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Texas | Columns | "Hindsights"

LBJ and the
Politics of Barbeque

by Michael Barr
Michael Barr
There’s something about a Texas barbeque that puts people at ease and in the mood to talk turkey. No one understood that phenomenon better than President Lyndon Johnson. LBJ was a master politician, skilled in the art of persuasion, and no one was better at using, food, drink, and ambiance to bend strong-willed men his way.

Johnson first showed a flair for barbeque diplomacy in 1959 when as senate majority leader and presidential candidate he hosted a cowboy-style cookout for Mexican President Adolfo Lopez-Mateos at the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall. Guests included Speaker Sam Rayburn and former President Harry Truman.

Then in 1961 Vice-president Johnson planned an even bigger Texas barbeque to honor West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Some east coast Ivy-leaguers in the Kennedy administration scoffed at the idea, but LBJ had the last laugh. The ranch, with its wide open spaces and atmosphere of informality, turned out to be an excellent place for heads of state to do business. Foreign dignitaries who usually suffered the stiff formalities of Washington or New York now experienced the myth and legend of the American West. They rode horses and watched cattle graze along the lazy Pedernales River. The ranch had a romantic appeal to Europeans and when combined with the vice-president’s formidable personality gave LBJ a significant home court advantage when it came to negotiating. Even the Hill Country setting played into the hands of the host. Germans immigrants settled this part of the Texas in the 1840s, and the area had a European flavor in culture, attitudes, folkways, and language. Adenauer could not help but feel he was among his own kind.

Over the next two years the vice-president invited numerous world leaders and celebrities to experience cowboy cuisine at the LBJ ranch. Guests included Field Marshall Mohammed Ayub Kahn of Pakistan and the seven Mercury astronauts. Those events worked so well that Johnson planned the biggest bash yet for November 23, 1963 to coincide with President Kennedy’s trip to the Lone Star State, but that barbeque never happened. An assassin killed the president in Dallas and threw America into a tailspin.

Then, barely a month into his presidency, Lyndon Johnson laid plans for the first presidential barbeque in history to honor the new West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. President Johnson had big problems to solve – the Soviet threat, the Berlin Wall, and he needed the chancellor to see things his way.

Bring on the barbeque.

Famed Fort Worth pit master Walter Jetton catered the rustic repast on Sunday, December 29, 1963. Originally the meal for 300 was to be served under the live oak trees in front of the ranch house on the banks of the Pedernales, but a chilly weather report (the temperature that morning was 27 degrees) moved the event to the gymnasium at the public school in Stonewall just across the river. The president’s staff brought in hay bales, wagon wheels, saddles, rolls of barbed wire, and cedar posts to give the gym an outdoorsy feel. A Mariachi band played as the guests arrived. Walter Jetton served ribs, brisket, ranch-style beans, German potato salad, sour-dough biscuits, and Texas cold slaw from the back of a chuck wagon. There were fried fruit pies for dessert, along with Jetton’s famed “six-shooter coffee – so strong it will float a .44,” and lots of beer.

In addition to Chancellor Erhard was a passel of dignitaries including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Presidential Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, West German Foreign Minister Gerhard Schroder, Senator Ralph Yarborough, Wernher Von Braun – the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, Secret Serviceman Rufus Youngblood, and Linda Loftis - Miss Texas 1963. Humorist and Austin TV personality Cactus Pryor was the MC for the event, and he added just the right touch of comedy and reverence in light of recent tragic events.

The entertainment for the day was an eclectic mix of song and dance. A folk trio called the Wanderers Three sang “This Land is Your Land,” a chorale from St. Mary’s Catholic School in Fredericksburg sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas” – in German, and the Fredericksburg High School Billiettes performed a traditional Bavarian song and dance routine. Van Cliburn added a touch of sophistication to the proceedings when he played Beethoven’s Op. 57, known as the “Appassionata,” on a baby grand next to a stack of hay bales. After the music, President Johnson presented Chancellor Erhard and his entire delegation with gray Stetson hats in the same “Open Road” style worn by the president. Chancellor Erhard, looking relaxed and content, donned his Stetson and puffed on a stogie to the delight of the crowd.

No one knows if the great sparerib summit in Stonewall achieved all the outcomes that President Johnson intended, but chances are it did. And even if it fell short, everyone agreed that the first-ever presidential barbeque was a state dinner for the record books.


© Michael Barr
"Hindsights" June 1, 2015 Column

Sources:

Fredericksburg Standard, January 1, 1964
The Radio Post (Fredericksburg), January 2, 1964
Huffington Post, March 18, 2010 – In 1963, A First State Dinner for the Record Books
Youtube – Visit of Chancellor Ludwig Erhard 12/28/63-12/29/63
Youtube – April 16, 1961 - Konrad Adenauer visits Vice-President Lyndon Johnson


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