The John Cornyn I knew in high school was a big supporter of George Wallace and seemed oblivious to the dangers of Wallace's racial demagoguery. (2002)
I read a couple of weeks ago that John Cornyn had pledged to keep the issue of race out of his upcoming U.S. Senate campaign against African-American Democratic nominee Ron Kirk. That was a relief, because the John Cornyn I knew in high school was a big supporter of George Wallace and seemed oblivious to the dangers of Wallace’s racial demagoguery.
Cornyn a Wallace supporter? Why hasn’t Texas heard about that before? Cornyn and I graduated in 1969 from the American School in Japan, and I guess word of his early dabbling in right-wing politics never reached these shores. Besides, statements like this are not something I’d want to broadcast if I was trying to step into Phil Gramm’s shoes and join George Bush’s team in Washington.
“With the continuing concentration of power in the hands of the inept Democratic and Republican parties, it is time for a change,” Cornyn wrote in our student newspaper just before the 1968 presidential election. “Cast your vote for a strong America. Vote for George C. Wallace on November 5.”
Before going on, I have to confess: If Cornyn was the conservative in our class, I was the class radical. While he supported Wallace and backed the war in Vietnam, I was for McCarthy and vehemently opposed the war. We were polar opposites politically, but managed to become friends. I’m sure he remembers the time we got trapped in downtown Tokyo during a huge antiwar demonstration that shut down the city’s rail system, and I helped him find his way home.
We came to our politics from very different backgrounds. Cornyn was the son of an Air Force officer who was stationed for two years at the sprawling U.S. air base at Tachikawa. I was one of five children of missionary-educators, and had lived in Tokyo most of my life. My dad was an outspoken critic of the war and was a key organizer of a May 1968 rally near the U.S. Embassy, where 100 American missionaries, college students, and professors called for an end to U.S. bombing and a negotiated peace in Vietnam.
My presence at that march infuriated a lot of my fellow students, who were roughly divided between children of missionaries, business executives, diplomats, and CIA officers. It was a pretty conservative crowd–but slightly left of Cornyn, who had to shrug off laughs, quizzical looks, and worse whenever he stuck up for Wallace. (One of his pro-Wallace speeches was “well presented and convincing, despite the distraction of a few hecklers in the audience,” our paper reported).
To be fair, blocking doors to prevent integration wasn’t on Cornyn’s list of reasons to vote for Wallace. But he was big on states’ rights. “With the Supreme Court’s recent rulings and increased federal legislation, the government has become increasingly dictatorial and oppressive while the state and local governments have become more weak,” he wrote. Here he is on law and order: “Mr. Wallace is convinced that no innocent man should be punished… [But] many criminals never receive the punishment due them because they have clever lawyers, or the case takes so long to go through the slow court schedules and lengthy appeals cases.” On the urban crisis: “The existence of poverty has been fact since the beginning of mankind. Statistics show us that it is not the poor element that riots and rebels, but others who hold complete disrespect for property and the rights of others (socialists?)” And, finally, on Vietnam: “It only seems reasonable that a cure (victory) for this Asian illness is most desirable even if the measures necessary are drastic.”
Cornyn didn’t win many converts: The final count in our mock presidential election was Humphrey, 250; Nixon, 225; and Wallace, 22. None of those votes were mine, because I boycotted the election out of disgust with Humphrey’s refusal to break with LBJ over the war. So, in a sense, both Cornyn and I were outsiders. We just came from different sides of the fence.
The last time we saw each other was on graduation day. “Good luck among your fellow left-wingers at Earlham,” he wrote in my yearbook, referring to the Quaker college I attended in Indiana. “Just don’t burn down too many buildings and put up too many red flags.” Well, I didn’t, but I never abandoned my core beliefs. To his credit, Cornyn stuck to his guns as well. For the good of the country, let’s hope he sticks to Texas, too.
Tim Shorrock is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., where he writes for The Nation and other publications. He lived in Japan from 1952 to 1959 and 1963 to 1969. He can be reached at [email protected]