21 March 2010

Liz Carpenter

You can see in her eyes that she’s up to something —
And don’t think for a minute she doesn’t know
how to use that cane on you.

Liz Carpenter was one of the most charming women I ever met. Just the sound of her voice over the telephone was enough to win me over: there was something so buttery about her drawl, as if she’d just eaten a big old slice of jalapeño cornbread, that you wanted to share it. And her Texas accent reminded me of my sweeter little old lady relatives. But as a tough reporter and an even tougher political operative, Liz knew when to turn off the charm and to shove you aside or to bulldoze you into line. Mercifully, I never experienced those sides of her — I might not have survived. I’m a good deal more delicate than Liz Carpenter ever was.

Salado-born and Austin-educated, she’s best known for serving as press secretary to the First Lady during the Johnson Administration, somewhat less known for continuing to serve unofficially in that capacity for another four decades, until Lady Bird passed away. If you made the mistake of saying “beautification” instead of “Mrs. Johnson’s pioneering environmentalism,” you’d hear from Liz; and when I tagged along with Dan Rather for an interview at the Johnson Ranch, Liz was right there. She was also an influential feminist, a power behind the throne in Texas state politics, and a trusted adviser to Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, each of whom took Liz’s basic principles in directions that Liz didn’t go — but might have.

At the White House

So it’s entirely possible that Liz was bulldozing me all along, and that, because of her charm, I simply didn’t notice it. It was flattering in the extreme that she sometimes called the Rather office — just to speak to me. Unlike so many others, who considered me a waste of time, an obstacle on the path to my boss, Liz gave every indication of enjoying our conversations. She always made a point of referring to my family in Goliad and to my parents’ affiliation with The University of Texas, their alma mater as well as hers. Maybe she had notecards in front of her to jog her memory of me, but I never saw them. (And honestly, it would be kind of flattering just to think that someone like her might keep a file on someone like me.)

Liz was a pro who knew how offices like mine worked, and she’d been a gatekeeper herself. She knew that I’d drop everything to take her calls, even in the middle of a broadcast (and I’d apologize for keeping her on hold, even when I hadn’t), and that, because I was at the anchor’s right hand, I could transmit her messages and steer conversations in directions she sought, even when she wasn’t around. She didn’t need to pester Dan. Liz knew what so few press reps and publicists do: when to step back. That’s part of what I mean by charm.

This is the picture that ran with obituary in the New York Times. I hesitated to run it here, because frankly I think Liz would prefer a picture in which she looked prettier. However, I draw your attention to the prominent placement of the book she’s holding — it’s one of her own, Start with a Laugh, a guide to public speaking. Liz was always working, always pitching, always trying to win over somebody. But she was always laughing, too.

When you’re a boy growing up in the South, you’re born familiar with the phenomenon of the gracious lady who wields more power — psychological, political, sexual — than you do, more even than you can imagine. “Steel magnolia” is the stereotype, and it’s one reason so many Southern men are more feminist than they know: they’ve been surrounded by superior women all their lives.

Liz wasn’t all sweetness and perfume. She had plenty of spice — there was jalapeño in her cornbread, as I say. But she could very easily persuade you to do something without your ever realizing it hadn’t been your idea in the first place.

If I hadn’t agreed with her on so many points already (something she surely recognized, though professionally I was forbidden to say so), I might have resented her. But I admired her wholeheartedly, and nobody could make me laugh the way Liz Carpenter could.

I encourage you to check out Liz Carpenter’s many books, though most are currently out of print. Her White House memoir, Ruffles and Flourishes, is ranked as one of the best of its kind by Dan Rather (who would know, having read them all) and by my mother, too. Unplanned Parenthood, the astonishing story of how, in her 70s, she adopted her late brother’s three children, is also a helluva good read. Of course, Liz herself would have found a much more gracious, witty, and subtle way to make this endorsement.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

My analysis of Southern feminism is this: the South is a secret matriarchy, where Southern men delude themselves into believing that they call all the shots. Southern women develop their persuasive wiles primarily because, really, it's too hot to argue with us.