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Disturbing the Peace: Gerald W. Johnson In An Age of Conformity


ISSUE:  Summer 2002

Man and moment met felicitously for Gerald White Johnson during the 1950’s. “Every American of the past who is worth remembering by the present was once considered a subversive character,” he proclaimed boldly during an anxious decade. “And they were rightly so regarded, for they did subvert many an entrenched wrong, many an ancient folly, many a hallowed evil. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt—all were controversial figures, all were enemies of the existing order, all were denounced as unsound men engaged in un-American activities. But all were free spirits and extended, in one way or another, the boundaries of liberty.” Johnson himself was such a free spirit, such an extender of liberty. He loved to point out that America had been founded by bold men who preferred freedom to safety, and he never tired of tweaking those contemporaries whom he found cautious and complacent. Lamenting that Americans “have become prisoners of our doubts and fears,” he remarked that “we are reluctant to admit that we owe our liberties to men of a type that today we hate and fear—unruly men [and] disturbers of the peace.” So decorous in society, formally dressed and always impeccably polite, Johnson was, in the realm of ideas, very much a disturber of the peace himself.

He had been such from the beginning of his long and remarkably productive career—a career that stretched more than six decades and saw the publication of more than 15,000,000 words, including more than 40 books. Born in Riverton, North Carolina on Aug.6, 1890, he graduated from Wake Forest College in 1911 and served in France with the A.E.F. during World War I.Upon returning to America and assuming the post of associate editor on the Greensboro Daily News, he attacked the Ku Klux Klan (they threatened to visit his house at night but never showed up) and criticized the governor of North Carolina. Discussing the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee during the hot summer of 1925, he championed freedom of speech. Five years later, he denounced the Southern Agrarians and their controversial manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, and the ensuing battle lasted for decades. During the 1930’s, he attacked the opponents of the New Deal and found himself at war with his employer, the Baltimore Sunpapers. As World War II approached, he lambasted the isolationists. During the 1948 presidential campaign, the Dixiecrats felt his wrath; he thought them unenlightened reactionaries. In brief, Johnson refused to keep quiet and refused to back down, and his career was marked by considerable bellicosity.

During the 1950’s, Johnson’s seventh decade, America provided him with the writer’s most valuable sort of opponents: public figures, revered by many, whose values he deplored and whose presence challenged him to speak forcefully for the adversary culture. Speaking on Feb.9, 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that more than 200 members of the State Department were also members of the Communist Party. Appalled by such tactics, Johnson wrote to Professor Howard W.Odum in Chapel Hill that “no doubt we shall meet shortly in the concentration camp, where Senator McCarthy is going to put everyone who objects to chattel slavery.” While he would lambaste McCarthy as profoundly un-American, Johnson would also challenge the values of the war hero twice elected president. Johnson the veteran admired Eisenhower the soldier, but Johnson the writer thought Eisenhower the politician overmatched and misguided. Johnson dismissed the Vice President, Richard M.Nixon, as an enemy of liberty. Throughout the decade, Johnson would engage in a running battle with America’s “thought police” and do his best to dispel “the fog of terror” enshrouding the land. On the other hand, he viewed Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois twice soundly defeated by Eisenhower, as a great communicator in the tradition of FDR and as a humane and intelligent man. Johnson would write about these men in his books, essays, newspaper columns, and correspondence, and he would discuss them on television as well as in a variety of speeches and interviews. Johnson always conceived of the American experience in terms of heroes and villains, and those public figures, in his eyes agents of darkness and a bringer of light, would figure prominently in his American morality play.

Johnson’s lone book of 1951, published on October 3, was the alternately bellicose and hortatory This American People. The volume could just as well have been entitled In Defense of Liberty, or, with a nod of thanks to John Stuart Mill, On American Liberty. Clearly, freedom was very much on Johnson’s mind, for his eight chapters discuss such matters as free speech, freedom of conscience, free enterprise, freedom of inquiry, freedom of association, and freedom of opportunity. The book sets forth characteristically Johnsonian ideas tailored to a country experiencing the jitters of the atomic age and, in his view, an exaggerated alarm about communism. His Preface, stridently entitled, “Let’s Get This Straight,” explains that the book is “an inquiry into the risks that a man must run if he is to be thoroughly American.” The true American, Johnson argues, must risk the danger inherent in challenging any government “that becomes destructive of liberty.”

Johnson had to be pleased when he read the review in The New York Herald Tribune in which Robert E. Sherwood both perceived his intent and celebrated his success. “There are plenty of good people striding through the world today,” Sherwood observed, “but it would be hard to find one with a clearer understanding of our national deficiencies as well as advantages, or with a better ability to state them simply and sensibly than Gerald W. Johnson.” The reviewer proceeded to remark that “the mouthings of Joe McCarthy . . . may express some aspects of “This American People.” But Gerald W.Johnson expresses the final, considered truth. I hope that many Americans will read this book.” Many Americans did; This American People sold more than 11,000 copies during its first year.

The following year, a pugnacious Johnson addressed the Alabama Library Association. Recounting the event to Howard W, Odum, Johnson wrote that “I tore into McCarthyism and such recklessly, wondering if I would escape with a whole skin. But they loved it. Swarms of them came up to me afterward, laughing and slapping me on the back and loudly thanking God that somebody had spoken up and called a skunk a skunk.” In its coverage of the speech, however, the Birmingham News ignored the attack and quoted only Johnson’s “conventional advice to librarians.” Disgusted, he snorted at “the poltroonery of the press.” No poltroon himself, he used several forums, among them his new television show, to continue his assault upon the senator, his followers, and those Americans he cowed.

II

An element of the absurd marked Johnson’s entry into television commentary. When he was first approached in the spring of 1952 by WAAM, Baltimore’s ABC affiliate, Johnson did not even own a television set himself. The station wanted him to analyze the presidential conventions, and Johnson protested that he “knew nothing about conventions and nothing about television commentary.” All he knew, he proceeded to explain, “was what the folks on Bolton Street [his place of residence just northwest of Baltimore’s commercial district] were saying.” The station replied that this was precisely what it wanted. Skeptical, but never averse to trying something new, he agreed to do four 15-minute shows. By the time that he was finished, this program would air more than 140 times, both locally and on network television, delight some viewers and enrage others, and receive several prestigious awards. In the end, How Things Look from Bolton Street was the closest that Johnson ever came to President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.”

Johnson talked as the vox populi, a sort of American Everyman. He spoke for the “plain people,” and he explained that “the great bulk of us just manage to get along. . . The very rich and the very poor do not constitute America. The strength of the country is in the great mass of in-betweens, and that’s us.” Mr. Johnson’s neighborhood came alive in the viewer’s imagination as a place of common sense and common decency, a place which cared about the underdog, and a place where the real American language was spoken. The station that had solicited Johnson’s political commentary had to be pleased when, instead of waxing grandiloquent, he used a homespun analogy to explain that “all the uproar over the [Democratic] nomination . . . will be more or less hollering down a rain-barrel.”

During the summer of 1952, Johnson traveled to Illinois to work on Adlai Stevenson’s behalf. Although Johnson was hampered by his hearing problems, Stevenson was delighted to have him there, and Johnson contributed ideas, helped to plot strategy, and wrote speeches. On November 5, after Eisenhower’s victory, Johnson sent Stevenson a telegram: “A battle is lost but not the war. Liberalism under your leadership will yet save the country. Proud to have followed you.” Nine days later, he wrote to account for the loss: “There were just five reasons for your defeat, to wit, Ike’s five stars. Hero worship is the whole story.” Stevenson was effusive in his letter of thanks and, at the end of the year, said it should be Johnson who drafted the manifesto for liberals at the midpoint of the 20th century. These men would do battle once again, and the friendship begun here would endure until Stevenson’s death. In all, Johnson grew closer to Stevenson than to any president or to any other presidential aspirant.

While Johnson was disappointed in the result of the election, he was pleased when the departing chief executive summoned him to Washington. Two years earlier, President Truman had written a six-page letter in his own hand that was addressed to “Dear Gerald.” In early December 1952, he called Johnson to the White House “to express his appreciation of my support and to chat about things in general.” During the next eight years, there would be no such friendly chats with President Eisenhower.

Johnson was far from friendly about American politics when he spoke in Dallas during the spring of 1953. He gave one of the four addresses at Southern Methodist University in a program called the “Institute of American Freedom.” He complained that American was “hag-ridden” by fear of communism. After celebrating Alexander Hamilton as a “born maverick,” Johnson fused past and present by remarking pointedly that Hamilton “would have died rather than tell a Congressional investigating committee that he was not a Communist.” Such criticism was leveled nearly a year before Edward R. Murrow used See It Now, his popular television show on CBS, to launch that famous attack which so badly hurt Senator McCarthy. To say the least, Johnson’s censure here was offered at considerable risk.

It was his television show, not his remarks at the podium or his commentary in the print media, which suffered the counterattack. On May 31, 1953, How Things Look from Bolton Street received its first network exposure, and Johnson could hardly have been more pleased with the result. The program, he told a correspondent that July, “has been explosively successful . . . The [New York] Times, Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Variety, and Saturday Review have all rated it the top commentator’s program on TV, but . . . I understand that McCarthy’s investigators are at work.” Johnson had recently used the show to accuse McCarthy of religious bigotry and to liken his followers to the members of the infamous “Know-Nothing” party of the 19th century.

Critical acclaim continued—Johnson received both the George Foster Peabody Award and the Sidney Hellman Foundation Award for his commentary—but How Things Look from Bolton Street failed to retain its national audience. ABC informed Johnson that his final network show would appear on Jan.10, 1954. ABC expressed no dissatisfaction with his work but said instead that the change was merely a matter of rescheduling. Johnson thought differently. “I have been critical of McCarthy,” Johnson wrote to Adlai Stevenson, “and McCarthy has two men on the FCC, which has power of life and death over the networks.” He proceeded to express surprise that the show had lasted as long as it did.

Stevenson wrote letters in Johnson’s behalf, and the show’s cancellation was criticized in the print media. While How Things Look from Bolton Street did not appear again on network television, it did air locally on WAAM, with one hiatus, until nearly three years after its inception. Johnson did not step down quietly. He used his final Independence Day program to observe that this is “[an] appropriate occasion on which to review the state of our liberties.” He commended “those men in Philadelphia” for having “the nerve to do what is right in the teeth of a power relatively ten times as strong as Soviet Russia.” “It took bold men,” he exclaimed, “to assert [the Right of Revolution], bolder men than we are, and I sometimes fear freer men than we are.” Growing much more caustic, he announced that “it is a curious and disappointing fact that on July 4, 1954, the United States appears to be more afraid of a handful of idiots who fell for the Communist flapdoodle than the designers of the Declaration were when one-third of the country was disloyal.” The people of Bolton Street, he scoffed, “are getting tired of crawling under the bed every time some witch-hunting plug-ugly says, “Boo!”” Eschewing all subtlety, he challenged his fellow citizens to reclaim their liberty.

III

So ended Johnson’s productive and provocative sojourn in weekly television commentary. From his 62nd through his 65th years, he showed a remarkable ability to adapt. In this new medium, he disturbed the peace many times. He challenged powerful opponents whom he had little, if any, chance of defeating, but this, as he saw things, mattered little. It did matter very much, however, that, while many Americans capitulated and crept away, he elected to stand and fight.

When Johnson traveled to Seattle during the spring of 1956, television proved only one of the forums that he used to express strong opinions about life in his native land. This proved his second, and final, sojourn in academia. It had been nearly 30 years since he had left his position as professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to join the staff of the Baltimore Evening Sun. From late March through the middle of May, 1956, Johnson served as the Walker-Ames Visiting Professor in the University of Washington’s School of Communications. In his 66th year, he chose to live in a dormitory room. “They call me a visiting professor,” he said modestly, “but I’m really a visiting student. I want to find out what these young people have in mind when they enter journalism.”

While he lived with his typical lack of ostentation, he communicated with his usual candor and flair. The commentator who had proven so successful with How Things Look from Bolton Street did four shows that aired, under the title The Outside View, on KCTS television in Seattle. Talking once more as the vox populi, Johnson spoke to his viewers of “you and me and all other plain citizens of the United States.” He seized this opportunity to lambaste President Eisenhower for “his hopeless inability to get anything done.” Writing for the University of Washington Daily, Johnson criticized loyalty oaths for teachers and called for “sharp and incessant criticism of all existing institutions, including the oldest and the most firmly established.” As had his audience elsewhere, Johnson’s viewers and readers in Seattle found themselves in the presence of a man who freely spoke his mind.

During his trip to the West Coast in March, Johnson had stopped in Chicago to visit with Adlai Stevenson. Since their close interaction during the presidential campaign of 1952, the men had maintained a lively correspondence. Johnson offered advice on a variety of matters, and both commented upon what they saw as the foibles of the Republicans. If Stevenson decided to run again, Johnson assured him that “anything I can do will be done.” Johnson’s advice, Stevenson wrote, proved far more valuable than all the weighty memoranda that he received from others.

In Johnson’s view, the election of 1956 was hardly complicated. The intelligent, urbane and articulate Stevenson was opposed by the president whose administration “had [quaked] like an aspen in fear of McCarthy,” the president who had managed to lose “in 18 months what it took 20 years to acquire.” Recalling Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” and FDR’s “New Deal,” Johnson lampooned Eisenhower’s policies as the “Raw Deal.” He was even more contemptuous of the Vice President, “L’il Abner Nixon, that Red-Blooded American Boy,” who had managed to drive “even the ungodly to prayer. I estimate that not less than 67 percent was added both to the frequency and fervor of their petitions for the continued good health of the President of the United States.”

Stevenson asked for both Johnson’s ideas and words to use in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention and drew heavily upon this material. A master of the art by this time, Johnson also advised his friend about how to speak most effectively on television. Despite their efforts, Stevenson lost by a larger margin than he had four years before. His “sane liberalism,” in Johnson’s view, proved no match for the Republicans during a time of peace and plenty. Once again proving a good friend during difficult times, Johnson told Stevenson that he was glad to have offered assistance. Looking ahead to four more years of the “Raw Deal” and “L’il Abner,” Johnson observed that “I shall be even more glad with the passage of time.” Responding with great warmth, Stevenson offered thanks and urged Johnson to keep sending along his ideas. Once again, Johnson had involved himself in what he conceived of as a righteous battle; once again, it was a fight that he had little real chance of winning.

Johnson sent Stevenson proofs of his next book, The Lunatic Fringe, published in the late spring of 1957, and the politician praised it highly. Johnson’s title alludes to Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, and the first of the volume’s three epigraphs is a pointed remark by John Stuart Mill: “The mere mention of non-conformity is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through the tyranny, that people should be eccentric.” A celebration of non-conformity, The Lunatic Fringe is dedicated to “the Unterrified American If Any.” Johnson’s Preface, “As You Like It,” deplores the growth of timidity in America and assesses the last presidential election: “Suspicion of everything new and untried and distrust of most things that have been tried, is the prevalent mood, betraying us into such erratic action as the election of last November, when we stampeded into the sheltering arms of the Great White Father.”

Usually entertaining, sometimes uproariously funny, The Lunatic Fringe, with its menagerie of eccentrics, is far from subtle. Showing once more Johnson’s facility with the character sketch, the book is enhanced by his wide range of knowledge and his usual interest in comparative history. He likens, for example, the frightening fervor of the Temperance fanatic Carrie Nation, “a six-foot woman with a hatchet and absolute certainty that she is the chosen instrument of the Lord,” to the destructive certitude of Senator McCarthy. Johnson uses this volume’s conclusion to scoff at the “tyranny of fear” strangling America during the 1950’s and to explain that, while the typical American is “grimly confident and efficient” when confronting physical danger, “it is when he fears that he may have his head turned by the siren songs of characters that he classifies vaguely as “subversives” that he falls into a blind panic.” Those readers who grasped the lessons of The Lunatic Fringe did not join the stampede.

The following year, Johnson spoke just as pointedly in Canada as he had in the United States. On March 18, 1958, he delivered the “War Memorial Address” at McGill University in Montreal. He came north, he explained, to pay tribute to men who had “died for liberty . . . and became additions to the honor . . . of the human race.” He proceeded to attack those who profaned such valor and sacrifice: “shallow thinkers . . .[who] in the name of democracy. . .have endeavored to suppress freedom of thought” and “leather-lunged fools . . .bellowing from every street corner that thinking is a crime.” He saw fit to name names. Senator McCarthy had died the previous May. Ignoring the old saw about “saying only good things about the dead,” Johnson scorned his former adversary as “a protagonist of terror.”

IV

The final year of this very busy decade found Johnson back on the road. During the spring of 1960, he lectured at the University of Illinois. With his unceasing belief in the need for clear communication and his contempt for the sanctimonious, he remarked typically that “misunderstanding has brought more woe upon the world than vice ever did.” While in Illinois, he took the opportunity to visit Adlai Stevenson’s home in Libertyville. Johnson discovered that he liked Stevenson “better than ever. His personal charm is even greater than Roosevelt’s and he is far wittier.” Predictably, Johnson again supported Stevenson during the presidential campaign that year. “I predict,” Johnson remarked with characteristic self-humor and with the homespun analogy that enriched his style, “that when what Dr. Samuel Johnson called “lapidary inscriptions” are in order an appropriate inscription on my tombstone would be, “He voted for Stevenson until the cows came home.”“

Stevenson more than reciprocated in October, when Johnson’s 70th birthday was celebrated at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Many dignitaries gathered for this tribute arranged by James H. Bready of the Baltimore Sun and Kate Coplan of the library staff.

Stevenson had been out on the campaign trail stumping for John F. Kennedy and paid a surprise visit. A look of “utter joy” crossed Johnson’s face when he saw his old friend. Johnson, Stevenson remarked warmly, was “loved by all enemies of cant, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, reaction and boredom.” He thanked Johnson for “a thousand rescues from boredom in an age where humor is suspect and conformity a virtue” and celebrated this brave man as “the critic and conscience of our time.”

Stevenson engaged in no special pleading here but instead offered a fair assessment of Johnson’s bold and highly articulate commentary. What the decade demanded, Johnson provided. During the 1950’s, as was the case throughout his career, he showed a healthy indifference to public approval, an indifference that allowed him to accomplish considerable good.

In The Lunatic Fringe, Johnson celebrated Tom Paine’s famous pronouncement, “I thank God I fear not.” Johnson could well have been speaking of himself. Firm in his beliefs about the forces which made America such a noble political experiment as well as those forces which profaned it, Johnson had taken huge risks. Silence and equivocation were unthinkable. He had extolled those who brought light and chastised those who walked in darkness. Manifesting an energy and radicalism that belied his years, Johnson had assaulted what he saw as the American Jericho—with its complacency and conformity, with its insufficient concern for life’s unfortunates and its exaggerated respect for the corporate mentality, with its contempt for the reflective life and its assent to fear and mindless materialism. He did not topple the walls, but, to the delight of some and the outrage of others, this disturber of the peace had made them shake a bit.

V

Gerald W. Johnson kept on disturbing the peace—he was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of America’s involvement in Vietnam, and he lambasted Richard M.Nixon for the Watergate affair—until his death, from pneumonia, on March 22, 1980. He was 89. That remarkable voice, which for the better part of the 20th century had discussed seemingly everything under the sun, which had made his readers rage and reflect, laugh and cry, and which had afflicted the comfortable and championed the unfortunate, was finally stilled.

This essay is excerpted from Gerald W. Johnson: From Southern Liberal to National Conscience, published by the Louisiana State University Press. The author would like to thank Kathryn Johnson Sliger (Mrs. Frederick A. Sliger), the executrix of her father’s estate, for her kind permission to quote from his writing.

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