08 July 2007

Lady Bird Johnson

I couldn’t wait to call my parents to tell them about my visit to the Johnson Ranch, in the spring of 1999, shortly before I left CBS News. Mom seemed to enjoy the story, but Dad was silent. I couldn’t be sure if silence didn’t signify disapproval — of Democratic idolatry or somesuch. I’ve been given to understand that nobody in the family was particularly enamored of LBJ or his politics, yet the sense of kinship was inescapable.

The whole time I was on the Ranch, I kept thinking of my maternal grandfather: how tickled he would be to see me there, how gratified to learn that the Johnsons’ private library included so many of the books he collected, too. Really the place was much like Goliad, and going to visit Lady Bird was like going to visit Louise Donoghue or some other Goliad doyenne who isn’t my kin but to whom my family has old connections and who conducts her life in similar ways.

We were escorted into the dining room, with its tranquil view of the Johnson Ranch, and served lunch, a hospitable gesture that I surely didn’t expect: home-made tamales and King Ranch chicken (“We just had King Ranch chicken for supper!” my mother cried excitedly), and herbal iced tea and cookies, the handiwork of a strikingly bohemian housekeeper/cook named (I think) Susan.

Two Mexican-American servants assisted her, and we all sat at a long dining table where Liz Carpenter commanded the conversation. Liz was Lady Bird’s press secretary during the Johnson Administration; she wrote a bestselling memoir of her years at the White House (Ruffles and Flourishes), and she continues to take a lively interest in the First Lady’s public image and personal welfare. And Liz is a whirlwind, from whom every other press rep ought to take notes.

Liz might have consulted her notes before she spoke to me, or she might not, but somehow she remembered my name and my (inherited) small-town Texan background, and she made sure she included me in every part of the discussion. (Since in so many other interview situations I never emerged from Dan Rather's shadow, this was gratifying.) When she introduced me to Lady Bird, it was as “Bill Madison from Goliad,” giving me the perfect opening for a line I’d prepared: “My grandfather was chairman of the Democratic Party in Goliad, and wherever he is right now, I’m sure he’s just bustin’.”

“Good, you can stay,” said Liz.

Throughout the interview, Liz must have been a bundle of nerves, worried about what kind of impression Lady Bird was making, generally fretting the way a press secretary does (or I do), although Lady Bird hasn’t officially been her charge for something near 30 years. She took me aside and asked if Lady Bird’s vision trouble were too obvious, and appeared relieved when I said I’d never have guessed. It seems Lady Bird is legally blind, and I guess they were all fearful she’d look pathetic.

In the event, however, Lady Bird looked pretty, lively, and always charming. Hers is a wonderful sort of charm because she seems only to be herself, and by happy accident that self is what other people consider charming. She seems so natural and unaffected, like one of her wildflowers, simple and genuine. And yet because she is a Southern lady and because she is a political wife, you are suspicious — because very few of either breed are ever genuine.

Her accent is of a thick, Deep-South strain, the way Texan accents aren’t supposed to be, and although I grew up hearing such accents, I seldom do anymore. (Few among the newer generations of Texans speak that way at all.) It was good to hear the music of that accent again, and it helped to make me feel I was listening to someone I’d known all my life. She can be quite eloquent, with a gift for word choice; she got a journalism degree at the University of Texas, and she’s among the best-educated First Ladies. (The history of women’s education being what it is, she didn’t have much competition until recently.) And it is striking to realize that so many of my first ideas of what a First Lady was, must have been formed around my impressions of Lady Bird, the first First Lady of whom I was conscious.

She was never a beauty, but hers is a good, strong, handsome face, with a radiant sweetness and a lingering sparkle in her failing eyes; she’d had her hair done for this occasion, and she submitted gently to the attentions of the makeup artist and camera crew. She sat on a big, comfortable sofa in the library, which, but for its Texana collection, would be among the least intimidating rooms in the house, filled with papers, files, and books; venetian blinds kept the room dark, not least to avoid straining Lady Bird’s eyes.

It’s a big house, yet beyond its size it doesn’t boast its wealth. The furniture is simple, the rooms very much lived-in. It’s a peaceful place, a refuge, and you can’t help wondering: would history have been different if this house were less comfortable, less gracious and forgiving? Would Lyndon Johnson have behaved differently if Lady Bird been less patient and enabling?

Dan had visited the Ranch before, long before LBJ was vice-president. He tells a story of being summoned to the Ranch for a press conference, only to learn that LBJ had decided to say nothing after all. Dan needed to phone his bosses in Houston, to warn them there’d be no scoop that day, and before it became the Texas White House, the only phones on the Ranch were private, family lines. Dan managed to find a phone — and within seconds LBJ burst into the room, furious to find a reporter taking such liberties. He threw Dan out of the house, and Dan hightailed it for the highway. But he hadn’t reached the front gate before Lady Bird pulled up in her own car and asked him gently to return. “Don’t mind Lyndon,” she said, and brought him back. This afternoon, Lady Bird claimed to remember the incident: but was this because Dan had written about it (in The Camera Never Blinks), because it was memorable in itself, or because it was one among many similar incidents?

A lot of couples have a Johnsonian dynamic, if on a smaller scale: one spouse provokes, the other placates and mediates. By the time Dan met the Johnsons, their “good cop, bad cop” act must have been practiced, refined, and routine. But I don’t think it was entirely an act, and in this house especially, with LBJ’s larger-than-life personality long gone but never forgotten, their relationship lingers in the rooms. You can almost hear him. Yet though she’s sitting in front of you, you can’t hear her reply to him.

Sure, she was an ideal political wife, but she was smart and restless, eager to find useful work in an era when political wives weren’t supposed to do much of anything. How did she endure LBJ’s epic temper tantrums, strategic vulgarity, and skirt-chasing? How did she respond to the grandiosity of his ambitions? How did she reconcile the good (his efforts to combat poverty and racism) with the bad (Vietnam)? How did she console him when he failed? What did she say to him? In a sense, every American has to come to grips with the slippery riddle of LBJ, to find some balance between his extremes, exactly the way Lady Bird must have done on a daily basis. But we don’t know how she did it, and the discretion that made her so useful in politics then, now frustrates our understanding of them both.

She lived with him so long. She has lived so long without him.

It seems that, early in their marriage, Lyndon gave her a little movie camera, and she took home movies throughout their life together; now she was willing to share them with us, and officially that was the excuse for this interview. Mary Mapes was producing the segment, and she prepared a list of questions, mostly trying to get Lady Bird to tell stories pertaining to specific films.

But in such cases Lady Bird struggled so hard to be precise, fought so bravely against a balky memory in pauses so long, that I realized she needed to be turned away from dates and names and toward more general impressions, emotional memories. If Lady Bird couldn’t see anymore, it stood to reason that she hadn’t seen these old movies in many years. And so I began searching my pockets for scraps of paper to write other questions, which I handed to Dan during the breaks. I was delighted with the results — Lady Bird responded with energy and pleasure to such questions.

The only failure can be blamed on context: “What would you say to the young couple in those old movies?” I asked, meaning her and LBJ, but in the context of the conversation she must have thought Dan meant Nellie Connally and John, or Nellie and herself — it was confusing to her and she never gave the answer I expected, despite Dan’s attempts to steer her.

Surprisingly, Mary had asked no question about the “beautification” campaign, but that is still a subject to which Lady Bird warms, so I proposed a couple. Lady Bird never did like the word “beautification,” and is quick to point out that hers was one of the first successful ecological conservation programs in the country.

Well, I am bound to like my own questions and Lady Bird’s answers to them, but with whatever objectivity I can muster I do believe my efforts made some difference.

After the interview Liz Carpenter and I chatted in a living room — there are at least two such rooms on the ground floor — and Dan and Lady Bird joined us after they’d finished a little “walk and talk” segment (during which of course I must hide out of camera range). Then Liz’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Sutherland, joined us, too. Liz was preparing for a talk at UT, her alma mater, too (and my parents', too), where she and David Broder would discuss the press, and so she wanted to pick our brains — mine as well as Dan’s, thank you. Lady Bird listened with great interest to this, and to Dan’s assessment of Dan Quayle (she seemed surprised and revolted that he could have any chance at the Republican nomination in 2000), and to our tales of our trip to China.

While Wayne Nelson and Mary Mapes helped the crew strike, LuAnn Mancini, the makeup artist, had been appointed our official CBS photographer for the day, and when it was time to go she nudged me and I asked Lady Bird to pose with us — “something we never ask, but it’s important because you’re a Texan.”

Somehow, LuAnn misplaced the roll of film those pictures were taken on, and I never got a copy.

It was a perfectly lovely day, and when Lady Bird said she hoped she’d see me again very soon, as if I might simply drop by some other afternoon, I found myself hoping the same thing. Yet I hardly know how this afternoon could be improved upon, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have the presumption to approach her except in exactly this fashion.

A few days after I posted this Portrait, Mrs. Johnson passed away, at the age of 94. I hope I do see her again, just as she said, and though I don't know where we'll be when the day arrives, I do know there will be wildflowers, and maybe some home-made tamales, too.

Photo credit: LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe