The former First Lady looks back on the years with Lyndon and discusses her life today
When Lady Bird Johnson stops by the post office in Stonewall, Texas, to mail a letter, or waves to the tourists visiting the Johnson Ranch, or rides in the elevator of the LBJ Library in Austin, she is greeted with delighted smiles—sometimes of immediate recognition, sometimes of surprise—but always of pleasure. Her unassuming and invariably friendly presence is obviously one of the treasures of central Texas.
Claudia Alta Taylor was born on December 22,1912, in Karnack, a small Texas village near the Louisiana border. Her father was the town’s principal merchant, whose store carried the sign “T. J. Taylor—Dealer in Everything.” She picked up the nickname of Lady Bird as a child, and though she uses Claudia on legal documents, she has been called Lady Bird ever since. Her husband, in fact, who was amused by the fact that they had the same initials, usually called her simply Bird.
She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1934 and met Lyndon Baines Johnson the same year. On their first date he asked her to marry him, and although she had a “queer moth-in-the-flame feeling,” she thought at first that his proposal was some kind of a joke. They were married two months later.
Johnson was then a congressional aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg, and the young couple settled down to an intense life of politics in Washington, punctuated by the birth of two daughters—Lynda Bird in 1944 and Luci Baines in 1947. In 1937 Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives, and eleven years later he won a Senate seat, in a contested election, by the margin of eighty-seven votes. He served successively as Minority and Majority Leader, the youngest man ever to hold either post. In 1960 he was John F. Kennedy’s running mate, and he succeeded to the Presidency when Kennedy was assassinated in late 1963. Elected in his own right in 1964, Johnson chose not to run again in 1968.
The Johnsons retired to the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas, which Johnson had bought in 1952, to his wife’s “deep annoyance,” from an aunt who had lived there for thirty-nine years. Although Lyndon had visited his aunt frequently as a child and loved the place, Mrs. Johnson had no roots there and describes the old building as looking like a Charles Addams haunted house. However, she went to work fixing it up, and “soon became just as fond of it as he was.” During the White House years, it was a refuge to which they escaped—accompanied by Secret Service men and trailing reporters—whenever they could.
By the time the Johnsons went to live permanently at the ranch, it had grown into a large prosperous operation. The Pedernales River flows through the property, cattle graze in neatly fenced pastures, and barns, sheds, small dwellings, and an airfield with hangar dot the grounds. Johnson, who was having increasingly frequent attacks of angina, knew his wife would not continue the farming operation after his death, so he arranged in 1971 to turn over the ranch to the National Park Service, making sure that favorite employees got Park Service jobs. Mrs. Johnson has use of the house for her lifetime, while the Park Service maintains the ranch, and runs tours through the grounds. Mrs. Johnson explains matter-of-factly that after her death the tour will include a visit to the house, too. The house is comfortable, homelike, and beautiful, a curiously harmonious blend of exotic treasures—mainly gifts from heads of state—and Southwestern artifacts.
For a wealthy woman—except for the Kennedys, the Johnsons were the richest couple ever to occupy the White House—Mrs. Johnson lives simply. She manages her household affairs herself and spends long hours in her office in Austin. She sees a great deal of her seven grandchildren, four of whom live with their mother, Luci, in Austin. Lynda is married to Charles S. Robb, the present lieutenant governor of Virginia and lives in McLean. Robb is the one person for whom Mrs. Johnson now does any campaigning. “When it gets as close as your son-in-law, you can’t say no,” she says.
The interviews which were the basis for the following article were taped in several sessions last summer at the LBJ Library and Ranch. Mrs. Johnson’s speech is distinctly Southern in accent, she laughs readily and infectiously, and she is unfailingly gracious.
In your book, A White House Diary, you mention the “tyrant of time.” Since your retirement have you been able to beat that tyrant? Have you been able to do the things you wanted to do?
Yes, to a sizable extent. When I walked out of the White House, I embraced leisure and really did nothing for about six or eight months, just really lay fallow, so to speak.
And President Johnson?
Oh, yes. He turned away without a backward glance, because, you see, he had always had the great resource of just loving living at the ranch. He had always wanted to improve it, to put in some more tanks [ponds], some more native grasses, to build better fences, to maybe get a little piece of the land next to us. And then, of course, we had put all of our affairs in trust, so we had a lot of catching up to do. And since the death of our business manager in the late fall of ’77, I found that I have had to go back to work.
So you’re suddenly back as a businesswoman?
Yes, back in a way I didn’t anticipate or want, and yet I must rather grudgingly say that I am enjoying it.
I know you also spend a lot of your time working at the LBJ Library. Do you assign yourself certain days when you come into Austin and work, and certain days to stay out at the ranch?
The weekends—prolonged, if possible, by a day or so—I just cling to the ranch, and hardly anything—it has to be a big obligation that I owe—will get me into town on Saturday or Sunday.
And Highway Beautification, are you still busy with that? Incidentally, I’ve read that you hated the term “beautification,” is that right?
Absolutely so. It sounds cosmetic and trivial and it’s prissy, but try as we would we couldn’t come up with anything better.
Yes, I am still involved. It gave me more pleasure than anything I did in the White House years, except perhaps seeing America. My interest now is certainly on a smaller scale—Austin and Texas. Here in Austin I work in a project on the riverfront where the Lower Colorado River flows right through our town. The Lower Colorado is not any kin to that big river that hewed out the canyon. Colorado just means “muddy red,” and I dare say there are several Colorado Rivers. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department had already, a year or two before we came back in '69, told me about their hopes to build a parkway along the banks of the river, which at that time was neglected. Part of it had been a trash dump, part a gravel pit, all of it was just overgrown with rank weeds and unattended and unloved but potentially a beautiful place. We spent about five busy years raising funds. The general idea was that we wanted to have a succession of native, indigenous, hardy, blooming shrubs along the riverfront with a hike-and-bike trail and some picnic tables.
There is a tablet that marks the time at which we dug the first spadeful of dirt—I think it must have been December of '71, because Lyndon was very much alive—and he made me see that I could make some pretty sizable donations myself of money as well as time and love and spreading the gospel.
What it is really used for now is running. This town is mad about running.
How far does the trail go?
Twelve miles, I think, counting both sides of the river. And if you don’t get out and walk part of it you’ll miss a big piece of my heart.
With all those activities, is there much time left to enjoy your leisure?
Well, yes and no. Somewhere or another I came across a quote — I think it’s E. B. White — “When I wake up in the morning I wonder if I should try to save the world or savor it today.” And more and more I find that I want to savor it.
Do you ever miss your White House years?
No. I regret the things I didn’t do, but not the timing of walking out, no indeed. Can you imagine a more grueling summer than the one of ’68?
No, I can’t. And the actual position of First Lady, do you miss that?
I loved it, I loved every day of it. A lot of it was desperately painful, but on balance, I loved it. And respected it and thought—had that “pinch-me” feeling, “My Lord! Me?” But the moment you begin, you know this is a temporary state, a temporary thing, and that you’d better just give as much to it as you can every day and get as much out of it as you can—but you’re also counting the days until it’s over.
Did you emerge from your White House years with a philosophy of what the First Lady’s role should be?
Well, I think it’s an absolutely personal thing. Nobody elects her except one man. And nobody pays her. And her obligation—I think you have to feel an obligation, indeed I do—her obligation is inescapable. But I think it’s a personal one. At any rate, I’m sure that every one of them feels first and primarily the obligation of trying to make a comfortable area, an island of peace, if you will, a setting in which her husband can do his best work.
And I think that is common to all of us, but from then on it’s just whatever makes your heart sing. What do you know about? What do you care about? What can you do to make this a better administration?
When you became First Lady, did you consciously try to model your role on anybody else’s?
No, I didn’t. I had read a good deal of history, and oddly enough, some of the sightseeing that had attracted me had been going to the homes of former First Ladies, but then I’m just a natural sightseer. But I think it would be sort of presumptuous to pattern yourself on somebody. I really wanted to serve my husband and serve the country, and if that sounds—geesy, well …
Did you particularly admire any previous First Lady? Eleanor Roosevelt, for instance?
I had an awful lot of respect for her hard work, and her caring, and her knowledge. But then I had a very sympatico feeling for Dolley Madison simply because she enjoyed it so much. And a lot of respect and admiration for Abigail Adams, who intellectually made her husband’s work part of her work.
Do you feel that the role of First Lady is changing?
Yes, I do, just as the lives of all women are changing. I consider myself an old-timer, and age sort of dictates that I am, but my daughter Lynda, for whom I have a lot of respect—and who has plenty of female virtues—every now and then she gives me some startling statistics on the number of women entering the work force.
It just means that the whole world now knows that women can do a lot of things besides sit on the platform and look with an adoring face at their husband making a speech. So people just kind of get to expect you to get out and work on some of the projects you care about. I think it will be a little harder for future First Ladies to be totally within the mansion and within the personal life.
Looking back on it now, do you feel you did a good job as First Lady?
I would rather leave that to a whole lot of other people to talk about. [Laughing.] I know I enjoyed it tremendously.
What was your first involvement in politics?
Actually Lyndon opened the world of politics to me as soon as he asked me to marry him. When we were married he brought me home a list and he said, “I want you to learn the names of all these counties—these are the counties my boss, Congressman Kleberg, represents. These are the county seats. These are the principal communities in each county, and one or two of the leaders in each. Whenever you travel around with me, when we get to this town, you want to know who Mr. Perry is …”
When did you first start campaigning?
Well, at first I was just putting my foot gently in the edge of the water and very ignorant about it all, and really in our early years, in ’37, for instance, [when LBJ first became a congressman] we had a campaign manager who really thought woman’s place was in the home, and he really didn’t want to have any woman down at headquarters—except maybe to lick stamps and address envelopes.
But Lyndon never had that philosophy—he just couldn’t stand to see free help going to waste—and he was not only asking me but sort of nudging me and pushing me into doing more. Finally, I think it was somewhere in the late ’40’s, I made my first tentative little speeches.
As a congressman’s wife, what sort of political jobs did you do?
Well, you see, we were in Congress about twenty-four years all told, and there’s a great deal of personal service in politics, and that is good. As the wife of a congressman, certainly in my time and especially from the South and Texas, the congressman’s wife was kind of home base for all the visitors from his district and his state. He didn’t have time to take constituents—which is a word written in capital letters in the life of congressmen—to Mt. Vernon, or the White House tour, or to have lunch in the House or Senate dining room, but that was something his wife could do.
You must have gone to those places a lot of times.
You say in your diary that the first time you campaigned on your own was your whistle-stop tour through the South in 1964. With all the civil rights turmoil that was going on then, was that hostile territory?
Absolutely! Oh, was it!
How did you feel about that? Were you heckled?
Yes, a good deal. It certainly puts a lot of adrenalin in your blood and you learn about control. Also I had a great deal of sympathy and understanding, because these were my people. I am part Alabamian, and I knew how they felt. I didn’t agree with them, and I wanted to tone down the sharp edges of their feelings. I wanted to convince them that civil rights wasn’t going to hurt them—that all ships rise on a rising tide. At any rate, it simply had to be done, because it was the right thing.
How do you actually deal with hecklers?
You’re very quiet for just a moment and let them holler anything they want to, and I think that kind of surprises them, and then you hold up your hand and say, “Now, you’ve had your say. Will you give me mine?” and just make it a question, and there will be somebody in the audience who will say, “That’s fair.” Then, of course we were dealing with people who had a natural courtesy for women, though I didn’t want to play on that because that’s not fair either. You sure did find out a lot of people who were made of pure steel, and a lot of people who somehow or another suddenly went on a vacation at the time you came. Politics is really a marvelous way to learn the best in people and also the most scruffy, ugly …
Were you nervous about making speeches?
Oh, very, very. I’ll never, never get over it, and really I think if you do entirely get over it, it means you’re not trying hard enough. There was an old governor of Texas who used to say that there were three ways to make a speech—you write it out and get up and read it; or you write it out and memorize it and get up and say it; or you just get full of your subject and let her roll. That last, of course, if you are organized and really knowledgeable on your subject, would be the best way to do it, because I will listen to somebody talk when I won’t listen to him read, no matter how wise the words.
Did you ever take a course in speaking?
I did, and I’ll be forever grateful that I did. It was taught by a lady named Hester Provenson in Washington who had something called the Capitol Speaker’s Club, and she was an institution around Washington. Lots of Senate wives, congressmen’s wives, ambassadors’ wives especially, took it, and finally I took it and I’m so glad I did. She would make us all make speeches—a two-minute speech and later on a five-minute speech, and then perhaps a ten-minute one.
Was practice the main benefit of the course?
Absolutely the main thing, and organization. She always began by saying, don’t apologize, don’t go saying you aren’t used to making speeches, they’ll learn that soon enough.
There was one particular speech, a graduation speech you made at Radcliffe, that you seemed to feel particularly insecure about. Why was that?
That’s quite right, I did. Radcliffe has got the reputation of being one of the most intellectual schools, just a great school, and I have an education—which I value very much—from two quite simple high schools and from a good state university, but I’m far from an intellectual—it wouldn’t be my ambition—and I was going to appear before people that I wanted to make a good speech for, and I wasn’t at all sure I could. Liz [Carpenter, her press secretary] used to give me good advice. There’s a small community in the 10th District, which Lyndon represented for twelve years, named Dime Box, and Liz would say, “Just look out there at them and think they all came from Dime Box. ”
Do you have help with speeches, a speech writer?
Yes, I do. It’s almost by osmosis though, because I talk to the person beforehand and say, “This is how I feel about the subject and could you get me some facts on X, Y, and Z and could you beef up this feeling, my philosophy on this, with some really glowing phrases.”
And then do you go over it carefully?.
Yes, it has to be me.
What about your White House diary? I gather you taped your experiences all through those five years, but in putting it all together, did you do it all yourself?
Surely, surely. It was not anything that I would have wanted to have any help on—not until the typewriting came along. And I had this oddest reluctance to go back and play any of the tapes for several years. I think it was about March of ’68 that I decided I had better go back and face some of them.
I’m not a bit good with machinery, and there was one desperate moment when I put on one of the early tapes and touched what I thought were the appropriate buttons and it went round and round and round and round and nothing happened. I had a moment of dreadful panic that I had wasted months of my life. But I pressed a few more buttons and I backed up and then my voice began to roll out. Oh, it was so reassuring.
Have you continued taping your activities since you left the White House?
No, I have not. It was a very burdensome thing, but that was a unique segment of time, and the real reason I kept the diary was because I was the only person who was going to see those events unfold from quite that vantage point.
I gather from what I’ve read that you had a very good relationship with the press. Was that a policy of yours, or was it simply something that was easy for you?
Well, I had no inrooted hostility or fear, either one, and I had a number of friends in the press, and I just wanted to let it remain that way as long as possible. They had to prove to me that they were going to be mean to me before I was going to get mad at them. Then I must give a large part of the credit to Liz Carpenter. I sort of had the philosophy myself—and Lord knows, Liz did everything she could to rev it up—that if you’re available and talked over something with folks and explained why you couldn’t do this, or didn’t believe in that, or whatever, you would fare better in the end than if you either ran away or just evaded.
You mention in your diary that you felt sometimes the press tended to pit people against each other because it made good stories.
Oh, they always did that. Lyndon used to say to them, “Your business is to start a fight, and my business is to stop one.”
Did you try to patch up friction promoted by the press?
Yes, I did. And also I always tried to remind Lyndon and other people, “Don’t get mad at Mr. X just because they’re giving you all the reasons why you might ought to get mad. Because really, why don’t you just go to Mr. X and ask him what he thinks about it?” I remember early on they used to try to pit us against the Speaker [Sam Rayburn]. They saw the old giant getting older and the young strong man coming up. But that was a lifelong love between those two.
In your diary you were apprehensive about President Johnson’s press conferences. You called them “trial by combat.” Why did you feel that way? He always seemed perfectly confident at press conferences.
Well, sometimes he was and many times he wasn’t. When you feel that there is a lot happening that you cannot control that is bad, and know that to have some of it publicly known would only make matters worse—no, he was not always at ease. And he did read every last thing they wrote and looked at the ticker all the time. I could easily pull down the shades and not see what was going on. I didn’t care. They could write it and I didn’t have to read it.
But he felt he did?
He laughed at me and was amused by my attitude, but he said, “I can’t afford it because they really are the conduits to the public, and if I can’t get things across to the public I can’t do my job.”
You say you didn’t read daily press reports. Do you read books and articles about you or President Johnson?
Almost none of them.
You just don’t want to?
Just don’t want to, can hardly pick them up. And really, I don’t know that there’s been an in-depth, well-researched book on Lyndon, unless it’s Merle Miller’s [Lyndon: An Oral Biography]. I haven’t read it. I’m scared to read it. But I must say he did a lot of research. He talked to many friends and, no doubt, many enemies, and he read a lot. What he’s come up with I don’t know.
Did you read Miller’s book on Truman?
I thought it was great. Approaching it just as a citizen who knew Truman not intimately, but fondly, and rather well, I thought it was great, a service to him. But if I had been Truman’s wife or daughter I would have been mad as heck.
Robert Caro is also working on a book about President Johnson, isn’t he? How do you feel about Caro’s book?
Thoroughly, absolutely nervous about any of them doing anything. On the other hand, all the other books about Lyndon, in my opinion, have been short books written by friends that just addressed a brief passage of his life. They were not what you’d call long, definitive books. And Caro’s book, if it ever comes out, I’ve got to say it’s going to be well researched.
During the White House years how did your daughters react to the press?
Luci was a natural. Luci just seemed to tune in on what was the right thing to do. Lynda is a very private person, and she—her feeling toward reporters was not unlike Mrs. Kennedy’s, perhaps. I’m sure she made a lot of enemies and deserved some of them. She wasn’t so much haughty as she was shy, and she just really didn’t want them bothering her and her date.
One book I read said that for some reason you didn’t come across well on television. Do you feel that’s true?
I sure didn’t. I think it was even more true of Lyndon than it was of me, but yes, I think—for instance, I have a very bad nose and it always seemed accentuated on television, and my voice should be decibels lower and softer, and somehow or another I always look a bit more frenetic than I feel. I mean, my face is more contorted and full of movement. Maybe it is that way really, I don’t know.
Do you feel the press allows you your privacy now?
Oh, I think I have privacy now. I have lots of requests [for interviews] and a great many of them I say no to, but I have projects to serve—the library, the school, beautification projects—and if people are going to pay any attention to those maybe I can be of some use in talking about them and bringing them to their attention. Actually I think the press has been more than fair with me.
How do you think living in the White House affected your daughters’ lives?
It opened many doors to them that never would have been opened before. For instance, I remember seeing Lynda Bird and her roommate sitting on the floor with Carl Sandburg—a big shock of white hair—while he rattled on and on and they asked him questions, and all this was in the Lincoln Room! Altogether it was an incredible education.
Did you find White House protocol complicated?
I found it a lifesaver. If there weren’t any rules or regulations it would be pandemonium.
Did you have someone to coach you? I mean about such things as how to greet heads of governments.
The State Department would send you a briefing ahead of time, and if you took the trouble to read it, which I always did, it would just really give you everything and more than you needed to know. Then I would always back that up by going to my wonderful National Geographic set of maps, pulling down the one from that country and seeing who were its neighbors and what were its principal rivers. I believed in doing my homework, and I did it as much as I could.
Were you afraid during those White House years? Succeeding to the office after the assassination of a President, I should think physical danger must have been very much on your mind.
No, I just don’t think it’s my destiny, and I just can’t bear to think that it’s a part of the habit or character of America to go around assassinating people.
We’ve had some horrible examples.
I just think they were one-time hideous events.
And President Johnson, did he worry about his safety?
No, not at all, as far as I know.
You mentioned in your diary that after Mrs. Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, you stopped having a vague sense of guilt about her. Why was that?
Well, I don’t think I would have used that word, but I just felt sort of haunted that she—at what her life had turned into, to have her husband killed in front of her eyes, in our state, in the wonderful years of youth.
So, it was almost a relief that she was picking up life again?
Yes, that’s it. If she could resume life enough to marry somebody else, I could put down a burden. Don’t ask me why.
Do you have strong instincts about people?
Yes, I do.
Is that one of the ways you could help President Johnson, or did he also have that quality?
I think generally he had it. I think sometimes he was more trusting than I was.
You were tougher-minded than he was about people?
Probably, but less prejudiced. I could see the good points in people who didn’t like me or agree with me, and try to get something, some service, some help for the country out of them and it didn’t bother me. I didn’t have to be close to them.
And that was harder for him?
Perhaps a little.
Everything I read stresses that you have always been careful about money. Are you still?
I am [laughs], and I’m sure my staff would agree. As a matter of fact, I think I’m careful only to the point of not liking to see waste and making sure of getting my money’s worth. I saw how hard my father worked to make his fairly substantial amount of property, and although Lyndon could be absolutely prodigal with money, he was also careful with it in his way.
Were your father and President Johnson alike in other ways?
Yes, a little bit. They were both strong men, strong in personalities, strong in bodies, strong in intelligence, in my opinion, and they were both good looking.
Were they both charismatic men?
Lyndon was. My father never felt any need of being. You see, he lived in a very small sphere in a country area, and everybody just—his nickname was “Mr. Boss,” or “Cap Taylor.” He was a man that everybody turned to for the answers, let me say that.
You mention in your diary that you are a person who has a strong need to be alone sometimes. Did you ever get a chance in the White House to be by yourself?
Yes, sometimes I would come down here [to the ranch], work real hard for a couple of days and then just do nothing but walk and swim and look at the world. Then there were always the long hours at the White House waiting for Lyndon’s return [from his office at the end of his long working days]. It’s not the kind of being alone that I particularly like, but it did give me gaps of time in which there was no staff, nobody around.
It sounds as though your meals must have been very irregular.
In a long life of being both what I thought was sensible and realistic and laughing and goading and fussing and praising and the whole routine, I didn’t ever change Lyndon about eating regular meals. He ate whenever he finished whatever work he was doing.
Is it true that sometimes when the President was speaking, you would send him a note telling him that it was time to stop? How did he take that?
Usually with laughter. Occasionally with annoyance, but usually he’d hold it up and say, “My wife sent me this note.” And sometimes he was just working up to something important and necessary, but he was working up too slow. He ought to say it and say it quick. I knew that to send him a note might put him off key, and yet I did, a good many times.
You obviously had to dress carefully as First Lady, but I gather you have never much liked shopping for clothes. Is that true?
Anybody who can do it as entertainment is beyond me. But I must say I came to enjoy clothes and the value of clothes.
Did President Johnson influence the way you dressed? Was he interested?
Absolutely greatly. Just like I spent years trying to make him eat at regular hours, he spent years trying to get me, quite frankly, to be better groomed. And to spend more money on clothes and to buy more clothes. He would look at me quite seriously, and he would say, “You don’t sell for what you’re worth. Some people will never see you but once, and they’ll judge you by the way you look then, and you can look just great. ” He really thought I was better looking than I was.
But he also thought I ought to spend more time and effort, and he would say, “You ought to carry your lipstick around with you and get in the habit of putting on some every thirty minutes.” And he said, “Look at yourself in the mirror whenever you go by and see if your hair needs touching up.”
Did he have favorite colors?
Yes, bright colors—red, yellow, coral, orange.
Is it true that you always campaigned in red?
Yes, that’s one place where you don’t want to be a mouse. You want people to be able to spot you.
I read in some magazine article that President Johnson liked you to wear high heels. Is that true?
Yes, and I hated them. I always felt that I was going to fall down and that. … People weren’t really meant to wear high heels, the Lord didn’t fix your foot that way. I did wear high heels especially to please him, but by and large all my life I have wanted non-constricting garments and low heels.
How do you feel you most influenced each other?
Well, I think we were a whole lot better together than we were separate. He made me try harder and do more, and for the natural indolence I had, he was its mortal enemy, and I think perhaps sometimes I made him persevere or take a gentler attitude toward people or events or be less impatient.
And we both helped each other laugh. He could be one of the funniest people in the whole wide world. He was a great mimic and when he played he played just as vigorously as he worked. He did not play enough.
Were you ever embarrassed by his jokes?
Yes, from time to time.
I gather he was an earthy man, and used earthier language than you would use.
He was also, and this sounds contradictory, rather old-fashioned and very respectful of old people and very chivalrous mostly, but sometimes, yes, I thought his jokes were—his language was too—it didn’t please me.
I have read several accounts of how you felt about President Johnson accepting the Vice-Presidency in 1960. Some writers say you were in favor, and some say you were against it. Which is right?
I had strong reservations and concerns, and I certainly was not enthusiastic, and yet I wouldn’t have dared then, or anytime, to pound the table and oppose my feelings to his if he thought it was his duty—which he did come to conceive of it as—to oppose the opinion of people like Speaker Sam Rayburn. Speaker Rayburn had perhaps the most to do with Lyndon’s being willing.
The Speaker was one of the old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool type of party men, Democrats, who took a long view of the party and its good and what obligation you had to it, and I think he finally came [to believe] that Kennedy couldn’t win without Lyndon and maybe they could win with Lyndon. As you recall, it was a very narrow margin.
At any rate, he [Rayburn] finally was for it and became very persuasive, and I got very still.
You got very still?
Not excited, but still. How can you dare—first, it wasn’t my life, it wasn’t my job. It would be Lyndon who would endure the frustrations, if there were any. It wouldn’t be me.
And then there was the fact that clearly, perhaps never again, would the majority leadership have quite the same quality that it had had before. Lyndon had gotten along well with Eisenhower. The balance was very close in the Senate. There were something like forty-five Republicans—just one or two difference. So you had to get along with Republicans. You had to present your case to Republicans and hold the Democrats, and it’s easier to hold the Democrats when they’ve got a mighty narrow margin than it is when they’ve got a whopping big margin. So, perhaps much as he loved that job, maybe it would not have been the same again.
I gather from your diary that you had no question in your mind in '64. You felt he had to run. Is that right?
But that you couldn’t wait for him to get out in ’68?
Let me put it this way; I was quite content to get out. I thought the juices of life—I felt back in ’64 that the juices of life would be stilled enough by then, I think was the way I expressed it.
Would you have felt that way if it hadn’t been for the Vietnam war?
Yes, I think so, because Lyndon was rapidly getting used up. He just didn’t have the sixteen-, eighteen-hour days left in him. In his youth, he could recover from the most serious illnesses in the quickest time, but his capability for recovering and his capability for long, prolonged work was lessening. It showed in his face and in his zest for work and zest for enjoyment and just zest for life. It was just time to quit.
Although there was no doubt about it, Vietnam added a lot to that, but—it wasn’t the total culprit. I think always Lyndon would have gotten out.
When did he tell you that he wasn’t going to run again?
It was something we talked about from ’64 on, but it became necessary to reach a decision in the fall of ’67. And there were several times to do it, but at the last moment there would be some piece of legislation, some event, that he would think a lame-duck President wouldn’t be able to ride herd on, handle, achieve, and he would put it off a little longer.
Is it true that he thought of announcing it during his 1968 State of the Union message?
And had it in his pocket. Sitting up there in the family gallery, I didn’t know what he was going to do. There were a lot of cliffhangers, but actually we were sort of patterning ourselves—consciously or unconsciously—on the way Harry Truman announced he was not going to run.
I’ve forgotten. How did he do it?
Very simply, very straightforward, and surprised a lot of people. At a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in March of ’52. His was the middle of March and Lyndon’s was March the thirty-first.
You once said that one of the tragedies of Vietnam for President Johnson was that it made foreign affairs so enormously overwhelming during his administration, and yet foreign affairs did not represent his kind of Presidency. What did you mean by that?
What was red meat to Lyndon’s abilities and his agenda and desires were in the fields of health and education and equal rights. He’d repeat over and over the phrase about the only war this nation wants to wage is the war against poverty, ignorance, and disease, and he really took overwhelming pleasure in prosecuting that war.
But this other quicksand one would not go away. You don’t write on a blank slate. You take the world as it is when you walk in that door and try to deal with it.
With the constant picketing in front of the White House, it must have been hard not to hate the protesters.
Yes, it was, because you wondered what was going to happen to those people when they grew up. They all looked so irresponsible. One of the maddest times I ever got was when there was sort of a mass demonstration in front of the Pentagon. Early the next morning, I just said to my Secret Service men, I want to get in a car, just a plain, the simplest, black, smallest car you’ve got in that garage with as few people as possible. And so I went out, just three of us, one driving and the other one sitting in the front seat and me in the back, and we drove all round the Ellipse and Pentagon and the Tidal Basin, and I have never seen so many cans and bottles and wrappers—bread wrappers, candy wrappers, lunch wrappers—occasional pieces of clothing, a left-behind blanket or something. It was a wreck, and I just hate to think what it cost the city to clean up after that bunch.
Do you think the protests served their purpose in forcing the government, Nixon’s government, to get out of the war sooner than they would have otherwise?
Yes, I guess they did. Of course, Lyndon’s real fear was not from the left but from the right—people demanding that we get this thing over with by dropping—
—the deadliest of bombs. Forced to that test what do we do? He didn’t want to be the man ever to have to do it. I just don’t think we ever would have gotten over that nightmare. What would we have loosed? The one time we did it, when nobody really knew the extent of it, left a scar, but once we’ve seen the bomb and know what it can do, how can any succeeding President ever, ever, give in to that last horrible thing?
After leaving office with the fierce criticism of the Vietnam war going on, how did you feel about Nixon being forced out of office to avoid impeachment?
Sometimes I draw a great sigh of relief when I realize how many things Lyndon was not exposed to. By reason of his death early in ’73, he did not have to live through, first, periods of real invalidism. To have been bedridden and waited on and dependent on other people would have been a soul-killing thing to him. Second, the events of ’73 and ’74, what happened to the Presidency, would have been traumatic for him—to see the Presidency dragged so low and his country in such a condition of division. I’m glad he didn’t have to suffer through that.
And for yourself, Mrs. Johnson, do you now regard yourself as out of politics?
Well, it was simply Lyndon’s life, not my life. It was really an education for me, and I must say I learned a bit about it, and I hope I was useful and I tried real hard, but politics was not my life. I have a whole lot of requests, and I hope I haven’t hurt any feelings by saying no to them, but I think thirty-eight years was enough.