LYNN LANDRUM VS. THE MODERN WORLD
For thirty years, the eloquent, infuriating voice of The Dallas Morning News took on everyone from FDR to the Ku Klux Klan. The paper still bears the stamp of his conservative crusade.
The photograph that hangs on my office wall is of a man, sixty-some-odd years old, with the shrewd but genial face of a rural district judge. The chin is dimpled; the one ear turned in profile is oversized. Round spectacles perch atop the nose, below which rambles a salt-and-pepper mustache.
The man is Lynn Wiley Landrum, columnist for The Dallas Morning News for almost thirty-one years. More than a quarter of a century after his death, the name, the literary style, the porsona remain emhedded in the memories of older Dallas Morning News readers. To various of these, Landrum was the News, and the News was Landrum. The warfare he levied against New Dealers, political preachers, and injustice of every sort has the legendary status of Charlemagne’s campaigns.
Day after day, Landrum delivered rhetorical round-shot with greater precision and more explosive force than any other Texas journalist of his day. His cannonadings rattled windows that had never been rattled before-and woke up minds and consciences dozing contentedly.
No Texas journalist ever has addressed so wide and attentive an audience. None is likely to in the future, given the changed dynamics not only of journalism but of Texas sociology and politics.
Landrum wrote in the days when people read. Radio was an institution, and, before Landrum’s death, so was television. But it was from newspapers nevertheless that people learned what went on in the world; it was against newspaper writers that the argumentative and powerfully persuaded measured swords. In 1938, when Landrum commenced his column, "Thinking Out Loud," the circulation of the News was more than 100,000; the News, at age fifty-three, was far and away the state’s most prestigious paper. A man to whom G.B. Dealey, the News’s Olympian founder, entrusted a daily frontpage pulpit was a man assured of a hearing. When "Thinking Out Loud" began in 1938, a few syndicated columnists such as Westbrook Pegler held forth around the country. In Texas newspapers, opinion was a commodity dispensed anonymously in unsigned editorials. So Landrum burst on the scene like a thunderstorm-not just ruminating but scourging; not just observing but applauding or hissing. Texas newspaper readers had never seen his like, Letters piled up in his office; likewise invitations to speak. He addressed service clubs, women’s groups, the Texas Senate, and Baylor University’s graduating seniors.
Whatever he wrote, the Columntator, as he styled himself, met with indignation or lusty applause-almost never with indifference. A triple dose of vinegar in the col-lard greens was as easy to ignore as Lynn Landrum in full flight.
Landrum would have made a terrible media celebrity, 1987-style. He cared little for money and understood fame to be a serious and awful responsibility. His purpose in writing was not to make money; his purpose was to prod, praise, embarrass, admonish-even, where feasible, to edify.
As a literary craftsman, Landrum had few peers. The vigor of his views fed the natural wit and clarity of his style. Without shouting or calling names-pastimes he was too much the Christian gentleman ever to embrace-he could knock an opponent sprawling; after which, if asked, he would give the fellow a hand up. The Columntator’s foes assailed him as a Republican stooge and a tool of the vested interests, by which they betrayed their radical misunderstanding of the man. Landrum wore nobody’s collar. He could be as unruly as Sam Houston, as pugnacious as Jim Bowie. He was the last of the Texas pioneers-anyway, the last of the thinking, writing, expostulating pioneers.
The Indian raids had stopped and the frontier was poaceable, but the old ways lingered when Lynn Landrum was born in the Grayson County community of Whitewright on August 24, 1891. The family was of educated Tennessee stock. Lynn’s father, Sam Houston Landrum, had trained as an artist but became a doctor in order to support his family. Before marriage Lynn’s mother, Mary Cutler Dickey Landrum, taught college mathematics and art.
The values of the Landrum family were the values of small-town Texas, meaning, in those days, Texas as a whole. These included love of country and community, hard work, self-denial, personal responsibility, disdain for money as the measure of all things; a sense of duty to others, above all else, praise and thanksgiving for the mercies of God, offered weekly at church, and in a loud, unhesitating voice.
In body, Landrum would fare far from Whitewright, Texas; in soul and spirit, he never left. The Whitewright way of life seeped into his bones.
His philosophy of charity was on the Whitewright model-families took care of their own, and churches took care of the rest. Landrum once explained to his colleague Dick West why he chose to live in Oak Cliff: "It’s like a small town. It reminds me a lot of Whitewright. Life is simpler. Oak Cliff is a community of churches and people who are not rich or ostentatious or money-mad."
Such hell as Lynn raised at the University of Texas was of a strictly conventional sort. Along with other residents of B Hall, a dormitory for non-fraternity men, he would ascend to the top of the building and pour buckets of water on passing faculty members. The main effect of B Hall, nonetheless, was to reinforce Lynn’s social philosophy. Years later he would write: "In B Hall, a man’s raiment was only the husk of him. His possessions, if he had any, were not to he compared to his inward worth. A man was as tall as his reach."
While at Texas, Landrum studied law and ran the student newspapor, The Daily Texan. World War I took him to Fort Sam Houston, where he trained black recruits. At war’s end, he took a wife-Anna Belle May, a former classmate at the university-and likewise his first newspapor job, as editor of the Bryan Daily Eagle. From Bryan it was on to similar jobs in Vernon and Quanah. In March 1921, G.B. Dealey brought him to The Dallas Morning News.
It was for a very specific reason. Dealey meant to wage editorial warfare against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Landrum, known already as a man of forceful convictions, was to write the unsigned editorials attacking the Klan and calling on decent citizens to stand up and be counted. For two years the campaign continued; ads and subscriptions were canceled in retaliation, but Dealey stood firm. Years later Landrum would write: "For his part in that fight, the Col-umntator lost the es-teem of friends and, in some cases, the affection of family kin. But he thought then and thinks now that it is neither brave nor patriotic , to go in the night-time under cover of masks and bedsheets to terrorize defenseless persons, no matter what their alleged crimes or indiscretions,"
In 1933, Landrum became the editorial writer-the only one on the staff-for the News’s afternoon paper, the Dallas Journal. Though he had voted for Franklin Roosevelt the previous year, the New Deal began in due course to alarm his Whitewright sensibilities. Landrum saw the federal government assuming unwarranted authority over the lives and pocketbooks of the citizenry-something for which the Journal wasn’t going to stand.
G.B. Dealey, though generally favorable to Roosevelt and the New Deal, believed firmly in letting those he licensed to write, write. He cannot have been too startled on receiving a personal letter from FDR, requesting that Landrum’s cannonadings be stopped. Dealey again stood behind his editorial writer. The bombardments went on.
In 1938 Dealey sold the Journal, but was loath to let Landrum go with it. He contrived an imaginative and flattering solution: a front-page pulpit at The Dallas Morning News, for the exclusive use of Lynn Landrum. To this promontory Landrum mounted on July 1,1938, and there proceeded to declaim against the evils, inequities, and pomposities of modern times.
Lynn Landrum’s new column was called "Thinking Out Loud." Below the title appeared the Euclidian wisdom: "A straight line is the shortest distance between two points." The column commenced at the top of the left-hand column and concluded on an inside page.
It was a splendid moment for such an enterprise. Landrum, just short of the age of forty-eight, a practicing journalist for nineteen years, was at the peak of his literary powers. And that was not all. Just as Landrum unlimbered his guns, the broad target of W. Lee "Pappy" O’Daniel was swung into view. A Fort Worth flour salesman, O’Daniel was running for governor with the help of a hillbilly band and a platform consisting solely of the Ten Commandments.
The Columntator hooted at the idea of hillbilly government and at the very credentials of the "hillbillies." "Are these Hill-BilHes the genuine article," he inquired, "or merely grease-paint-and-dialect imitations? Somebody must go to the bottom of that.1’ The Columntator, who took seriously government and rural values alike, was happy to oblige.
"How many of the flour-barrel Hill-Billies know anything about powder-and-patch for a muzzle-loader? How many know the taste of cold spring water out of a gourd dipper from a cedar bucket? How many ever saw hominy corn hulled, with lye taken from the drip-kettle under the ash-hopper trough? How many of them know a good coon dawg when they see one? Yes, dawg, not dog...
"If Texas needs Hill-Billies to straighten out the deficit and restore gubernatorial prestige, then, by all the varmint hides nailed on the smokehouse door, Texas is entitled, to shore-’nough Hill-Billies. If these flour-barrel boys are mere drugstore imitations, the sooner we tear away their mummers’ masks, the better."
All the splendid ridicule Landrum poured out failed, to keep Texas from anointing a hillbilly governor unable to govern effectively. O’Daniel proposed a transactions tax to pay for the old-age pensions he had proposed. "Taxes," the Columntator fired back, "are the poorest form of molasses to attract industrial flies. . .the transactions tax adopted in Texas would be fully as effective in keeping out enterprise as would an electrified fence." Discussing a tax-remission bill signed by O’Daniel, Landrum found the governor’s explanation "as involved and tenuous as an inchworm on its way up a corkscrew." Pappy O’Daniel was thereafter "the inchworm."
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another favorite Landrum target. For the policies of the New Deal-at any rate those that enlarged, government at the expense of liberty-Landrum had no use. "The new deal," he said, "is, in its innermost character, a series of improvisations strung pretty much upon a single string. The single string is that the underdog is bound to be the best dog.. .All the rest is spur-of-the-moment strategy, shot-in-the-arm therapy, rabbit-out-of-the-hat showmanship."
This was strenuous, and enlivening, stuff, dished up with style and a leavening of good humor. It stood out not unlike die proverbial sore thumb.
The News’s reputation for combative conservatism often diverged, from the facts of the matter. Editorials in the late Thirties bore such arresting headlines as "Rail Pay Conference" and "Export Bounty and Dumping." A typical editorial from the summer of 1938 put forth this bold opinion: "The problem of giving or refusing jobs to married women, with which the Highland Park Board of Education has just been wrestling, is one for which it is hard to find a solution that applies to all cases."
Onto this tapioca pudding Lynn Landrum poured Tabasco sauce. The taste was all the more searing, sampled daily on the front page of the state’s leading newspaper. Naturally the letters poured in-300 to 400 a month by 1940. On the question of the Col-umntator, opinion was decisive: Landrum was either a wonderful revelation or the worst thing to hit Texas since the Galveston hurricane. "Hell waits for such as you," one anonymous correspondent warned. "You are not a columnist," said another. "You are a propagandist preaching the worn-out philosophy of big business."
By no means, protested someone else. "We now have someone by name with whom we can take a mental or written crash each morning. The News never did a thing to discover whether its readers were alive, that is so potent as to have you Thinking Out Loud under your own name." Still another said: "Old man, if it weren’t for your harpoon I couldn’t be even near normal. I’d go Bolshevik or something and probably rush out to lay waste and destroy."
Armor-plated in the strength of his convictions, Landrum relished the shot and shell that fell all about him. "It’s these who agree with me who frighten me," he once said. "What if we all thought the same way and were all wrong?" A circulation department panjandrum took alarm at the furor Landrum was causing and took his case to G.B. Dealey himself: the columnist had to be muzzled, he said, lest subscribers start dropping away. Dealey called for Landrum. He offered both men a cigar; then he spoke with quiet deliberation. The job of the circulation department, G.B. Dealey declared, was to get subscribers. "Mr. Landrum," said he, "will continue to write his column. That will he all, gentlemen." Thus do great publishers meet and repel threats to freedom of the press-including the occasional threat from within.
The heyday of "Thinking Out Loud" was from its commencement in 1938 until 1942, when the Columntator reentered the U.S. Army. When he returned to the News at war’s end, G.B. Dealey was dead. The world had changed dramatically, and he himself was less the novelty than before. "Thinking Out Loud" resumed, but this time on the editorial page. The front-page pulpit Landrum had occupied went in due course to Paul Crume, a superlatively gifted craftsman and thinker but a man with neither gift nor bent for preaching.
Landrum, his pulpit moved to the side, remained as voluble and combative as ever. He was no better pleased with Harry Truman than he had been with Franklin Roosevelt. The Columntator assailed Fair Dealers. Communists, labor unions, and liberals in high ecclesiastical places, including the Methodist Church, of which he was a lifetime and devoted member. Pious and much read in the Scriptures. Landrum believed preachers should stick to the gospel, leaving politics be. For columntating purposes he founded a denomination more to his own liking-the Episcobapterian Church, Southern Branch, Reformed Brotherhood, Unigational Synod, of which he was not only Leading Elder but sole member.
He was famous for his personal morality. When News editorial conferences crackled with off-color stories or language, he would indignantly shut off his hearing aid. Alone among News staff members he had management’s assurances of no Sunday duties. His sense of integrity was such that he once rose from his sickbed and took a bus downtown to repay Dick West forty-five cents he had borrowed for lunch money; then he went home and to bed.
It surprised many on meeting him that the formidable Landrum was the kindest and gentlest of men. His loud, deep belly laughs could be heard all over the second floor of the old News building at Commerce and Lamar. His powerful sense of justice-religious at its core-likewise took adversaries off guard. The anti-Klan editorials were of a piece with his conviction that every child of God had a right to lair play. His columns against the bombing of black homes in South Dallas were powerful and effective. He demanded higher pay for teachers and blasted Dallas County for laying off the only caseworker detailed to work with black juvenile delinquents.
On August 31, 1961, a week after his seventieth birthday, Lynn Landrum suffered a heart attack while at home. He died at St. Paul Hospital. He had never retired. In his last column, on August 26, he had praised the town of Breckenridge for observing Americanism Day.
It was no bad time, 1961, for a 19th-century gentlemen to take leave. Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda would have given Mr. Landrum of Whitewright a historic case of the willies. And that is not to mention the Seventies! A decade after the Columntator’s death, there would be little left of the world of Whitewright-a world built on piety, honor, and responsibility. The Columntator had known intuitively what was coming; he had tried to halt or slow it down. To no avail. Many, nonetheless, had listened.
I was one of them. During my college years, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Lynn Landrum’s columns helped imbue me with a sense of mission not unlike his own.
That may have been the least forgivable of the offenses charged to the Columntator’s account as he crossed the threshold into a world-let us pray-not too unlike Whitewright, Texas.