John Lawson is best known around Washington, D.C. as an affable, soft-spoken yet passionate TV lobbyist.
What he really wanted to be was a spy.
“I intended to become part of Foreign Service or the CIA,” Lawson said. “I passed the Foreign Service exam and CIA test battery.”
Espionage and intrigue wouldn“t seem to be characteristic of a small Southern community in the “50s, but Lawson grew up in Aiken, S.C.
“I remember JFK ordering maneuvers, and our town was overrun by soldiers,” he said.
Aiken was considered a potential target during the Cold War because of its manufacturing base.
“In the “50s, the government started building one of the largest production projects in the world“the Savannah River Plant“to produce plutonium for the nation“s nuclear arsenal,” Lawson said. “It covers three counties.”
His father worked at the plant. “All I can remember is all these streams that had steam rising from them in the summer... it was more like Las Alamos, than Selma, Ala.”
SCIENCE TO SEGREGATION
The family left Aiken when Lawson was 10 and his dad became a golf pro at a course in
nearby Edgefield County.
“If Aiken was a small, cosmopolitan Leave It to Beaver existence, Edgefield County was a throwback to the Jim Crow era. It was the birthplace of one of the most segregationist governors in history,” he said, referring to the late Strom Thurmond.
The influences of Aiken and Edgefield County ultimately led Lawson to become involved in politics“ that, and the Fab Four.
“I really believe the Beatles, in my little neck of the woods, led to more change than anything with the possible exception of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. The hallmark of life in South Carolina was a stifling conformity,” he said. “The Beatles with their long hair sent the message that it was all right to be different.”
During graduate school, Lawson volunteered for a state senator, Richard Reilly, who won and went on to serve as governor and Secretary of Education. He later worked for an environmental foundation about the time the Reagan Administration proposed to activate the Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant.
Preventing the activation of Barnwell was a personal matter to Lawson, who toured the aborted facility with his father. By that time, the ramifications of the Savannah River Plant had become apparent.
“It left 300 million gallons of high-level liquid nuclear waste,” Lawson said. “It was leaking into the ground. This commercial plant would have been the same, only without the same safety requirements... My father took one look at the facilities, and realized that for routine maintenance like fixing leaking pipes, human beings would have had to been sent down manholes. It would have been extremely dangerous with regard to exposure. “So yeah, it was personal.”
Lawson“s father died of lung cancer at the age of 65.
“My father was proud of his work for the national defense,” Lawson said, “but he realized the process was inherently dangerous and dirty, and to do it commercially was insanity.”