My Handshake With LBJ
March 24, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
One October afternoon in 1960, I burst through the front door of our home in Columbus, Ohio and announced, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of the next vice-president of the United States,” as I extended my hand toward Mom. She was sitting back on the couch, “resting her eyes” after work, before beginning supper. Startled and confused, Mom ignored my outstretched hand, “What in the world are you talking about?”
“Just shake my hand,” I insisted. She limply put her hand in mine, and I pumped it vigorously. She frowned and stared at me until I released her hand.
“Lyndon Baines Johnson shook my hand today on the front lawn of St. Charles!” I nodded vigorously. “Several of us students were in the hall and saw some guys running out the front door that no one ever uses. Just a big lawn out there. We followed them. The only thing I could imagine was a fist fight,” I said.
The frown lines on Mom’s forehead deepened, and she said, “Surely not.”
“No Mom, not a fight. The first thing we saw were flashing blue lights on police motorcycles and cruisers. A bad accident on Broad Street. Police were moving slowly at the front and the back of a line of black cars. One was a Cadillac convertible with the top down.”
“Oh, yeah. Johnson spoke downtown today. At the Deshler Hotel. So you saw his motorcade coming from the airport?” said Mom.
“Right, several students were ahead of me shouting and waving as they ran across the lawn toward the convertible. Father Wolfe and Father Murphy were running, too, their black cassocks flowing behind them. I was right behind them. The cars stopped and a tall man in a dark suit jumped out of the convertible, waved back, and greeted the first to approach him. We could see him make eye contact, clap his left hand over their handshake, say something, nod, and go to the next student.”
“It was really LBJ?” Mom asked as she sat up and gaped at me, fully awake now.
“Yep, I put my hand out, and he grabbed it with both hands, looked me right in the eye, and said in a deep, gravelly voice, ‘I’m Lyndon Johnson, running with Jack Kennedy. Need your support, you hear?’ For those few seconds, I was totally with him, just the two of us. The others were in the background and I didn’t even hear them. I just nodded, and he was gone. He reached out with his right and left hands, touching everyone’s hand as more students ran up to him. It was wild.”
“He was probably late for his speech. I wonder why he stopped at your high school,” said Mom. “Maybe he saw the St. Charles sign?”
“Maybe. Photographers were snapping pictures of him with the priests in front of the sign. Someone started to chant, ‘All the way, JFK and LBJ’ as he walked back to Broad Street. After he got into the convertible, LBJ stood on the back seat and raised his hands together like a prizefighter. I wish I had my Instamatic.”
“This hand…” I said extending it as if to shake hands.
Mom laughed and asked, “Are you ever going to wash it again?”
“Maybe not. Maybe I’ll always wear a glove,” I said.
“I’m glad it wasn’t that slimy Nixon who’s running with Eisenhower,” Mom said, making a face. “You’d have to scrub your hand with bleach.”
Mom was a loyal Democrat. She faithfully voted for FDR, Harry Truman and the charming and clever, but twice unsuccessful, Adlai Stevenson. Mom’s cousin, who became head of the bricklayer’s local after he fell off a scaffold and broke his back, made sure we received sample ballots with all the Democratic boxes checked before every election. Although a reliable vote for the Democrats, Mom was not enthusiastic about politics.
As a twelve year-old, I couldn’t help but take note of the hoopla surrounding the 1956 presidential campaigns of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Governor Adlai E. Stevenson. Eisenhower’s slogan was “We like Ike.” Lots of ads were on TV. As Dad walked through the living room, I asked, “Do we like Ike?”
He stopped, sat down, and said solemnly “Michael, we’re Democrats. They are for the little guy. The Republicans are for rich people.”
“But do we like Ike?” I asked again.
“Eisenhower’s a good man. He was the Supreme Allied Commander in the war, but he’s become a Republican politician and helps big businesses get bigger and richer. We’re for Stevenson, the Democrat. He cares about people like us and supports the working man, the average person.”
“They’re all crooks,” said my Mom’s brother, a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad who often stayed with us between runs. He did not have strong political views but greatly enjoyed arguing politics. He would oppose whatever side Dad took—just for amusement. Dad knew this, but couldn’t resist responding to his outrageous statements.
“You don’t really think Democrats care about regular people. They’re just politicians,” said Uncle Bill. He delighted in scandals like Eisenhower’s aide who was bribed with a vicuña coat and the Kefauver Committee’s report on crime and corruption. I believed in Dad’s optimistic arguments, but Uncle Bill planted some doubt in my young mind.
Dad was more interested in the election than Mom, but his mother, Grandmother Ryan, was passionate about politics, especially FDR. She often mentioned the Civilian Conservation Corps camp where Dad lived during the summers when he was a teenager. She was raising three boys by herself during the Great Depression, and one less hungry boy at the dinner table was a blessing.
She fondly recalled listening to FDR’s voice resonate during his “Fireside Chats.” The large wood radio with dials, knobs and a rectangle of fabric remained on a bookcase in her apartment. Her devotion to Roosevelt grew during World War II when Dad was fighting in North Africa and Italy, and Uncle Edward was flying over the Himalayas from India to raid the Japanese in China. She followed news from the front closely, penciling her sons’ positions on maps of Europe and China.
A 1919 graduate of Kirksville College, a two-year finishing school in her native Missouri, Grandmother relished the clever witticisms tossed off by Governor Stevenson in his uphill race in 1952 against the popular General Eisenhower. She often repeated his promise: “If the Republicans will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.” Grandmother’s enthusiasm for Stevenson was not shared by a majority of the voters, but she supported him again in his 1956 race for president.
When the 1956 Democratic Convention nearly choose John Kennedy, a young Irish Catholic senator from Boston, for Stevenson’s running mate, she was surprised. She remembered all the slurs against Al Smith, a Catholic from New York in 1928. “They said he would take orders from the pope in Rome,” Grandmother often said, each time with bitter contempt. When she came to Sunday dinner, Grandmother instructed me on politics and her lessons were not non-partisan. She was a big fan of that “handsome, young Irishman, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
I was destined to be a Democrat. At St. Gabriel Elementary, a majority of my classmates were Irish or Italian, and no one admitted their family was Republican. At St. Charles, politics became a major topic of discussion in my junior year as the Kennedy campaign began. Some students saw an opportunity to divert discussion in class from Latin or trigonometry to politics. The priests were clearly following the presidential race and couldn’t resist offering their views when subtly prompted. The discussion that followed was a lot more fun than our lessons.
Bumper stickers for JFK appeared in the parking lot and then on locker doors. When students began wearing buttons touting Kennedy, our principal, Father O’Dea drew the line. “We must not have distractions from our studies. I don’t know if we have any Nixon supporters, but we must respect their views—however misguided they may be. No political badges in class.”
Lots of Kennedy-Johnson badges came out at lunch and at our intramural games of touch football. One group taped a banner behind their table in the cafeteria and signed up students for phone banks and door-to-door canvassing. O’Dea looked on with bemusement. Not every student wore a JFK button, but no one was brave enough to don a “Nixon for President” badge.
On election day, radio reports on long lines at polling places suggested a large turnout. We heard that heavily Catholic neighborhoods like Holy Rosary Parish and Little Italy were crowded with people holding sample ballots in hand waiting for their turn in the voting booth. We were optimistically anticipating a victory for Kennedy and Johnson.
Little was known until the polls closed and precincts began reporting. Dad, Mom, and I gathered around the TV after my younger brothers and sisters were in bed. In the early returns the count fluctuated and the lead shifted several times. No one knew which areas were included in the growing totals. Interviews with Republican stalwarts in suits, ties, and vests warned of the grave danger America would face with a young, inexperienced president. They noted that the Russians had the H-Bomb, and our way of life was under threat from godless, atheistic Communism. Mom was excited to see her cousin, head of the Bricklayers’ Local, on TV in front of a new hospital under construction at Ohio State. He spoke of the Democratic Party’s support for working men and their families.
“Michael, you need to go to bed. It’s a school night. You can read all about the election in the paper in the morning,” said Mom.
“We are watching history in the making. The election of the first Catholic president, and an Irishman, too. Let him stay up,” said Dad. Mom shrugged and went to the kitchen to pack lunches before going to bed. I was delighted. I began to tally the electoral votes on a tablet as the results in the eastern states were announced. I calculated the outcome if Georgia, Texas, and Illinois went for Kennedy and Johnson. We called Grandmother Ryan and reassured her that it wasn’t going to be like 1928 when Herbert Hoover overwhelmed Al Smith. She wasn’t so optimistic, and assured us she was praying for the Irishman.
The Democrat’s lead in early returns began to narrow as my usual bedtime passed. I grudgingly recorded most of the farm states in Nixon’s column. Dad and I got a snacks, a braunsweiger sandwich for Dad, peanut butter on buttered toast for me with big glasses of milk.
Results in Missouri and Texas came in for Kennedy, and we prepared to celebrate. In Illinois, the big Democratic vote from Chicago put JFK over the top. I noted that my new friend, Lyndon Johnson, delivered Texas. Since our brief handshake in front of St. Charles, I read everything I could find about him.
At midnight, the New York Times declared that John F. Kennedy had won the election. A huge headline on their extra edition proclaimed “Kennedy Elected President.” Dad and I stood, hugged, and danced a little jig, but kept our voices down while everyone else slept. It was a special night.
The TV showed Kennedy and Johnson entering from opposite sides of a stage at a victory party, shaking hands in the center and raising their hands like prizefighters.
“Here’s the hand that shook the hand that just shook the hand of President-Elect John F. Kennedy,” I said to Dad. “Shake that hand!” A prolonged handshake followed. I overlapped our hands with my other hand as the new Vice-President Elect Lyndon Johnson did on the front lawn of St. Charles.