Wednesday, 16 April 2014

LBJ - what's in a name?

At school, I had - still have - a friend called Matthew who was very good at winning arguments in our Politics and Economics classes. It was far too late in the day that I realised he did this mainly by making up statistics that I believed. Putting me on the back foot, he went in for the kill and won the day, more often than he deserved to. Another little kink he had, when arguing American politics (he didn't much care about it, but it was part of our syllabus), was to add the Presidents' middle names into the debate. Of course, I realise now, he was stalling for time, but it's left me with a lingering feeling that Fitzgerald, Baines, Milhous, Rudolph, Earl, Wilson, and the rest, were more significant names than they really were.

I particularly clearly remember Matthew declaiming about "Lyndon Baines Johnson". It was his mother's maiden name, nothing more interesting than that. No inheritance, no money, no ancestral claim to fame, just that funny way Americans have of needing a middle name. The man himself, however, was much more interesting. He rose to power because of compromise and a bullet. The suave, Bostonian intelligentsia, John F Kennedy needed a bit of rough on his ticket, so he chose the older, more Congressionally experienced, Texan. And then, he was assassinated, and the man he could barely stomach working with became his successor as president, and in 1964 won election in his own right, in a ground-breaking election.

It was ground-breaking because Johnson's support for the Civil Rights Act, and a lot of other social legislation, meant he lost, for the Democrats, the "solid south", for the first time, and for good. It was the last gasp of the Civil War, nearly a century later. For many, Johnson was a liberal hero, and rightly so. Perhaps a most unexpected one, and those are the best kind. He won the election with a far bigger majority than the sainted Kennedy had done in 1960, but you'd never think that to listen to the echoes of their reputations. By 1968, with Vietnam hotting up, he was getting tired and timid, and decided against standing again, as he was entitled to do.

For me, LBJ has a special place because of the story - no idea if it's true, and I don't care - that when challenged to dismiss the powerful and mad J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI, he said "It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.". It is a perfect image of how we must sometimes deal with our enemies.

But in England? In ornithological circles, an LBJ is a "little brown job". Not to be confused with, as Ronnie Barker made famous years ago as a vicar in a Cockney rhyming slang sketch, "a small brown Richard the Third", but just one of those very, very, many small, hardly-coloured, garden birds. Watching from a bench in the park the other day, I couldn't quite fathom what they were. They were zooming in and out of what seemed like a very closely growing hedge, and you just couldn't predict where they would pop up next. Finally, a blackbird arrived, and disappeared, despite its much vaster size, into the hedge, with a stroppy look on its orange beak, and after a moment out popped the LBJs from their tent. They were dunnocks, also known as "hedge sparrows", and although they look a little like sparrows, they are more closely related to robins, as you can see from their physique and beak. And they're not just brown. Especially at this time of year, when all birds are showing off their plumage to best advantage, they have a covering of gentle grey down to their shoulders, before the brown begins. You might say, that's not very exciting, and fair enough I suppose, but there is a school of aesthetic thought that "less is more" and these darling little creatures are exquisite.

So, take your pick - tall American President, or small British brown bird. Just remember the L. And Miss Baines, of course.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2014

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