In this issue, we observe the 100th birthday of Lyndon Johnson with a memoir by Observer founding editor Ronnie Dugger about the personal and public relationship between the young editor and one of the most powerful men in America. It’s classic LBJ. And classic Ronnie Dugger.
The Texas Observer cut its teeth on LBJ and the politics of the late 1950s, as played out in the Texas Democratic Party. The party was torn between the segregationist Shivercrats, holding most elective offices in the state, and the liberal Democrats, New Dealers led by Ralph Yarborough and Frankie Randolph, first publisher of this magazine. But LBJ was the big dog.
In his drive to accrue power at the state and national levels, Johnson, as Ronnie writes, “played every part.” Both sides of major issues played out in his conversations and his voting record. He watered down civil rights legislation as Senate leader, only to champion the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act as president. On every major political issue, LBJ loomed large.
Who was there to hold him accountable? Well, there was this fresh-faced editor, recently schooled at The Daily Texan, who decided to make real the ideas that independence of thought and independence of the press were cornerstones of our democracy. Here’s how Willie Morris described Dugger in North Toward Home:
Dugger is not only one of the great reporters of our time in America; more than that . . . Dugger will be judged not by what he wrote about corruption, or how to end corruption, but by the sense of fairness in the way he wrote about corruption . . . how to view public life as an ethical process, how to be fair.
Ronnie’s independence was a tough nut that LBJ kept trying to crack. In 1981, former LBJ press secretary George Christian recalled, “The president really respected him . . . and he was very curious about him. The president would say, ‘Where did [Dugger] hear about that?’ It became a matter of fascination with the president, a horrible fascination.”
As Ronnie recounts on these pages, Lyndon Johnson had a very different idea about press freedoms and responsibilities: You get access, you get stories, you get support if you don’t displease those in political power, if you don’t question too deeply. Fortunately, Ronnie Dugger was there to question deeply.
He was part of a small group of dogged journalists of his time, including I.F. Stone and Carey McWilliams, who opened fissures of light in locked-down Cold War America. Their refusal to parrot the given wisdom led to the blossoming a few years later of a second wave of hard-charging journalists digging into the military-industrial complex, exposing the ugly face of racism, and, with newly portable cameras, bringing the Vietnam War to dinner tables and TV trays across America. Even the staid New York Times and Washington Post joined Nixon’s enemies list as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate coverage dominated American consciousness.
It didn’t last long. Corporate news organizations reasserted their control. Profits trumped revelations. Entertainment replaced understanding. Good reporters on daily newspapers often found their best stories whittled to nothing. The symbiotic relationship between leading press organs and those in power is not, unfortunately, an artifact. There are those that mainline information from the White House and those that simply stop digging so they can continue tromping the topsoil at W’s Crawford ranch.
Fortunately, Dugger continues to hew hard to the truth as he finds it. The Texas Observer, unfettered by profit margins, continues to be able to bring him to you.