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Lyndon Johnson’s Camel Driver – Podcast #43

Every year I ask my students who was the president of the United States after Kennedy was assassinated, but it is rare that even a single student can name Lyndon Johnson. I then start in reverse order – you know – Obama, Bush, Clinton, and so on. They usually can figure out the sequence until they get to LBJ – Lyndon Baines Johnson. I jokingly refer to him as our forgotten president, although one could argue that there are many others in the same boat.

So today’s story is about that forgotten president, although he was still vice president when this story takes place. So let’s do the time warp back to Saturday, May 20, 1961. Here we find Vice President Lyndon Johnson making a stop in Pakistan as he ended his 13-day, 29,000 mile, 6-country goodwill tour of Asia.

Upon landing at the Karachi airport, Johnson gave his obligatory speech and then his motorcade headed out along a 10-mile trek to Pakistanian President Ayub Khan’s residence. Along the way, Johnson decided to press the flesh a bit and meet some of the ordinary Pakistani citizens that had lined up along the roadway in an effort at people-to-people diplomacy.

One of the people that Johnson spoke through an interpreter with was an impoverished 48-year-old camel cart driver named Bashir Ahmad. At the end of the conversation, the Vice President casually said something like “Come and see us, heah” or “You all come to Washington to see us sometime” or “Come and visit my country.” Unfortunately, the exact words that were exchanged have been lost to history, but the meaning was all the same.

This was nothing more than pure Texas politeness and the president probably forgot all about it by the time he had moved on to the next person. From what I read, I don’t think Bashir took the invitation very seriously either, but the story was picked up by the Pakistani press and word spread like wildfire that he had been invited to the US. Johnson was clearly backed into a corner, so he decided to go through with it.

Having the camel driver come to the US could have turned into either the feel-good story of the year or a public relations nightmare. Luckily for Johnson, it went much better than anyone could have ever predicted.

The story first broke in The United States in June of 1961 and the press just couldn’t get enough of it. Johnson was quoted as saying “If he comes, we’ll show him Washington and I’ll do my best to get him a room at the Waldorf-Astoria”. He was smart enough to not use government dollars to pay for the trip – instead it was privately funded by a group of businessmen that had heard the story.

This would be a big change in the life of the illiterate camel driver. He lived in a one-room ramshackle hut with his wife and four children. Nine others had died during childhood.

He owned no other clothes other than those that he wore on his back. Being a devout Muslim, he made it clear that he would not wear American clothes. Nor would he eat American food. These were obstacles that were easily overcome.

The media storm elevated Bashir to celebrity status in both Pakistan and the United States. Armed police were required to protect him against multiple death threats. Bashir’s wife and friends worried that he would be unable to resist the temptations of the US. They feared that he would eat forbidden pork and drink intoxicating liquor. He is allowed to have up to four wives, so his wife was quoted as saying “What will happen to my four children and who will support me and feed me if he brings another wife with him?” Bashir swore on the Koran that he would not look at another woman during his entire visit.

For his trip, the Pakistani government provided him with new clothes to wear. If you happen to see pictures of him on his visit, you will see that they gave him some very classy Pakistani clothes – a fur cap, long, high-buttoned coat, and baggy pants – the kind that we typically only see in the movies. Having never worn shoes before, he complained that they hurt his feet.

His plane landed in New York on Sunday, October 15, 1961, and Bashir was met there by Vice President Johnson. They then flew to Austin, Texas for a two-day visit at LBJ’s ranch in Johnson City. On Monday, Bashir took his first ride in a saddled horse, was given a tour of Johnson City, then a tour of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, and concluded his first day with a barbecue at the LBJ ranch. It was VIP treatment all of the way.

Bashir Ahmad with then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson.
Bashir Ahmad with then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. Image appeared on page 1 of the October 16, 1961 publication of the Detroit Free Press.

Tuesday’s agenda including being a guest at both the Six Flags Over Texas theme park and the State Fair of Texas at Dallas. It was at the state fair that Johnson presented Bashir with a shiny new Ford pickup truck that he could take home. He got to walk through a supermarket and was even given a helicopter ride over Dallas.

Then he took the flying carpet to Kansas City, Missouri, for a tour of the American Royal Livestock Show to see the auction of its grand-champion steer named Maybe II. This was followed by a ceremony at the Liberty Memorial where Bashir received honorary Kansas City citizenship and was presented with a key to the city. His day finished with a 15-minute visit with former President Harry Truman in nearby Independence.

I’m getting tired just thinking about doing all of this stuff… You are starting to get the picture. Bashir was treated like royalty. I could keep listing his daily events, but it would bore you to death.

So, let’s jump to what Bashir considered to be the best day of his life – Friday, October 20th. That is when Mrs. Johnson, aka Lady Bird, gave Bashir a personal tour of the White House, which ended in the President’s office. And there is where Bashir Ahmad met what he called the “man of the world” – he met President Kennedy.

But it wasn’t to be his best day ever. That is because at the end of the 10-day trip, the Vice President surprised Bashir with the news that on his return trip, he would not be going straight home. Instead, the plane would make a detour to allow him to make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca.

And then, just like Cinderella at midnight, the fairy tale ended and Bashir was back in the poor slums of Pakistan.

But there was one big difference. Bashir was now a big man of the world and he was treated that way. He hoped to capitalize on this newfound fame by making both his and other people’s lives better.

And initially it seemed like that would happen. He was appointed as a director of films by Pakistan’s National Films Ltd, given 15 acres of farmland by a landlord 100 miles from Karachi, and a government job that included a pension when he retired. Bashir also faced a lawsuit for failure to pay off his camel, but the court eventually ruled in his favor.

What excited Bashir the most was his new Ford pickup truck, which was scheduled to arrive in mid-January 1962. Having a truck instead of a camel would nearly quadruple his daily earnings.

Even though he could not read and could only write his name, which he learned to do only so that he could sign autographs while visiting the US, he announced his candidacy for a legislative position in Pakistani politics.

In late March of 1962, he met Jackie Kennedy and her sister in while they were on a two-week tour of India and Pakistan. Both took a ride on Bashir’s camel. But that was met with quite a bit of controversy after they left. It seems that Bashir’s camel was actually rented from someone else. Bashir’s camel was supposedly in too poor health for Bashir to bring along.

Bashir cherished the gifts that he brought back from the United States. They included American clothing, a Polaroid camera that he had no clue how to use, a transistor radio, and his most prized possession: a alarm wrist watch that LBJ had given to him.

But fame came with a big price. He was a one-man traffic jam, so he had to place limits on who could see him. In other words, you needed to make an appointment with one of his secretaries or assistants. And this cost money, money that he didn’t have.

The biggest curse of them all was that 1961 Ford pickup. Bashir could never master driving, so he had to hire someone to do the driving for him. Initially, he rented the truck and driver to the US Embassy, which provided a steady income, but that arrangement abruptly stopped the day Lyndon Johnson turned the presidency over to Richard Nixon.

Ten years after receiving the truck, it was sitting covered in desert sand and dust with its tires removed. The truck needed a major engine overhaul and was of no use to Bashir anymore. He ended up selling it for a few hundred rupees, with a rupee being worth about 10 cents in American money at the time.

When Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, he was saddened to receive the news. By this time Bashir was retired and living back in the slums of Karachi.

So is, Bashir still alive? I searched through every resource that was available to me and was unable to make a definitive conclusion. The best I could find was a one-line statement on a web page that stated that he had died sometime during the late-1970’s and his passing was picked by nearly all of the Pakistani press. If you happen to know for sure when Bashir died, please let me know. I don’t have access to Pakistani newspaper archives, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to read them.

And so ends a heartwarming rags to riches and then back to rags story. I think President Kennedy summed up the great public relations success of Bashir’s visit to the US with this comment: “I don’t know how Lyndon does it. If I had done that, there would have been camel dung all over the White House lawn.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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