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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
Let me put it this way; I was quite content to get out. I thought the juices of life—I felt back in ’64 that the juices of life would be stilled enough by then, I think was the way I expressed it.
Would you have felt that way if it hadn’t been for the Vietnam war?
Yes, I think so, because Lyndon was rapidly getting used up. He just didn’t have the sixteen-, eighteen-hour days left in him. In his youth, he could recover from the most serious illnesses in the quickest time, but his capability for recovering and his capability for long, prolonged work was lessening. It showed in his face and in his zest for work and zest for enjoyment and just zest for life. It was just time to quit.
Although there was no doubt about it, Vietnam added a lot to that, but—it wasn’t the total culprit. I think always Lyndon would have gotten out.
When did he tell you that he wasn’t going to run again?
It was something we talked about from ’64 on, but it became necessary to reach a decision in the fall of ’67. And there were several times to do it, but at the last moment there would be some piece of legislation, some event, that he would think a lame-duck President wouldn’t be able to ride herd on, handle, achieve, and he would put it off a little longer.
Is it true that he thought of announcing it during his 1968 State of the Union message?
And had it in his pocket. Sitting up there in the family gallery, I didn’t know what he was going to do. There were a lot of cliffhangers, but actually we were sort of patterning ourselves—consciously or unconsciously—on the way Harry Truman announced he was not going to run.
I’ve forgotten. How did he do it?
Very simply, very straightforward, and surprised a lot of people. At a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in March of ’52. His was the middle of March and Lyndon’s was March the thirty-first.
You once said that one of the tragedies of Vietnam for President Johnson was that it made foreign affairs so enormously overwhelming during his administration, and yet foreign affairs did not represent his kind of Presidency. What did you mean by that?
What was red meat to Lyndon’s abilities and his agenda and desires were in the fields of health and education and equal rights. He’d repeat over and over the phrase about the only war this nation wants to wage is the war against poverty, ignorance, and disease, and he really took overwhelming pleasure in prosecuting that war.
But this other quicksand one would not go away. You don’t write on a blank slate. You take the world as it is when you walk in that door and try to deal with it.
With the constant picketing in front of the White House, it must have been hard not to hate the protesters.
Yes, it was, because you wondered what was going to happen to those people when they grew up. They all looked so irresponsible. One of the maddest times I ever got was when there was sort of a mass demonstration in front of the Pentagon. Early the next morning, I just said to my Secret Service men, I want to get in a car, just a plain, the simplest, black, smallest car you’ve got in that garage with as few people as possible. And so I went out, just three of us, one driving and the other one sitting in the front seat and me in the back, and we drove all round the Ellipse and Pentagon and the Tidal Basin, and I have never seen so many cans and bottles and wrappers—bread wrappers, candy wrappers, lunch wrappers—occasional pieces of clothing, a left-behind blanket or something. It was a wreck, and I just hate to think what it cost the city to clean up after that bunch.
Do you think the protests served their purpose in forcing the government, Nixon’s government, to get out of the war sooner than they would have otherwise?
Yes, I guess they did. Of course, Lyndon’s real fear was not from the left but from the right—people demanding that we get this thing over with by dropping—
—the deadliest of bombs. Forced to that test what do we do? He didn’t want to be the man ever to have to do it. I just don’t think we ever would have gotten over that nightmare. What would we have loosed? The one time we did it, when nobody really knew the extent of it, left a scar, but once we’ve seen the bomb and know what it can do, how can any succeeding President ever, ever, give in to that last horrible thing?
After leaving office with the fierce criticism of the Vietnam war going on, how did you feel about Nixon being forced out of office to avoid impeachment?
Sometimes I draw a great sigh of relief when I realize how many things Lyndon was not exposed to. By reason of his death early in ’73, he did not have to live through, first, periods of real invalidism. To have been bedridden and waited on and dependent on other people would have been a soul-killing thing to him. Second, the events of ’73 and ’74, what happened to the Presidency, would have been traumatic for him—to see the Presidency dragged so low and his country in such a condition of division. I’m glad he didn’t have to suffer through that.
And for yourself, Mrs. Johnson, do you now regard yourself as out of politics?