Return to Nicholas Johnson Main Web Site

Return to "Writing About Nicholas Johnson" Site

Telling Tales in School

Jennifer Fish

Judy Polumbaum, Live Words on Deadline (University of Iowa, Spring 2004), pp. 12-14

The array of pictures on the walls of Nicholas Johnson’s office is daunting: It includes a photograph of him sitting in the Oval Office in deep discussion with President Lyndon Johnson (no relation), a Rolling Stone cover featuring his then- mustachioed face, a photo of him and President Jimmy Carter with their families in the White House Rose Garden, and a centrally placed portrait of his father, a nationally renowned speech pathologist whose legacy lives on at the same university where the son now works.

A professor of law at The University of Iowa, Johnson provides a visitor with a brief tour of the impressive display, exhibiting the hurriedness of practice but lacking any air of self-importance. His modesty nevertheless fails to disguise the fact of an eventful life in the political arena; and in Iowa City, where he grew up and eventually returned, he has continued to command attention for his public service and unyielding voice on public issues.

Raised during the 1930s and 40s by parents Wendell and Edna, Johnson has fond memories from his early childhood on Brown Street and adolescence on Melrose Court. At the first address, his family shared a house with their friends the Engles, whose patriarch Paul, much like Johnson’s father, is associated with a highly recognized and innovative University of Iowa program. Engle became director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1941 and ran the program for a quarter century. Johnson’s father founded Iowa’s Department of Speech Pathology, now located in the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center. Much as the Writer’s Workshop is perennially rated the top graduate creative writing program in the country, Iowa’s graduate program in speech pathology has been ranked number one in the nation for years.

With such role models, it is not surprising Johnson had high aspirations. Earning his bachelor’s at Iowa and then a law degree from the University of Texas in 1958, he clerked in Houston and then in Washington D.C. for Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black. In 1964, when he was 29, President Johnson appointed him director of the U.S. Maritime Administration.

That day produced a shift in his relationship with his father that has yielded one of Nicholas Johnson’s favorite stories. “All my life to that point, I had often been referred to as ‘Wendell Johnson’s son’ — and proud to be,” he relates. “On this occasion, a reporter approached Dad and said, ‘You must be Nicholas Johnson’s father.”

Two years later, President Johnson appointed him the youngest commissioner ever on the Federal Communications Commission, where he served from 1966 to 1973, into the Nixon administration.

He still keeps highlights on video from those days. One clip of a younger, darker-haired Nicholas Johnson illustrates what many have described as a tumultuous period at the FCC. He is providing an argument to a senator with such passion a vein can be seen protruding from his neck. As he watches today, Johnson seems amused with his previous self. Another clip shows Johnson with the mustache memorable from his Rolling Stone cover, on a stage criticizing and making jokes about the cable television industry, while resounding laughs can be heard from the audience—an audience of cable executives themselves, it turns out.
Johnson stirred things up on the five- member FCC, often parting ways with the majority and ridiculing their decisions. He encouraged citizens to boycott commercial television, calling it “the foremost enemy of intelligent consumerism.” During his time on the commission, Johnson also wrote two books about media: How to Talk Back to Your Television Set and Test Pattern for Living.

Under President Carter, Johnson was named an advisor to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, making him an early observer of what became the World Wide Web. Electronic communications remain a large part of Johnson’s life; he is constantly working on his vast personal website and teaches classes on the law of cyberspace.

Following several other assignments in D.C., Johnson returned to the Midwest in the 1980’s and continued writing on current issues as a syndicated columnist and journalist for publications such as The Nation, The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly and Wired as well as local newspapers. He’s been a commentator for National Public Radio and a guest on national shows such as “Face the Nation” and “Phil Donahue” as well as local TV news. He calculates that he’s given more than a thousand public lectures.

He’s a popular teacher at Iowa, and his performance in the law school’s mock courtroom, where he holds forth to classes from the witness stand, shows why. His mode is not really lecturing, but rather explaining and challenging, punctuated with stories and jokes. Students who answer questions in a manner he likes are met with the exclamation “BINGO!” as his fist thuds on the railing in front of him.

Johnson typically draws on his work in the nation’s capital as well as earlier times in Iowa City to convey lessons as he also entertains. Mentions of things that obviously date him, such as phone operators connecting calls or 19-cent gasoline prices, are accompanied by self-effacing remarks about being a “garrulous old professor.”

“When I was in seventh grade, some friends and I founded the Johnson County Bureau of Investigation,” is how he begins one tale.

“This is also when I wrote my first book: How to Classify Fingerprints. I was so proud of our Bureau that I wrote to J. Edgar Hoover and told him that we would be more than willing to work with him on cases in the area. He replied with a letter thanking me for the offer but didn’t think the need was very great in Eastern Iowa.”

Laughter fills the room. Johnson chuckles as well. Then he comes back to the issue at hand, assuring students that there is a point.

“When I was much older, I obtained my FBI file, and was shocked to see all the lengths the Nixon Administration went to try to get me out of the FCC,” he continues. “They constantly had an agent following me; one even followed me to Barcelona, for Christ’s sake! I was most upset, though, by the fact that there was no record of my early correspondence with J. Edgar Hoover. I of course have it at home in my files though.”

Again, despite his personal history at the center of the nation’s politics, Johnson does not come off as arrogant or even impressed with himself.

Leaving the classroom, he greets the night janitor before walking the four blocks home. Johnson lives with his wife of 17 years, Mary Vasey, a retired teacher, in the same house on Melrose Court where he lived as a teenager. In the yard is a huge “Kucinich for President” sign.

In his living room, Johnson settles on the couch while Vasey heats leftovers. He describes his fish pond in the backyard, points out the piano in the living room that was his engagement present to his wife, and also indicates the laptop he uses to work on his website and write articles.

Johnson and Vasey between them have seven children, all successful in occupations ranging from acting to social work to computers; as well as five grandchildren, a great-granddaughter, and a cat.

Appearing now, the feline Beasley goes directly to Johnson, who picks her up, hugs her and murmurs some sweet talk.

Johnson and his wife end their evening watching a taped episode of “The West Wing” that he missed while teaching class. Johnson says he enjoys the program for its witty writing and accurate depiction of the capital where his career took flight. After all that excitement in high places, he seems more than content to be back in his Iowa hometown.