He was a living souvenir of the Bad Old Days in the South, but as well-seasoned and polished as a piece of ornamental driftwood on the coffee table of some quaint seaside cottage. The anger had turned into grace over the years and decades. The feisty young demagogue had become just another courtly old gentleman, a fading breed even in these latitudes.
It was always hard to believe Jim Johnson was in his old age, for he never entered his dotage. He not only retained a youthful eloquence, he sharpened it by shortening it. He grew less talkative, more pointed. His pithy letters to the editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette were much anticipated in these quarters, and much appreciated by lovers of the rhetorical arts in general. They stood out as a model of their kind: terse and eloquent, whatever one thought of the idea expressed. Any day the paper carried one of his concise communications was the making of the opinion section.
Jim Johnson went through stages in life (don't we all?) and each was an improvement over the one before. The rabblerouser of the Furious Fifties was still a recurring political threat in the Seggish Sixties. But as he grew older, his spread-eagle oratory turned into concise wit. And his good manners into something deeper, as if he were returning to the personal ties and simpler felicities of an earlier, more agrarian society.
The older and wiser Jim Johnson was history walking and, on welcome occasions, talking -- as when he appeared at a national convention of editorial writers here in Little Rock a couple of years ago. He fascinated his listeners even if not many knew what to make of him. Or, in these history-free times, just what fateful events he was talking about when he walked us through the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 one more time.
Jim Johnson was of a generation that still spoke in complete sentences, rather than fragments. His voice was unshaken, he did not say things so much as assert them. In this age of foggy language and political correctness, I miss his directness; it gave you fair warning. It let you know what you had to deal with rather than having to guess.
In his latter years, Jim Johnson's debating style was prized even by those of us who deplored his ideas, for he stood as a living reminder of a time when great issues could not be dodged, and each citizen had to decide where he stood. Things were clearer then -- for those who had eyes to see.
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