RFK's Turkey Day was memorable. LBJ's? Not so much
By Ray Crippen
WORTHINGTON — You think Lyndon Johnson ever talked to Hubert Humphrey about Turkey Day?
There is no record of such a conversation, but it is not impossible. President Johnson was once a Turkey Day speaker. Hubert Humphrey was the Prince of Turkey Day. HHH might have mentioned, “Mr. President, I will be at Worthington Saturday for Turkey Day.” The two of them might then have exchanged wry smiles and shared a few words of reminiscence.
This might surprise you: If you visit the LBJ Presidential Library at Austin, Texas, they will show you a picture of LBJ on Turkey Day 1960. Maybe LBJ is at Worthington, maybe at Mankato. A photographer says Mankato, the caption says, “Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson campaigning in Worthington and Mankato, MN.” It is raining in the photo. This squares with LBJ’s Turkey Day experience. Johnson is in the foreground holding his Stetson high above his head in his right hand and an umbrella sheltering him from the left. Lady Bird is at LBJ’s right holding her own umbrella. The Johnsons fill the photo. Whether it is Worthington or Mankato is hard to know.
All of this came to mind as we ready ourselves for Turkey Day 2013. One week from today. In the beginning, Turkey Day was a fall festival. We celebrated in October. Now we celebrate before the summer is ended.
The LBJ Turkey Day was, in its way, one of the most memorable Turkey Days. To begin with, LBJ was not invited. The Turkey Day speaker committee always aimed for the top. The invitation went to John F. Kennedy, who the Democrats nominated for president the month before at Los Angeles. Coming to Worthington didn’t appeal to JFK, but he helped arrange for the speaker. “What is Turkey Day and who could go there?” It is likely Hubert Humphrey filled in the blanks: “Well — Worthington is in southwest Minnesota — this is a famous farm festival…”
LBJ got the assignment. It was his first campaign appearance.
As things turned out, rain washed away nearly everything. Sen. Eugene McCarthy was at the dedication of the U.S. Reserve Armory on Milton Avenue that morning. The sun still was shining at that hour. By noon it was pouring rain. Really pouring. Ultimately, even the parade was cancelled.
Lyndon Johnson was hustled to the auditorium of Worthington’s Central Elementary, with Rep. Wayne Bassett holding his right arm lifting an umbrella and with Francis Judge of Worthington Electric holding his left arm. HHH was there. Minnesota’s Gov. Orville Freeman. Karl Rolvaag. Elmer L. Andersen, running against Freeman, stood at the entrance in the gushing rain, shook hands and passed along campaign material while the Democrats huddled inside. Andersen scored points with voters.
LBJ pouted. Actually pouted. He sat on a step leading up to the stage and refused to talk to anyone. Reporters stood looking at him and at his scowl. Finally, the Texas candidate did make a speech to the people inside the auditorium.
From Worthington, Johnson went on to Mankato. JFK’s people reported Johnson had bombed. Sunday morning, he was given a new schedule for appearances in the South. He never made another speech in a northern state.
Does it seem surprising there is a Turkey Day photo in the LBJ Presidential Library? It is interesting; some politicians came to Worthington only to bloviate, but some came with a message they judged important.
If you go to the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights at Washington, they will show you an extended quotation from the Turkey Day speech RFK made in September 1967 — while the sun was beaming. The speaker’s stand was shaded by the big trees on the front lawn of the 1894 courthouse. RFK reflected it was “a green and pleasant place.”
Kennedy was talking about change: “In such a fantastic and dangerous world we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans, or fighting on ancient battlegrounds against fading enemies long after the real struggle has moved on. We ourselves must change to master change. We must rethink all our old ideas and beliefs …”
The Worthington speech is included among RFK’s selected quotes at the Center for Human Rights.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.