Atticus Finch, LBJ and Glam Rock
Atticus Finch a racist? A Southern good ol’ boy?
When word first leaked out that one of the South’s most heroic figures of the 20th century – fictional or not – had suddenly developed feet of clay, the shock was as emotional as learning that kindly ol’ granddad was a bloodthirsty gangster.
How could this character – so beloved by all but those who expressed their political beliefs by wearing sheets with holes – have betrayed us?
If you have followed our Power Attorneys program through the years, you’ll know one thing – To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch has inspired many an attorney. “Once I saw To Kill a Mockingbird, I knew I was going to be an attorney,” reads many an answer to our question: ‘When did you know you wanted to be an attorney?’
Harper Lee’s character, reportedly based on her own father, has had an impact.
I know this personally; I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird about 30 times. I obviously love it and I always find something new in it. Part of it is that the text is full of subtlety and part of it is that great literature can affect you differently depending on where you are in life. Part of it is also that I feel I should put my English degree from TCU to work.
So when I was around other literary-minded folk, I would sometimes throw down the controversial opinion that St. Atticus Finch was not a good father. My reasoning? Atticus should have known that the forces of evil were not vanquished by his courtroom heroics, that his children were vulnerable, particularly when dressed as a ham (Symbolism 101 anyone?).
I made this argument once during a party at a girlfriend’s home. She did three things: Screamed at me; cried; ran to the bedroom and locked the door. The party petered out. Such is the life of an English major. My girlfriend was not alone in her reaction. Atticus Finch worship runs deep.
But in Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, Scout returns to her hometown to find an older Finch who once attended a Klu Klux Klan meeting and says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Wow, that’s hardly going to inspire budding attorneys.
About the same time the Go Set a Watchman furor was erupting, I was reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Passage of Power. I’m several years late, but I continue to be fascinated by that intricate, sometime repellent, sometimes awe-inspiring, back-slapping Texas wheeler-dealer. There was no back LBJ didn’t slap, no itch he didn’t scratch, sometimes right in front of the world, no vote he didn’t lie, cheat, trade, barter or outright buy to grab. (Side note: there are a lot of lessons for today’s politicians to learn from LBJ.)
LBJ counted votes. As the previous volume of Caro’s sweeping biography makes clear, Johnson got things done and he was in a hurry. Time was wasting. Johnson men died young, LBJ knew and he had things to do.
None of our Power Attorneys ever said LBJ inspired them to be attorneys. Moral leadership? Few would accuse our 36th president of that. That was for John F. Kennedy. Profiles in Courage. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
But LBJ had a flashpoint – and it was a big one, not just for him, but for the country: civil rights.
His staff knew it. There was none of his political chicanery here. This was pure Johnson, the Johnson who grew up poor, truly dirt poor at times and who taught – and fought for – his Hispanic students in Cotulla, Texas. Johnson’s inclusion of Mexican-Americans in the struggle for equality and the call for a federal Voting Rights Act is another – but related – story.
Here’s one story from Caro’s book that stands out. I didn’t know of it before I read the book and I’ll bet few do. If a president did something like this today, cable news would analyze it to death. Somehow it escaped the attention of all but a few at the time.
Shortly after Johnson became president he asked Gerri Whittington to join his secretarial staff in the White House. She was the first black executive secretary in the White House.
On New Year’s Eve of 1963, Johnson was at the LBJ Ranch, resting after the tense, difficult months following the Kennedy assassination. Many members of his staff were gathering at the Forty Acres Club in Austin to celebrate an aide’s birthday. Johnson decided to go, but Lady Bird begged off. So Johnson gathered his secretaries and boarded a helicopter for the flight to Austin.
The Forty Acres Club was on the campus of the University of Texas and, like many places at the time, was segregated. Segregation was enforced and had been a few years earlier when a Peace Corps official was denied admittance. It could have been trouble. Because he was from the South and was known to be a close ally of Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana – one of the Senate’s staunchest defenders of segregation – liberal Democrats were always wary of Johnson and his motives on Civil Rights.
Members of Johnson’s own staff were worried that the president’s attendance at a segregated club would send the wrong message. But few wanted to tell him no. That wasn’t a wise career choice.
So Secret Service agents entered the club and took up their positions. Then Johnson walked in. Walked in arm-in-arm with Whittington.
One guest turned to presidential aide Bill Moyers and asked, “Does the president know what he’s doing?” Moyers replied, “He always knows what he’s doing.”
Whittington also asked Johnson the same question. According to the story, Johnson replied to her: “I sure do. Half of them are going to think you’re my wife, and that’s just fine with me.”
As LBJ often said when he wanted to do something, “What the hell is the Presidency for anyway?”
The segregationist policy at the Forty Acres Club was no more. The next day, an attendee from the previous night called up the club and asked if black guests were now allowed. The man who answered said, “Yes, sir. The president of the United State integrated us on New Year’s Eve.”
It’s quite a story and one reason I slog through Caro’s slow, meticulous trudge through LBJ’s life.
The stories of the fictional Atticus and all-too-real LBJ make me think of David Bowie’s song “Heroes.” From the former glam rocker’s Berlin period. The song, written as the Cold War was heating up again in the late 1970s, tells a Romeo and Juliet-like story of two lovers from either side of the wall – then East Berlin and West Berlin – risking their lives for love.
The key line is “We can be heroes just for one day.”
And maybe that’s the way it is with people – real and fictional. Maybe we only have it in us to be heroes for one day, not every day of our lives. But what a glorious – maybe world changing – day.
Robert Francis is editor of Fort Worth Business