Secretary of State Alexander Haig has no truer friend than John Henry Faulk's Cousin Ed.
Just the other day, Cousin Ed was explaining the secretary's deep interest in the fate of El Salvador. "He knows that El Salvador is on the Pacific and Cuba is on the Atlantic," Cousin Ed observed in his characteristic Texas drawl. "Some moonlit night there's no tellin' but a bunch a these El Salvadoreans'll git in a canoe and come slipping up the West Coast at the same time these Cubans slip up on the East, and hell, they'll have us surrounded. 'Surrender or die!' they'll say, and we'll be helpless. Alexander Haig has studied geography, Johnny. He understands all of that, and you don't."
If things had gone a bit differently for Ed and Johnny, they might be saying these things on nationwide TV. Instead, they are saying them at breakfasts, barbecues, commencement days and convocations of such groups as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which gathered this week at the National 4-H Center in Bethesda, importing Faulk to add a touch of Texas spice to its organizational banquet Thursday night.
Blacklisted out of a successful broadcasting career in the mid-'50s, Faulk remains willing, on minimal provocation, to impersonate Cousin Ed, Aunt Fanny, Mr. Tom and all the rest of his stable of bucolic characters, but he has a way of shifting from a tall tale into a burst of impassioned oratory just when you least expect it.
One moment, he may be portraying a fictitious kinsman railing against Viet Cong military practices: "We go over there in a good Christian way and fight with the weapons God intended man to fight a war with in this day and age, napalm and flame throwers, and when does that crowd come out? After dark, on bicycles." And then, abruptly, phrases like "the great hurt and harm of our republic" are rolling off Faulk's tongue, and he is warning about "the infliction of religious standards on our civil law," and quoting Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Sean O'Casey, and apologizing for losing the train of thought.
This nonstop flow of wit and passion has made him a favorite on the anti-Moral Majority lecture circuit. But even before the rise of Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms, Faulk had built a second career for himself telling barbed tales and recounting his six-year legal battle against the anti-Communist organization AWARE Inc. for its role in getting Faulk off the radio and TV waves.
His libel suit, climaxing with a $3.5-million judgment in 1962, was chronicled by Faulk's lawyer, Louis Nizer, in the book "My Life in Court," then by Faulk himself in the book "Fear on Trial," and finally in a two-hour TV docudrama with William Devane as Faulk and George C. Scott as Nizer. The docudrama was shown on, of all networks, CBS -- which, in a sense, had created its own story material by firing Faulk from his talk-show duties in 1956. "So I've been asked a number of times if CBS had a change of heart," he says. "Actually, no. CBS doesn't have a heart. CBS is a corporation, so what they had was a change of corporate policy." He says this quite matter-of-factly, and adds that most of TV's participation in McCarthyism was grudging. There were no "lunatics" at CBS, he says.
Today, when Faulk isn't touring and talking, or telling apolitical tales on the syndicated TV show "Hee Haw," he raises chickens, ducks, geese, guinea hens, horses and a son named John Henry IV on his farm in Madisonville, Tex. The Faulks, he proudly reports, are just about the only father-son team who can hunt free of charge in Texas. The elder Faulk evades the license fee by being, at 68, a senior citizen, while his boy evades it by being, at 12, a mere sprite. But they may be hunting less in the future, because under prodding from his wife Elisabeth, Faulk has agreed to sell the farm and move back to Austin, his native city. For a time, he did political commentary on Dallas public TV. Apart from that and "Hee Haw," however, there has been no revival of Faulk's TV and radio career. The professional consequences of his legal victory were "not electric," he says, discarding a cigarette ash on a newspaper photo of Sandra Day O'Connor, and seizing the occasion to criticize her stand on abortion ("Caved in," he says). Nor were the financial results quite what the jury had called for. Of the $3.5-million judgment rendered against supermarket magnate Lawrence Johnson and AWARE, only $175,000 was collected after Johnson died, on the last day of the trial. That sum was eaten up by court costs, $500,000 in all.
Bad timing and someone named Johnson later conspired against Faulk's potential acting career. His friend Gore Vidal got him a role in the movie of Vidal's "The Best Man," as C.C. Claypool, an LBJ-like presidential candidate. But between the filming and the release, the prototype of Faulk's character became president of the United States, and Faulk's caustic performance was all but eliminated in the cutting room.
His father was a sharecropper turned lawyer who taught adult Bible classes at the South Austin Methodist Church, but counted Eugene V. Debs as well as Jesus and George Santayana among his heroes. The senior Faulk was the sort of man his son hopes to commemorate in a book called "The Other Texas," about Sam Houston, J. Frank Dobie, Ralph Yarborough and other "hard-hitting, incorruptible characters."
After graduating from the University of Texas, Faulk went into the U.S. Army as a psychiatric social worker in World War II, while he developed his farfetched characters for private audiences. At a New York party in 1945, still a soldier, he met and regaled a few guests who happened to work at CBS and later gave him a radio tryout and a job. He had planned to go back to the University of Texas in pursuit of a doctorate, he says, "but when they mentioned the salaries that went along with being a commentator on the political and social scene, I leapt at the chance."
He hoped to do political humor. In the postwar years he would discuss such issues as the sharing of American atomic secrets. Faulk would have one "Congressman John Guffo" explain why the Russians were too ignorant to be handling atoms. But the message soon drifted down that, well, the less controversy, the better. On one of his WCBS radio shows in New York, Faulk described a woman of diverse ethnic background as a "walking United Nations" -- only to be informed that officials at the R.J. Reynolds Co., sponsor of the program, would prefer not to hear the United Nations mentioned in any context.
"The first television I ever did was the first television ever done by remote," says Faulk. "It was the World Championship Rodeo at Madison Square Garden, and I was the only person at CBS who had ever seen a rodeo." He was also a regular with Abe Burrows and Cornelia Otis Skinner on "We Take Your Word," a late '40s TV program with an etymological slant. CBS used him principally on radio, but at the height of Faulk's career, he replaced Jack Paar as moderator of the network's "Morning Show," doing battle with Dave Garroway and "Today" on NBC.
"We had Jose' Nelis as a pianist, and Edie Adams, and as a singer we had Merv Griffith -- I mean Griffin," he says.
By then, Faulk had already become active in the American Federation of TV and Radio Actors and had made the tactical error of running against a union leadership slate supported by AWARE Inc., a private group devoted to letting sponsors and networks know about alleged subversives in their employ. Faulk won his election, and was soon being denounced by AWARE for "pro-Communist activities."
As a blacklistee, Faulk kept his humorist's instrument in tune at anti-McCarthy gatherings. He would tell about his buddy Boots Cooper, for example, who had volunteered his services to the government as a Communist-hunter, but had learned "you could make more money if you joined the Communists first." Compared to what the FBI would give a non-party member, he discovered, "you could get almost double."
Beyond a few harmless assaults on Congress, politics is forbidden territory on "Hee Haw," says Faulk. But starting next fall, the producers have made a concession. He will be allowed to devote a few minutes of each show to serious discourse about the Founding Fathers. This pleases him. "You'd be amazed," he says gravely, "at the number of people in this country who don't know where in the hell we've come from."