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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
Yes, I did. And also I always tried to remind Lyndon and other people, “Don’t get mad at Mr. X just because they’re giving you all the reasons why you might ought to get mad. Because really, why don’t you just go to Mr. X and ask him what he thinks about it?” I remember early on they used to try to pit us against the Speaker [Sam Rayburn]. They saw the old giant getting older and the young strong man coming up. But that was a lifelong love between those two.
In your diary you were apprehensive about President Johnson’s press conferences. You called them “trial by combat.” Why did you feel that way? He always seemed perfectly confident at press conferences.
Well, sometimes he was and many times he wasn’t. When you feel that there is a lot happening that you cannot control that is bad, and know that to have some of it publicly known would only make matters worse—no, he was not always at ease. And he did read every last thing they wrote and looked at the ticker all the time. I could easily pull down the shades and not see what was going on. I didn’t care. They could write it and I didn’t have to read it.
But he felt he did?
He laughed at me and was amused by my attitude, but he said, “I can’t afford it because they really are the conduits to the public, and if I can’t get things across to the public I can’t do my job.”
You say you didn’t read daily press reports. Do you read books and articles about you or President Johnson?
Almost none of them.
You just don’t want to?
Just don’t want to, can hardly pick them up. And really, I don’t know that there’s been an in-depth, well-researched book on Lyndon, unless it’s Merle Miller’s [Lyndon: An Oral Biography]. I haven’t read it. I’m scared to read it. But I must say he did a lot of research. He talked to many friends and, no doubt, many enemies, and he read a lot. What he’s come up with I don’t know.
Did you read Miller’s book on Truman?
I thought it was great. Approaching it just as a citizen who knew Truman not intimately, but fondly, and rather well, I thought it was great, a service to him. But if I had been Truman’s wife or daughter I would have been mad as heck.
Robert Caro is also working on a book about President Johnson, isn’t he? How do you feel about Caro’s book?
Thoroughly, absolutely nervous about any of them doing anything. On the other hand, all the other books about Lyndon, in my opinion, have been short books written by friends that just addressed a brief passage of his life. They were not what you’d call long, definitive books. And Caro’s book, if it ever comes out, I’ve got to say it’s going to be well researched.
During the White House years how did your daughters react to the press?
Luci was a natural. Luci just seemed to tune in on what was the right thing to do. Lynda is a very private person, and she—her feeling toward reporters was not unlike Mrs. Kennedy’s, perhaps. I’m sure she made a lot of enemies and deserved some of them. She wasn’t so much haughty as she was shy, and she just really didn’t want them bothering her and her date.
One book I read said that for some reason you didn’t come across well on television. Do you feel that’s true?
I sure didn’t. I think it was even more true of Lyndon than it was of me, but yes, I think—for instance, I have a very bad nose and it always seemed accentuated on television, and my voice should be decibels lower and softer, and somehow or another I always look a bit more frenetic than I feel. I mean, my face is more contorted and full of movement. Maybe it is that way really, I don’t know.
Do you feel the press allows you your privacy now?
Oh, I think I have privacy now. I have lots of requests [for interviews] and a great many of them I say no to, but I have projects to serve—the library, the school, beautification projects—and if people are going to pay any attention to those maybe I can be of some use in talking about them and bringing them to their attention. Actually I think the press has been more than fair with me.
How do you think living in the White House affected your daughters’ lives?
It opened many doors to them that never would have been opened before. For instance, I remember seeing Lynda Bird and her roommate sitting on the floor with Carl Sandburg—a big shock of white hair—while he rattled on and on and they asked him questions, and all this was in the Lincoln Room! Altogether it was an incredible education.
Did you find White House protocol complicated?
I found it a lifesaver. If there weren’t any rules or regulations it would be pandemonium.
Did you have someone to coach you? I mean about such things as how to greet heads of governments.