The night Elvis was introduced to America via The Ed Sullivan Show, my mother, a Frank Sinatra worshipper, was amused: sitting on the red loveseat in the living room, knitting as usual, her mouth twitched at the corners as she tried to hold back a smile of…in hindsight I’d say it was ridicule. My older sister alternately screamed and swooned, down on the floor where she always sat in a weird double-jointed position I couldn’t get myself into no matter how hard I tried. Ten years old, I watched Elvis gyrate on the tube, confused by my mixed-up responses, at least partially hormonal. And my father? He was the only one in the family who knew exactly what he thought of this person.
“Arggh!” he half growled, half shouted, waving a muscular arm at the television in disgust and dismissal. “Write this jerk’s name down on a piece of paper, and ten years from now take a look at it. You won’t even remember who he is!”
This, of course, became one of my family’s most famous stories, a favorite of my sister’s and mine. My poor father’s been dead and buried since January 1980, and we still tell the tale, to which most people respond with, “Wow, he sure picked the wrong guy to say that about!” After all, he could’ve said it about a million other singers who offended him: say, Carl Perkins. Carl Perkins, you know…Aarggh, forget it!
I was reminded of my father’s hapless prediction this morning during a news story about Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy; it brought to mind another prediction of my father’s—except this one was right. LBJ went
down in history as a presidential failure for continuing, even escalating, the war in Vietnam. Not to mention his path to the presidency; anyone alive at the time still recalls the image of Johnson with his hand raised to take the presidential oath on Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy in a pink blood-stained suit at his side. I was old enough to remember, yet young enough to equate this image with one of a murderer: for a long time I believed Johnson was central in a conspiracy of assassination. (While I still believe JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy, I’ve ruled out Johnson as the hit-man-in-chief.) In any case, what was overshadowed by Johnson’s unfortunate path to power and missteps with the war was his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all the other socially progressive legislation of his administration: Medicare, The War on Poverty, food stamps…the social safety net that lies torn and tattered even as I write about it. My father talked about all this on the day that LBJ declared he would not make a run for another term. Then and there my father predicted that “Someday they’ll realize Johnson was one of our greatest presidents.”
Does my father’s clarity regarding LBJ cancel out his inaccurate assessment of Elvis, or even tip the scales a little in his favor? I hate to say it, but I think not. He was so monumentally wrong to think Elvis was a passing trend that his intellectual legacy suffered greatly, no matter how smart he might’ve been with regard to presidential politics. Still…I’ll raise a glass and toast dear old dad later on today, and while I’m at it give Lyndon Johnson his due—belated, but long deserved. Will I include Elvis in my toast? Always.