Lady Bird Johnson Remembers

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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?