Hey, Hey, LBJ

Swarthmore College made nice with its 1964 commencement speaker—but held its nose.

Lyndon B. Johnson at Swarthmore College in 1964.Politics is a series of temporary alliances. And few alliances have been more temporary than that of Lyndon B. Johnson and Swarthmore College. Don’t be fooled by the enthusiasm of the woman with the sign in the photo above. When Johnson addressed the college’s centennial commencement in 1964, many who listened actually held their noses.

“Liberalism is the way of the future,” lamented Peter Passell, a Swarthmore junior, journalist and self-described radical who, that autumn, compromised himself by distributing Republicans-for-Johnson literature at area Barry Goldwater rallies. Yes, Passell assured readers of the Phoenix student newspaper that he would have preferred a far more radical choice. “[But] which is more likely to win over a reluctant Congress?” Passell asked. “The soothing platitudes of Lyndon Johnson pleading for a Great Society or a thousand pickets in Washington?”

Johnson was filling in for John F. Kennedy, who’d been invited before his assassination. But LBJ had his own goal: selling the “War on Poverty” announced at his January State of the Union address. In August, Congress would pass legislation creating Head Start, food stamps, work study, Medicare and Medicaid—all at a cost then forecast at $1 billion a year. (The Phoenix later fretted that the only result might be to “settle a federal bureaucracy onto the poor.”)

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In his 15-minute speech, Johnson tied his plans to the historical good deeds of the Quakers who’d founded Swarthmore, then attacked the idea that poverty was beyond federal authority. “Does government subvert our freedom through the Social Security system, which guards our people against destitution when they are too old to work? Does government undermine our freedom by bringing electricity to the farm, by controlling floods or by ending bank failures?” Johnson asked. “The truth is, far from crushing the individual, government at its best liberates him from the enslaving forces of his environment.”

Then he was gone. As the crowd applauded, Johnson rode a waiting limo down the hill to his helicopter, waiting on the soccer field.

LBJ has been quoted as having said, “An honest politician is one who, when he’s bought, stays bought.”

It was actually Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s secretary of war—but it could have been Johnson, whose skill at political arm-twisting made him an effective Senate majority leader. “The greatest intelligence gatherer Washington has ever known,” according to historian Randall Woods. Johnson knew where every senator stood, his philosophy and prejudices, his strengths and weaknesses, and what it took to break him.

And he loved to give electric toothbrushes to friends. “For then I know that from now until the end of their days, they will think of me the first thing in the morning and the last at night,” he said.

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Few politicians crossed LBJ. But such tactics wouldn’t work at Swarthmore, an institution pledged only to what it still describes as the “search of truth.”

The actual truth, of course, is endlessly debatable. Swarthmore’s idea is that the individual should constantly reconsider, apply and test what he or she believes. It’s not a mission that is likely to breed much respect for dogma or authority. Indeed, Swarthmore students have always crossed their professors and administrators, and been praised for doing so.

One example, related in the Phoenix in 1964, occurred during the 1921-40 presidency of Frank Aydelotte. A campus club had invited an African-American minister to speak and asked Aydelotte to join the group for dinner. Cross-racial socializing was unusual, so Aydelotte—concerned that the minister might be treated rudely by someone—proposed that the man dine at his house instead.

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Word of Aydelotte’s proposal resulted in an outraged Phoenix editorial. “It is the timorous attitude that tolerance can best be served by shielding intolerance to which we take exception,” argued the paper. “That is the easy downhill path of expediency; it ruffles no tempers, causes no enmity, disturbs no one’s tranquility. Neither does it serve the cause of race tolerance.”

The next day, Aydelotte summoned the editor to his office—and apologized. The editorial was absolutely right, said the 50-ish educator to the 20-something undergrad, and he withdrew his offer. And, by the way, did the young man think the matter required a public apology?

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The student editor assured Aydelotte that word would get around on its own.

In 1964, the voting age was 21 years, so the only ballots most Swarthmore College students could cast that fall were in a campus mock election. Johnson won 94 percent of the vote, dwarfing his 61 percent share in the general election.

But enthusiasm for LBJ? Not much. On campus, Johnson’s top qualification was that he was not Goldwater, who represented a phenomenon Swarthmore didn’t understand.

Passell was perplexed by the venom he encountered leafleting for Johnson at a Republican rally, where people hissed “communist” and told him he had no right to be there. Professor George E. Von der Muhll called Goldwater’s nomination “an act of recklessness so unprecedented as to raise doubts about the GOP’s intention of seriously contesting future elections.”

The Phoenix observed, “We are not so much afraid of [Goldwater] and his closeness to the presidency, as of the forces that have made his ascendancy possible.”

But the election was not students’ top concern. Indeed, on election day, members of the college’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter were buttonholing voters for a “voluntary poll tax” to fund registration drives in the South the following summer. According to the Phoenix, they collected $352.

Two Swarthmore students—Ellen Arguimbau (’66) and Gretchen Schwarz (’65)—later returned from drives in Humphreys County, Miss., with tales of fleeing pickups full of angry rednecks.

Closer to hand was the segregated city of Chester. In the summer of 1963, Stanley Branche, a local black activist, and members of the Swarthmore SDS traveled to Maryland to attend workshops on community organizing. They came back and organized blockades that shut down the dilapidated (and all-black) Franklin School. Most protesters were black, but Swarthmore students were usually in the ranks. “I remember spending several days in jail with my school books from Swarthmore, attempting to do my homework and study,” Miriam Feingold Real (’63) told the Phoenix in 2009.

Things intensified as the Vietnam War escalated. During this period, campus news seemed increasingly squeezed out of the Phoenix as the paper bannered stories like, “Student Arrested by FBI for Refusal to Register”—even if the student in question was in California.

In April 1965, 180 Swarthmore students were among 20,000 protesting the war at a Washington rally emceed by Paul Booth, a 1964 graduate. Counter-protesters from the American Nazi Party greeted them with signs reading, “Peace Creeps Go Home.”

College supervision of students’ personal lives was a long-standing issue in the ’60s. Female students were then required to be in their dorms after 10 p.m., and men weren’t permitted in women’s rooms. And when, on special occasions, the genders did mix, residence officials were expected to confirm that three of every four feet were on the floor, and every door open the width of a book.

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“Some students tried to use a ‘book’ of matches,” recalled Chris Densmore, an alum now curator of Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library.

Historically, Quakers had been conservative about personal morality, so college trustees worried that relaxing these rules would damage the school’s image. Increasingly, though, Swarthmore students simply refused to obey, arguing—as one Phoenix editorial put it—that “under the present system, Swarthmore women do not have the full opportunity to form their own moral code.”

In 1965, when two students were caught with beer and in mixed company after hours, several members of the student disciplinary committee to which their case was referred refused to participate in their punishment.

(Eventually, of course, the college surrendered. Today, Swarthmore has “gender-neutral” restrooms in which men and women may use adjacent stalls. Incoming freshmen learn that “sexiling”—locking out a roommate to be alone with a lover—is bad manners. And contraceptives are available at the health center.)

But always there was the Vietnam War, and a seemingly endless cycle of action and reaction.

In December 1965, state Sen. Clarence D. Bell of Delaware County publicly urged the Selective Service System to withdraw draft deferments from Swarthmore students who led anti-war protests. Their “bad judgment,” said Bell, meant they could not be good future leaders.

In 1967, Swarthmore junior John Braxton helped enrage conservatives by joining a Quaker group that sailed a private yacht from Hong Kong to North Vietnam with medical supplies. Back home, Braxton told of visiting a residential area hit by U.S. bombing.

“We saw about six blocks which were completely destroyed, killing more than a dozen,” Braxton told the Phoenix. “I felt ashamed to be an American who was not putting all of his efforts into stopping the war.”

In February 1968, 40 students turned out to cheer Swarthmorean Vin Berg as he took a pre-draft physical. Berg had renounced his student deferment because it discriminated against those who couldn’t afford college and planned to refuse induction. By March 1968, William Sloane Coffin could, without much fear of contradiction, open his Swarthmore address saying, “I’ll assume that all of you believe that the war in Vietnam is militarily a mess and morally a catastrophe.”

Coffin, a former Yale University chaplain who’d run the first Peace Corps training programs and organized southern Freedom Rides, had recently been indicted for counseling draft evasion.

In the fall, returning Swarthmore students shared street experiences from August’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Howard Gold told the Phoenix of being barred from the Conrad Hilton hotel by a policeman as he sought water after being teargassed.

“I was furious,” said Gold. “‘Pig!’ I screamed. It was the first time I had used the word all week.”

The college didn’t even bother with a mock election that year.

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