• U.S.

The Presidency: Mr. President, You’re Fun

5 minute read

A cream-colored Lincoln Continental driven by the President of the U.S. flashed up a long Texas hill, swung into the left lane to pass two cars poking along under 85 m.p.h., and thundered on over the crest of the hill—squarely into the path of an oncoming car. The President charged on, his paper cup of Pearl beer within easy sipping distance. The other motorist veered off the paved surface to safety on the road’s shoulder. Groaned a passenger in the President’s car when the ride was over: “That’s the closest John McCormack has come to the White House yet.”

It was like that during much of the Easter weekend at Lyndon Johnson’s ranch outside Johnson City. The President may exude slow-spoken, sobersided sincerity during his public appearances in Washington. But let him get a whiff of a spring-fresh Texas range dotted with cattle and Angora goats, and suddenly he comes on like a cross between a teen-age Grand Prix driver and a back-to-nature Thoreau in cow boy boots.

“Whooeee! Whooeee!” One afternoon, the President gazed dreamily around his spread and sighed contentedly to reporters assembled: “The cows are fat. The grass is green. The river’s full, and the fish are flopping.” To prove it, he hopped into his Continental to play tour guide, invited in four reporters, including Hearst’s pretty blonde Marianne Means and two other newswomen. More reporters and photographers scrambled into five other Johnson-owned vehicles, and the whole caravan jounced at high speeds across a pasture, zigzagging around dung mounds and clusters of fat white-faced cattle.*

At one point, Johnson pulled up near a small gathering of cattle, pushed a button under the dashboard—and a cow horn bawled from beneath the gleaming hood. Heifers galloped toward the car while photographers clicked away and the President looked pleased. As he drove, Johnson talked about his cattle, once plunged into what one startled newswoman called “a very graphic description of the sex life of a bull.”

Later, Johnson came across a sow with half a dozen tiny piglets. He stopped and told photographers he would pose for pictures with a pig “if you can catch one.” They started chasing the little pigs, and just as Country Boy Johnson had known all along, the angry sow charged the frightened photographers. While the city slickers fell all over themselves eluding the sow, Johnson guffawed exuberantly, honked his cow horn repeatedly and roared, “Whooeee!

Whooeee!” Finally, a pig was run to ground, and the President dutifully posed. During the tour, Reporter Means, her baby-blue eyes fastened on Johnson, cooed: “Mr. President, you’re fun.”

That Sky. Through all the fun, the President sipped beer from his paper cup. Eventually, he ran dry, refilled once from Marianne’s supply, emptied his cup again, and took off at speeds up to 90 m.p.h. to get more. Reporters in the cars behind could scarcely keep up, and all kept a wary eye on their speedometers. In the President’s car, someone gasped at how fast Johnson was driving. Quickly, Lyndon took one hand from the wheel, removed his five-gallon hat and flopped it on the dashboard to cover the speedometer. Later, White House Press Secretary George Reedy—in a statement almost as foolhardy as the President’s driving—tried to deny that Johnson had exceeded Texas’ 70 m.p.h. speed limit.

At sunset, after two hours of hair-raising sightseeing, Johnson sped to a lonely granite knob that overlooks miles of ranchland. Suddenly meditative, he gazed at the stunning panorama before him. “Look at that sky,” he said. “Why would anyone want to leave here and go back and fight.”

*Other U.S. Presidents were high-velocity types too. Ulysses S. Grant was fined for driving a horse-drawn carriage down M Street at an “unreasonable” rate of speed. Woodrow Wilson’s driver scared the daylights out of newsmen by “reckless driving and excessive speed.” In 1919, two reporters died in crashes while trying desperately to keep up with Wilson’s car. In 1921, state cops clocked Warren G. Harding’s car at 38 m.p.h. as it zipped through Hyattsville, Md. The speed limit was 15 m.p.h., but no arrest was made. After he left office, Harry Truman was stopped for cutting in front of a patrol car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And Dwight Eisenhower used to be in such a hurry to get from Washington to his Gettysburg farm that reporters insisted they sometimes hit 100 m.p.h. on narrow Maryland highways trying to keep up. In 1957, vigilant state cops ordered part of the presidential motorcade to pull over, told trailing reporters they would have to obey the 55-m.p.h. limit, but allowed Ike’s car to whip along up to 70 m.p.h.

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