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Lady Bird Johnson Remembers
The former First Lady looks back on the years with Lyndon and discusses her life today
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
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?