act of self-promotion was too low or shameless for a politician.

The story goes like this:  In the early 1930s in Louisiana, convicted murderers were sometimes executed by public hanging.  Naturally, these hangings attracted large crowds of onlookers, many of whom, we can suppose, attended for motives not solely relegated to the need to see justice served.

In any case, the one legal addendum to this public hanging custom was that the condemned was allowed five minutes to say his (or her) “last words” in public — whatever they might be.  So on the day in question the sheriff, having led the condemned man — let’s call him Slim — up to the gallows, turned to him and said loud enough for the crowd to hear, “Slim, in accordance with the laws and customs of the great state of Louisiana, you have five minutes to say your piece before going on to your just reward.”

All eyes turned to Slim, who squirmed, looked down at his feet, and finally turned to the sheriff and said, “You know me, sheriff.  I ain’t much for words. Let’s jes’ get on with it.”

Suddenly a hand went up and a voice in the crowd shouted out, “Excuse me, but if he doesn’t want his five minutes, can I have them?!  I’m Bob Mason and I’m running for city council in next month’s election!”