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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
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?