Two words that changed LBJ's life

Speech_balloonIn fables and myths, we find plenty of moments when magic words come into play. Not a magic spell -- just a simple statement that unlocks hidden possibilities for somebody who really needs help. Think of abracadabra, open sesame or valar morghulis ... to name a few.

In the case of Lyndon Johnson, 36th president of the United States, two heartbreaking words produced a transformation on the Texan Democrat that was nothing short of magical. That's what Robert Caro said last night.

I had the pleasure of listening to Caro deliver a talk at Claremont McKenna College about his research into The Passage of Power, the latest installment of his mammoth-sized, multi-volume biography "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

There's nothing better than having a world-class historical biographer describe his research methods: how he studied secret memos and photographs, how he tracked down interviewees, how he dug deeply into historical moments that we all thought we knew.

Take, for example, the hours after the assassination of JFK in Dallas. We all know that the Kennedys scorned Johnson. They called him "Rufus Cornpone," Caro said, and they referred to Johnson and Lady Bird as "Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop." Johnson stood off to the side, forgotten, while everyone waited news of Kennedy's condition.

Then, Caro said, someone approached Johnson and uttered two words to him that made the situation clear:

"Mr. President."

"In that instant, a change comes over him," Caro told the audience. "A moment of transformation" in which Johnson's stature immediately grows as he realizes what he has become.

I was struck by the magic quality of Caro's narration of that historic moment ... and I was heartened by the thought that words still possess magic.

It's easy to forget this in the constant barrage of twitter feeds, google alerts, etc. Words are cheapened, turned into fast food, discardable. But as Caro reminded me, and as I wish to remind you, my beloved friends, words still have the power to reach into the depths of myth.