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The Life and Death of a Demagogue

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Sean Hannity FREE

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.

Jim Johnson's rhetoric remained a thing of beauty, whether he was finding the weak spot in some mod politician's shiny armor or going to the crux of a question rather than wrapping it in verbal gauze. He spoke crisply, directly, to his point. And however outrageous others might find his views, he did not soften them. They stood out like primary colors in a world gone gray. Much like an old cavalry sword hung above the fireplace, its original purpose almost forgotten by those admiring its tempered steel and fine workmanship. But this sword never lost its edge.

However much I might assail Jim Johnson's political/racial views, the spirit and art with which he returned the favor won my admiration. In the end I came to admire the old man as much as I had deplored the younger one. I even confess to having developed an affection for him.

Why? It was more than an admiration for his rhetorical arts, however considerable. It was that he remained true to himself even as, year by year, his star faded. He was an honest racist, not an opportunist like his bete noire, Orval Faubus, who played on the racism of others without embracing it himself. A wily politician, old Orval parlayed the fears of others into a highly successful political career, becoming a nigh-eternal incumbent as governor, while Jim Johnson felt the emotions he appealed to. Who else would name the house he finally retired to Whitehaven? Provocation remained the kernel of his political style to the end.

The political legacy Jim Johnson left was eventually erased by popular demand. For the Jim Johnson Amendment to the state constitution (No. 44), designed to prevent the racial integration of the public schools, was finally repealed by the voters in 1990. It had been a dead letter from the first, one more useless monument to high-sounding but essentially fraudulent doctrines like Interposition and Nullification, phantasms that have seduced American politicians since Madison and Jefferson dallied with them.

Yet when Jim Johnson won statewide office at last, unseating a genuine man of the law and a formidable intellect, he surprised his critics by being the fairest of justices, deciding cases before him without regard to the petitioners' caste or class. The sobriquet Justice Jim, which he'd adopted for political purposes, turned out to have some substance.

No one can review the man's life without noting the personal sorrows he endured along with the joys of battle he so relished. He nursed his wife, partner, and politician in her own right, the formidable Virginia Johnson, through lung cancer till her death three years ago, and he would never be the same after losing her. Now, facing continual crises with his own cancer at 85, he chose to end his life with a gunshot as dramatically as he had lived it.

Some politicians who become political stereotypes remain so. Given long years, Jim Johnson aged into the warmest, most feeling of human beings. The way good bourbon mellows. However he may be viewed by historians, let that much not be forgotten about him.

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