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The New American Magazine :: That Freedom Shall Not Perish

Essay on Character: Lawrence Patton McDonald (1935 -- 1983)

The following is based on extensive first-person interviews with Congressman Lawrence Patton McDonald's family, friends, and congressional staff, and on first-hand interviews by the author with the Georgia Democrat during his nine years in Congress.

Originally intended as an appendix to the book, Day of the Cobra, the essay was omitted from the Thomas Nelson work because of its length. It is presented here on the occasion of the second anniversary of the KAL 007 mid-air massacre and offers an assessment of the forces and influences that shaped Congressman McDonald's character and career.

Because Lawrence Patton McDonald was the first elected official in American history to be murdered by a foreign power -- one he had spent his entire career warning against -- he now occupies a unique place in American history. While he is remembered for his uncompromising opposition to totalitarian Communism, how and why he came to hold his views can only be grasped by understanding the elements that comprised his character. For character, in the final analysis, is the sum total of what we are, as opposed to what we may believe ourselves to be.

On September 12, 1983, the Atlanta Constitution's Washington correspondent Bob Dart chose as the lead paragraph for his story on the memorial service for Congressman Lawrence McDonald (D-GA) the fact that Dr. McDonald's favorite poem, "If," was read to the nearly 4,000 angry mourners. Dart called one line, "If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you," hauntingly appropriate.

"But the mourners who assembled at Constitution Hall to honor McDonald were never among his doubters," Mr. Dart wrote. "[His doubters] were liberals who dismissed his arch-conservative and anti-Communist views as anachronisms from the Cold War. The mourners came as America's conservative phalanx, 3,700 strong, filling the historic hall on a hot autumn afternoon to remember one of their own. To this gathering, Larry McDonald, the Georgia congressman who was killed along with 268 other persons on a Korean jetliner, has already become a martyr."

Mr. Dart did not know that the reading of Kipling's "If" was a commentary on Congressman McDonald's character and childhood. From the time he was a small boy growing up in Atlanta, the framed poem was the sole item that hung on the walls in the bedroom he shared with his older brother, Harold.

"No one ever said a thing about it," recalled Dr. Harold McDonald, Jr. "We just grew up looking at it."

The mother of the boys, Mrs. Harold McDonald, Sr., known as "Callie," recalled that she always loved Kipling's poem and had memorized it. Poor in material possessions but rich in matters of the mind and spirit, she cut the Kipling poem out of a volume of English verse because there was not much else the family could afford to hang in the boys' bedroom.

"You never know what influences people," she said. "I hung it in a gold frame in the boys' bedroom when they were little and just kept it there. I guess that was the beginning of Larry's reading it. But he always loved it. I heard him use part of it during his election campaigns. It always seemed to have meant a great deal to him."

Family Roots

Born in 1905 in the rural hills of Galax, Virginia, Callie Patton was one of seven children. Her father raised apples and cherries and was a general storekeeper at a time when Henry Ford was still thinking about the Model-T auto. She grew up loving the outdoors and nature of southwest Virginia, and she would pass on to her son Larry her love of both nature and literature.

Her family moved to Atlanta from their 30-acre rural farm-general store environment when she was 12; it was a time when America was about to lose its long isolation from the world and its innocence with entry into World War I. A family cousin, George S. Patton, Jr., was a colonel in that conflict and later, in World War II, would become one of the most famous U.S. general field commanders in twentieth-century history.

Lawrence Patton McDonald was only 10 years old when General Patton was killed in a motor vehicle accident in Germany in 1945. Thirty years later, when Larry was elected to Congress, he would keep a picture of his distant relative in his Washington office, perhaps as a reminder that in his own lifetime real heroes lived and did great things on the stage of history. Patton, like Larry's other heroes George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, was a Christian warrior who represented the embodiment of the authentic American hero: the man of action and of mind, possessed of eighteenth-century values that placed a premium on loyalty, candor and fidelity to religious principles that time and circumstances did not make unserviceable.

While attending Georgia State College for Women in 1925, Callie Patton majored in home economics. "So I fed the boys well," she recalled.

About that time, her future husband, Dr. Harold McDonald, Sr., was just out of a Georgia medical school, and specializing in urology. He was the son of a hard-working and talented Atlanta physician, Dr. Paul McDonald. A stern but highly respected physician known for his integrity and deep dedication to his calling, Dr. Paul "practiced medicine until he was 87 years old," his grandson Harold recalled.

Dr. Paul came from an age when the code of personal conduct held that morality was the respect you paid to self, and manners the respect you paid to others. And, as his grandson noted, "He never took off his coat or vest until he went to bed."

Depression of the '30s

Callie Grace Patton married Harold McDonald in 1928, a year before the great stock market crash that would plunge the nation into the depths of the worst economic depression in its history. In Georgia and Atlanta, an even deeper state of economic distress had persisted from the time of the surrender of the South to the North in 1865.

"My husband got all of $15 a month at the hospital;" Mrs. McDonald would recall, adding that, "they get quite a different sum now."

Harold Jr. was born in 1933 and Lawrence Patton McDonald was born on April 1, 1935, both Depression babies. But they had the advantage and influence of a father and a grandfather who were hard, tough men who took adversity as it came and made do with what was at hand or could be produced by hard work.

Dr. Paul McDonald's account books reveal that in bad times he accepted chickens and other items as substitutes for his fee. Dr. Paul had lost a child named Lawrence in childhood, and that lost life was virtually reincarnated when his daughter-in-law named her second son Lawrence.

The McDonald boys grew up in the decades of the Great Depression and World War II when everyone in the world knew who were the good guys and who were the bad.

Brothers and Boyhood

"He liked Fu Manchu novels," Dr. Harold McDonald said of his brother Larry. "Fu Manchu has for decades been the symbol for a worldwide evil conspiracy against the forces of good. Sherlock Holmes was my favorite because he used a lot of deductive reasoning.

"We didn't have any money. We didn't have a car. My father was a penny-pincher -- we had a nice home, but we cut our own grass and mother did all the cooking. We had no allowance. We planted and harvested our own garden, and even did our own canning. Mother ironed every shirt. We were very middle class."

The McDonald boys grew up in the area of Atlanta which would be the beginning of the city's suburbs later in the postwar years. They were without the distraction of television, but with the benefit of radio that stimulated an entire generation of young Americans to use their minds to paint pictures in the imagination.

"He was a relatively non-competitive person," remembered Harold McDonald of his brother. "I liked to play games; he liked to collect things, nature things. We lived in the country near woods, so it was a trade off; he'd play baseball with me if I'd go hunting in the woods with him to collect bugs, snakes and other nature things. Larry always had a fascination with nature, particularly snakes, and became quite knowledgeable and expert on the subject." Callie McDonald added that "he also came to know his birds. When he was a Cub Scout he did a bird project, drew them to scale and won first prize. He had an artistic side."

Larry McDonald's love of nature and living things was an element of his character he inherited from his mother, who also led him to love literature. Both qualities came together when he was seven years old and in bed with a bout of the measles. His mother recalled reading aloud to him from The Yearling, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The story, set in the wilderness of the Florida Everglades, is about a young boy and the tender attachment he formed to a yearling deer.

"I didn't read ahead," Callie McDonald related, "and when I got to where the little yearling was killed, Larry just burst into tears and cried all night long. He was so sensitive and sympathetic with the little fellow."

Sensitive to the suffering in God's nature, and born into a family of physicians who made medicine a way of life, Larry McDonald as a very small boy made up his mind, his mother said, that he was going to be a doctor like his father and grandfather. Harold was going to play baseball professionally until he was 35 and then attend medical school.

"Larry was a very determined little fellow," his mother related of her son, who was nine pounds at birth and big-boned, and grew to stand 6 feet 2 inches tall and weigh over 200 pounds in his maturity. "But he was a very interesting, happy little fellow. When he got something into his mind that he wanted to do, he did it. I guess he got that from his father, who was very determined about what he wanted to do. I'm a much easier-going person."

Cultural and Family Influences

In the American South of the 1930s and 1940s, close-knit family ties and "Honor thy Father and Mother" were taken as social and religious gospel, no matter how authoritarian and rigid such attitudes may appear to today's permissive society. The McDonald brothers rarely disobeyed their stern father and their more artistic, literary-minded mother. But when they did, she was not hesitant to switch them.

She remembered one instance, with a trace of steel in her voice: "I got Harold first, and switched him. He went hopping up and down and out of the house. I said, all right, Larry, come here, you're next -- and switched him. Larry with tears streaming down his face put both hands on my shoulders, and looking me straight in the eye said, 'Mother, I'm not crying because you're whipping me; I'm crying because I disobeyed you.'" He was only eight years old.

In the years when the boys were growing up, their father was busy with his medical practice, leaving home in the morning sometimes before they were awake and returning after they had gone to bed. When, however, the family took dinner together, the discussion at the table took on the atmosphere of a debating society.

"Larry learned his debating skills at the table with our father," Dr. Harold McDonald, Jr., recalled. "He wasn't the type of parent who discusses issues; he'd be telling you what was right. You could respond but you never went head to head with Dad. If you won one, he'd claim you were nitpicking. Dad would always bring up an argument and sometimes they were contentious and they didn't always sound friendly. He was tough, but after a while you realized Dad would argue just as strongly the point you were arguing two weeks before! He was dogmatic, domineering, rarely gracious, and often autocratic-sounding."

Childhood Brush With History

Later during his career as a U.S. Congressman from Georgia's 7th District, Larry McDonald would be highly conscious of the importance of history, including contemporary events. He was aware of his own ancestors whom he traced back before the American Revolution and still further back to England and Scotland with the Donald Clan. But, it was the visits of the president of Texas A&M to the McDonald household that gave him his first hunger for history, which he would never lose.

Mrs. Kathryn McDonald recalled her husband's fond memories of that remarkable man's visits: "He would take Larry on his lap and tell history stories, instead of fairy tales. He would tell him real stories, of real people, and it fascinated Larry."

According to Larry McDonald's brother, another important influence that developed in both of them an early interest in history and the world at large was the direct result of visits to their home of Everett Patton, an older brother of their mother.

"He was the only person we knew," Harold remembered, "who knew everything in the world -- he read the Congressional Record every day and lived in the Philippines before World War II. During the war, he was chief dentist on Admiral Chester Nimitz's staff He was in many ways very similar to Larry because he had this incredible talent for retaining a massive amount of information and then reading it back to you in a constant stream."

Mrs. Callie McDonald thinks that what solidified Larry's passion for history was the year he spent at Davidson College in Charlotte, N.C., where he studied under a professor of history who was a classicist.

Although the McDonald family was Methodist, both boys were sent to private and parochial schools because, in those days, private schools, and particularly parochial schools, in the South still maintained a remnant of the classical educational tradition that put a premium on learning and self-discipline. Larry's mother maintains that her son's deeply-held religious convictions were initially set when he came under the influence of the Grey Nuns and Marist Fathers at Christ the King Grade School in Atlanta. Later, Larry would attend a non-denominational high school. He finished high school in two years and pre-medical college in two years, and entered Emory University Medical School when he was only 17.

Dr. Harold McDonald, Jr., insists that this accomplishment was not the product of a natural brilliance. Rather, according to him, it was the end product of his brother's serious application to study to the exclusion of almost every other activity in his teenage years.

"When I started to summer school, Larry did too," he recalled. "When he got out of high school, he started to college in June rather than wait until September. He didn't skip any grades; he just went through three summers and was accepted in medical school at age 17. Larry was bright but he wasn't scholarship bright. He just went to school and was dead serious about studying. He didn't play football; he wasn't big on dates; he wasn't a history buff; he was a serious scholar. What used to really burn Larry up were people whose main aim in life was two beers and television. He couldn't tolerate that. When I was square dancing in college instead of studying, he disowned me for that."

Medicine Molded Their Minds

The McDonald brothers, from the time they were old enough to comprehend what was going on around them, were exposed to an endless stream of intensively focused discussions about medicine, particularly urology. They were also influenced by a wide variety of people who were the patients of their father and grandfather, the latter a general practitioner who maintained an office in his home.

"His home office had rockers on the porch and patients waiting," Dr. Harold Jr. related. "It was a familiar scene to hear about doctors and medical problems. Frequently, someone was staying at the house on his way to a medical convention and Dad was forever on the phone talking about medicine, urology. Long before we knew anything about accounting, tax problems, and literature, it was a familiar scene to hear doctors and medical problems. We in the family took our medicine seriously."

A Classic Southerner

Dr. Daniel Jordan, for 25 years a friend of Larry McDonald and a fellow Georgian, said after his murder aboard Korean Airlines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983, that he believed Larry exemplified the classic Southerner in thought, values and actions.

"His values were certainly not humanistic," Dr. Jordan observed. "His expressions and descriptions of life and history were not based on the humanistic view that puts a heavy stress on personal pleasures and pursuits. Rather, they were on a much higher level, a belief that man may think he disposes but it is God who disposes. He did have a certain amount of chauvinism in him when it came to women, that a woman was certainly no equal in performance of duty but that she must be protected and honored for the functions and duties that she can and should perform....

"He exemplified all of my concepts of what I see in the traditional Southerner that go back a hundred years or more," Dr. Jordan went on, "not in the plantation slave-owner stereotype, but in the code of chivalry, the idea of manners, courteousness, graciousness, and the general code of the gentleman. Within all this was a fully developed, mature personality who took his place and assumed his duties in a society without being conscious of class."

Thomas Jefferson's generation argued for aristocracy based not on birth, but on virtue, talent and merit. The ranks of the early leaders of the American Republic were filled with men who did not need or want to enter political life as the means to establish their self-esteem or self-worth, or, as has been too often the case in this century, to obtain public office as a way to assure financial security and in the process plunder the commonwealth while pretending to serve it.

In the shattered and defeated South after the Civil War, which had lost a whole generation of leaders who took seriously the Code of the Gentleman, politics came to attract men who more and more held public office as a career, rather than as a calling of one's duty. The generations of Dr. Paul McDonald and Dr. Harold McDonald, Sr., were full of stern, principled men and women who watched the politics of their day with disdain, seeing it become the profession of the unprincipled.

Opposition to a Political Career

It was understandable, therefore, that when Larry McDonald announced to his father that he was planning to give up what was clearly a brilliant as well as a financially secure medical practice for the volatile life of elective politics, his father was horrified and adamant in his opposition.

"Dad was dead set against it," observed Dr. Harold McDonald, Jr. "Mother supported Larry. Then after Larry won and it looked like he was going to stay there, and it was clear he was running on principle rather than just to be in Congress, Dad really liked the idea and publicly supported him in political efforts from then on. We all were proud that he maintained the strong principles that he held to."

Atlanta doctors beyond the McDonald family conservatively estimate that by choosing to serve in Congress, Dr. Lawrence P. McDonald gave up a minimum of $100,000 a year, which he might have earned had he pursued his initial career in medicine.

It was during his last year in medical school in Atlanta (he received his M.D. in 1957) that he decided to join the Naval Reserve, a decision that would change the course of his career and life. Interning as a physician at Bethesda Naval Hospital, he later took flight surgeon training at the School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida.

Larry's marriage to an Icelandic national who was the daughter of a self-made businessman, while he was stationed in Iceland, produced three children: a son, Tryggvi Paul, and two daughters, Callie Grace and Mary Elizabeth. His marriage foundered and dissolved in divorce principally because of his passionate preoccupation with politics. He believed it was a weapon to fight both the growth of Communism abroad and what he discerned as the destruction of what remained of the American Constitutional Republic at home.

This awakening to danger began, according to Dr. Daniel Jordan, while he was stationed in Reykjavik, Iceland, as a flight surgeon to U.S. naval squadrons and as physician to diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy. His brother recalls that he had never heard Larry once mention the threat of Communism prior to going to Iceland.

"He went to the commanding officer in Iceland," observed Dr. Harold McDonald, Jr., "when he thought the U.S. Embassy appeared to be doing things advantageous to the Communists, who were very influential in the country. He was told something that rang in his ears: 'You don't understand the big picture.' He began to think, 'Maybe I do.'"

Emergence of a Politician

"He came back from Iceland after discharging his Naval Reserve active duty obligations and began reading political history and books on foreign policy, sometimes two or three a week," said his brother. "He also looked around for anyone else concerned about Communism, and the only organization he found trying to do anything was The John Birch Society. Larry believed in saving the country from Communism as strongly as a missionary to Africa in the nineteenth century believed in saving the souls of the people."

Two years of residency in general surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and three years of urological training in surgery at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor were combined with a growing, intense interest in politics. It was while he was in Michigan that he first ran for a public office, the Ann Arbor City Council, and lost.

"He took a great deal of abuse in those days," observed his close friend, Dr. Jordan. "He would be heckled from the audience when giving a speech against the dangers of Communism. Initially, he did not respond well to this kind of abuse. The abuse he received in most of his career, even when he went to Congress, was unreal. I don't think people realized the degree of abuse and outright hate he was exposed to beginning as far back as 1962-63. But in the last decade of his life, when his powers were developed at their fullest, he demonstrated an ability to handle whatever came along. His enemies and detractors were, in fact, frustrated by his ability to handle himself in any public situation. He could just overwhelm anyone with his vast knowledge of a subject, and his appearance and genuinely gentleman-like manner were a combination that made him invincible."

Meeting-of-the-Minds Marriage

Larry McDonald's political activities when he returned from Michigan, combined with a medical practice with his father and brother, were what eventually led to a divorce from his wife. It was in 1975, when he was in California giving a speech a year after his election to Congress, that he met Kathryn Jackson. She had worked with many politicians in California and came to dislike them as a breed because they seemed to stand for everything and, therefore, for nothing.

"He was definitely my knight, my gladiator," Mrs. McDonald said after Larry's murder, "and he came charging out to California in November 1975. I told him I didn't date politicians and just as quickly he said: 'Will you make an exception?'

"He followed me to the hotel bar -- he didn't drink or was seldom even in a bar -- after his speech and came right to the table where I was sitting with two other ladies who had come just to hear Larry because he was so handsome and single. He came right up to the table and asked, 'Pardon me, may I join you?' I said, 'No! I am just leaving,' and the other two girls could have killed me. But he sat down and talked; we talked about books; we talked about history; and he nearly missed his plane. He talked about what the ancient Roman Senate did to the empire because its members lacked principle. He talked also about elected officials who, lacking honor and convictions and a willingness to take a stand to save their country, are doomed to defeat."

Kathryn Jackson was beautiful -- and she had brains. They were married in June of 1976. They had two children, Lawrence Patton McDonald, Jr., and Lauren Aileen McDonald, two years old and eight months respectively, when their father was murdered.

In the congressional re-election campaigns, the young couple conferred a certain degree of glamour on the 7th Congressional District of northern Georgia, made up of a mixture of rural fundamentalists and urban middle-class, white-collar Atlanta suburbanites. His supporters ignored both the Atlanta media's constant attacks on the Congressman and their attempts to make him out to be a representative of rich, sinister, out-of-state interests who funded and controlled an equally sinister group, The John Birch Society.

"His personal magnetism allowed him to swing a number of voters to his side who didn't always agree with him," Dr. Jordan noted, "joining about 30 to 35 percent of the district that made up his political base that did not agree with him. Opponents knew that taking on Larry in a head-to-head confrontation meant being destroyed. His political enemies in the news media in Atlanta and in Georgia's regular Democratic organization feared him less for his views than his effectiveness, his charismatic personality, his intelligence, and his overwhelming knowledge. This infuriated the Atlanta media, because no one was supposed to know things as well as they did. And when he could overcome their knowledge, it was infuriating because he was on the other side; they could have tolerated him if he had been one of them."

A Charismatic Conservative

According to his brother, Larry McDonald never had much patience with people whose interests centered on pastimes like football while the country and the world, as he thought, were rushing toward their destruction. Paradoxically, "In his district," brother Harold said, "Larry got along great with people who worked in a factory. He'd go into a factory and find that those people had a kindred feeling for him." Larry McDonald's foreign affairs advisor, Hilaire du Berrier, may have provided the key to his appeal.

"Larry was a comer," he wrote. "All the things which he had said and for which the American press had sneered at him were proving valid. He was the most handsome, personable, and most articulate man in the House of Representatives .... Among the qualities that make for greatness, he had the rare gift of inspiring confidence in the hearts of those in his presence and he had an indefinable ring of verity in his voice. Above all, he was honest and a patriot."

Tommy Toles, his press aide and director of staff affairs in the 7th District, thought of him as the most honorable and loyal person he had known. Toles, a veteran Georgia newspaperman, could say that about few other men in the state's public life.

A Modern-Day Cicero

"He had great personal charisma," Tommy Toles said, "and was a very forceful individual. One of his greatest assets was his persistence. He never quit. He never gave up. He never slowed down. He was not a person to exercise caution simply because the newspapers criticized him.

"I would call Larry McDonald a modern-day Cicero," he added. "There will never be another one like him in our lifetime; he was what novelist Taylor Caldwell called in one of her books a 'Pillar of Iron.' He was the one who stood at the gate and cried forth the warning about the enemy without and within and, like Cicero, he was assassinated."

Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.) was a statesman, scholar, lawyer, writer and upholder of republican principles during the civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic. Dr. Jordan believes that the analogy is apt only in that both Cicero and McDonald were proven accurate in their warnings and both were murdered. Cicero was captured, beheaded and his hands were cut off and nailed to the rostrum of the Roman Senate. Dr. Jordan prefers to think of Larry McDonald as more like Nathan Hale (1755-1776), the American War of Independence hero caught spying against the British who before he was hanged uttered the famous words that he regretted he had but one life to lose for his country. His utterance and act of bravery assured him a special spot in the pantheon of American patriots as a young martyr in the cause of liberty.

However, Larry McDonald's religious advisor and close friend, the Rev. Joseph Morecraft III, a biblical scholar, may have come closest to finding a historical parallel. "The nearest historical comparison I can make to Larry McDonald," he observed, "is John Randolph of Roanoke [Virginia]. He was like Randolph and many early figures in the American Revolution in that they fought for principle against great odds and were willing to lay down their lives for what they believed in."

John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) sat in the House of Representatives, and later in the Senate, between 1799 and 1828. Less personable and charismatic than Larry McDonald, he nevertheless represented for 29 years a congressional district in southwestern Virginia where, interestingly, Larry McDonald's mother, Callie Grace Patton, was born and lived until age 12. Mrs. McDonald, who lost both her husband and her son Larry within a six-week period, said that if she had ever pursued her interest in a literary career she would have taken the pen name Grace Randolph.

The career of John Randolph of Roanoke in the House, like McDonald's, featured a lonely struggle against the majority who refused to face facts, and those who chose to act out of expediency rather than principle. Randolph was one of the few Southerners who had the courage 35 years before the Civil War to denounce slavery as "a cancer" on the face of the South, and he accurately forecast that a civil war would result if the North or South refused to let the evil institution die by the sheer weight of its own deficiencies.

Although a century and a half separated their two congressional careers, Larry McDonald's character most resembles Randolph's as a lonely, principled defender of personal liberty. Both were Southerners, both Constitutionalists, and both were Christian political warriors who died defending with their last breath the idea that the individual is sovereign and answerable ultimately, not to the god of government, but to the God whom both believed governs and guides all things.

"He was never afraid to do the unpopular thing," observed his widow Kathryn, "because he was totally secure within himself. He could dare to be unpopular and unaccepted; and that didn't bother him. He was the total gladiator for the right cause."

Jeffrey St. John is a former editor of THE NEW AMERICAN and the author of Day of the Cobra, an examination of the Soviet destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 007. He is a veteran print and broadcast journalist/commentator, the author of four other books, and the recipient of two Emmys for his work in television.