Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Texans who were presidents, vice-presidents

Upon the inauguration of our 44th president, I’ve been thinking about the roles Texans have played in the government of our nation. The Georges Bush are not the only Texans to have been involved in U.S. government.

The "Presidents George Bush" are East Coast by birth and Texans by grace. Being born in Texas is required to be considered a "native" Texan. W was born in New Haven, Conn., while HW was born in Milton, Mass. and grew up in Connecticut. Of course, W grew up here, so he’s a "naturalized" Texan. Laura Bush and daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are native Texans. But the "native versus natural" debate is a whole different column for another time.

One of the most notable Texans in history was Lyndon Baines Johnson. He became our 36th president due to a series of unfortunate circumstances about which many Texans find way too painful to talk. So painful, in fact, that if you don’t know how he became president in 1963, I’d just rather you go look it up.

Johnson was born near Stonewall, which is somewhere by the Pedernales River. He graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College, which is now Texas State University-San Marcos, and was a Texas school teacher for awhile. His subject was public speaking and debate, and folks, he was the grand master of persuasion.

Johnson joined the Navy reserves after December 1941 and while he was still in Congress. He asked for a combat post, but got sent to inspect shipyards instead. I imagine this ticked him off a whole heck of a lot, too. Texans such as Johnson love a good fight and I’m guessing he was not thrilled with the prospect of poking around docks in Texas and the West Coast, which is where he ended up before a short, albeit exciting, tour of the South Pacific.

Johnson was an intelligence-gatherer, a talker and a showman of epic proportions. He had a persuasive style people called "the treatment" which he used depending on his target’s weaknesses, convictions and desires. According to those who knew Johnson, mimicry, humor and the genius of analogy made "the treatment" an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless. Some historians called Johnson the most effective Senate majority leader in the history of the United States.

He’s also remembered for picking up his beagle, Him, by his ears. Johnson caught a lot of heat for that from the public, but the dog seemed to have forgiven him.

Johnson has been remembered for a lot of things, among them that he was the president who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965.

He credited his years as a public school teacher for his decision to sign these acts.
"I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor," Johnson said in his address to students at Southwest Texas State after having signed the Higher Education Act. "And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American."

I’m rather proud of the fact that it was a Texan who helped open the doors of education to all Americans.

A little personal sidebar about Johnson: when he came to Southwest Texas State University for that address, my father presented the president with a photograph of the school’s Old Main building at night with a full moon over it. Daddy took that photo. A copy of it hung over our fireplace until a fire at my parents’ home destroyed it in 2000.

I could spend a lot of newspaper space on Johnson, but there is another Texas politician you might not know about and he deserves a little spotlight, too.

John Nance Garner, who was the 44th Speaker of the House of U.S. Representatives and the 32nd Vice President of the United States, was born in Detroit, which is in Red River County. He began his career as a lawyer. He had a habit of calling some journalists rather unflattering and profane names that usually were euphemisms for "coward."

I don’t know a whole lot about the guy, but I like him already.

While a member of the Texas State House of Representatives, Garner supported the prickly pear cactus as the plant to represent Texas. The bluebonnet won out instead, but he earned the nickname "Cactus Jack" as a result. Considering his gift for handing out terse and unflattering monikers to others and his blunt personal style, I think it was appropriate.

Garner was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1902 from a newly created congressional district covering tens of thousands of square miles of rural South Texas. He was elected from the district fourteen subsequent times, serving until 1933.

Of the things for which he is remembered, if just barely, is that he supported term limits for presidents and opposed executive intervention in the internal business of Congress. He’s also remembered for being somewhat of a burr under Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential saddle. While the two were in office, they clashed over a whole bunch of issues. Roosevelt ran for a third term; Garner said "Enough!" and went home to Uvalde in 1941.

Garner spent 46 years in American politics. He died 15 days short of what was to have been his 99th birthday making him the longest-living Vice-President in U.S. history and, at this writing, still holds that record.

There are many more Texans who have influenced the way this nation runs, but I can’t fit ‘em all into this column. They’re all colorful characters, whether they mean to be or not. That’s kind of a Texas thing, whether "native" or "natural." I think we’d all be a little disappointed if Texans were anything less that that.

1 comment:

  1. I have to say that I am displeased ( ;) ) that you have forgotten Kinky Friedman! Who can forget that man and live in Texas?!!!