The famous Canberran Jack Dealy, who has just died at 94, and whose praises have been sung in recent Gang-gang columns (he was a policeman, a wrestler and a towering pillar of society), used to tell an alarming story about US president Lyndon Baines Johnson and his visit to Canberra in 1966.
You can read the story online in Dave Wheeler's engaging Tales Of A Canberra Boy. However, the gist of it is that during his short stay here in late October 1966, Johnson became paralytically drunk at dinner at The Lodge. For the Leader of the Free World, his finger on nuclear triggers, to be a man who has the balance of his mind disturbed by the demon drink is alarming. The presidency of the US is a job for a teetotaller.
With ears pricked up by Dealy's story, this columnist time-travelled back to the Canberra of 1966, assisted by a huge bound volume of the now parchment-coloured pages of that year's Canberra Times.
Lots of today's readers will remember the tour. Certainly if she's still with us, the woman who, on October 20, 1966, was ''little Marian Pettit, of Deakin'' will remember because - between getting off his plane at Fairbairn and getting into his big, bullet-proof Lincoln - the long tall Texan (he was 1.9 metres) strode across to where she was sitting on her dad's shoulders. The Times heard him drawl to her: ''You're a little sweetie. Where did you get those plaits?'' Then he tugged one of the plaits playfully and handed her ''a cellophane-wrapped initialled ballpoint pen''.
What kind of a city was the Canberra of 1966? What kind of a welcome were Johnson and his wife Lady Bird given here? He was here especially to thank us for being all the way with the United States in Vietnam, and for contributing what he called ''the cream, the flower'' of our ''young manhood'' to that just war in which, of course, God was on our side against communism. One angry correspondent wrote to the Times to call Johnson's Australian reception, perceptively, ''a shoe-licking welcome''.
There were 96,000 Canberrans in 1966. An architect-designed home in Red Hill could cost a breathtaking £15,000, but the working classes could aspire to own a three-bedroom brick-veneer home in the pioneering new suburb of Lyons for £6750. The Canberra of 1966 was not well-blessed with hotels and the president and his entourage took over one of our grandest, the Canberra Rex, still standing on Northbourne Avenue.
In our city and wherever they went, the Johnsons' presence created strange extremes of euphoria and fury. The Vietnam war was underway and our typically mindless participation in the US's wars, dividing the nation, was exemplified by prime minister Harold Holt's fatuous declaration that Australia was: ''All the way with LBJ''.
Anti-war demonstrators dogged the tour. In Sydney, with protesters lying in the road in front of the presidential motorcade, NSW premier Robin Askin gave his amusing order to the driver to: ''Ride over the bastards!''
In Canberra these sorts of ''bastards'' seem to have been massively outnumbered, even allowing for the Times' partisan crowd countings, by the euphoric all-the-wayers. Reporting the day of the Johnsons' arrival, the Times estimated that 30,000 enthusiasts gathered at Fairbairn and along the bullet-proof Lincoln's route to Government House. At the roundabout intersection of Hopetoun Circuit and Adelaide Avenue in Yarralumla, the masses burst into a spontaneous rendition of For He's A Jolly Good Fellow. The president, who had been in Australia about 45 minutes, used a microphone attached to a loud speaker in the car to croon to the swooning well-wishers: ''This is fabulous. We are having a delightful time. We haven't been any place we enjoyed more.''
By contrast with the swooning 30,000 the Times counted on that day, ''1000 disappointed anti-Vietnam demonstrators'' were lurking, chanting, placard-brandishing and wearing ''Make Love Not War'' T-shirts around the Canberra Rex. They waited many hours for Johnson, to shrill him what they thought of him, but they waited in vain, for he was secreted through a back entrance of his fortified hotel at 11.10pm (the Times reported).
Or did he, perhaps, get ''home'' to the Rex much earlier than that? The legend, reported by Dealy and others, is that Johnson became woefully drunk at dinner at The Lodge (did the Holts drive him to drink with their sycophancy?) and so as to avoid the attention the Lincoln would give, he was put in a nondescript police car, covered in a blanket and delivered to the Rex in ways no one would notice. Dealy's story is that by 11pm, the Leader of the Free World, paralytic, was already ensconced in his hotel.
The kind of euphoria the Johnsons generated among the Canberra euphoric is hard to explain. The demonstrations of devotion were extraordinary. Why were we, as Canberrans, more blase about the visits of presidents George Bush and Barack Obama?
This columnist's tentative theory is that we were a more insecure, culturally cringeing city (and country) in 1966. We worried more about being loved and noticed by the great and the powerful than we do now that we're a more grown-up, ideologically agnostic city of 360,000. We felt grovellingly grateful to the Johnsons for finding the time to visit us.
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