- Historic Sites
The Johnsons and the Kennedys are popularly thought to have shared a strong mutual dislike, but stacks of letters and a remarkable tape of Jacqueline Kennedy reminiscing show something very different —and more interesting
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
Mrs. Johnson campaigned actively. Covering thirty-five thousand miles, she made a point of appearing at many integrated events in her home state, despite the disapproval she encountered from some Texans. As Robert Kennedy said, “Lady Bird carried Texas for us.”
was pregnant at the time, and except for a few appearances in the Northeast in the autumn, she remained in Hyannis. From her home she composed a regular feature, offered through the Democratic National Committee, called “Campaign Wife,” that touched on issues she believed were important to women, like education and medical care for the elderly. She sent along material on the latter subject to Mrs. Johnson, saying, “I knew you would be interested.”
Mrs. Kennedy got a better sense of how the Johnsons worked as a political team when the couple visited Hyannis Port shortly after the Democratic and the Republican conventions. Jackie recalled in the 1974 interview that Lady Bird carried a spiral pad, “and when she’d hear a name mentioned she’d jot it down. … Or sometimes if Mr. Johnson wanted her, he’d say, ‘Bird, do you know so-and-so’s number, and she’d always have it down. Yet she would sit talking with us, looking so calm. I was very impressed with that.”
The Johnsons and Mrs. Kennedy next saw one another on inauguration day, January 20, 1961, and through their working relationship a friendship blossomed. The Johnsons donated Abraham Lincoln’s appointment book for the White House restoration, and the Vice President ar- ranged to have a chandelier initially installed at the White House by Ulysses Grant returned from the Capitol. On her part, Jackie, feeling that the Johnsons deserved greater visibility at White House functions, decided to have their names announced along with those of other dignitaries so that they wouldn’t just fade into the background “like maids.” Lady Bird endeared herself to Jackie by being a willing substitute when the First Lady canceled an appearance.
By this time the First Lady was addressing the Vice President as “Lyndon” in her letters. The clearest refutation of the legend that the soignée Jacqueline looked down upon the rough Texan was her specific request that he give the speech at a party honoring a man she greatly admired, André Malraux. She believed Johnson’s folksy yet eloquent American manner would appeal to the French intellectual, and on February 4, 1962, she wrote LBJ urging him to be the one who replied to Malraux’s address: ”…you are the only person who could properly respond to Malraux— …
“As you know … this visit here is such an important one—for all the cultural side of our country—The dinner we will give for him at the White House [on] May 10—will be like the Casals dinner—in that all the great American writers oc poets will be there—
”… and it is so vital that the most important & the most eloquent person—you—be there— …
“My best wishes to you always, Jackie.”
Of course, LBJ accepted.
When, in August 1963, the Kennedys lost their premature two-day-old son, Patrick Bouvier, they received thousands of sympathy notes, among them this one: “You give so much happiness—you deserve more.
“We think of you—pray for you and grieve with you. Would say more but you would have to read it—and I fear want to answer it—don’t.” It was from Lady Bird and Lyndon.
The event that was forever to link Jackie and the Johnsons was, of course, the November 22, 1963, assassination of the President in Dallas during the first unofficial campaign trip of the 1964 presidential election.
The Johnsons were in the car immediately following that of the Kennedys and Gov. and Mrs. John ConnalIy. After riding through an underpass and down a hill, Mrs. Johnson heard a loud crack, over her shoulder, followed by two more. She assumed it was firecrackers. The next thing she knew, the motorcade was speeding and the Secret Service had forced her and her husband down in their seats. The car stopped in front of a building, and Mrs. Johnson saw a sign: HOSPITAL. Only then did she realize what had happened. Mrs. Kennedy was detained outside the emergency surgery room; Lady Bird Johnson went to be with her. She had always thought of Mrs. Kennedy as “insulated,” she said later, but now found her “quite alone.”
later, on Air Force One, when Judge Sarah Hughes administered the presidential oath of office to LBJ, the three of them stood there together in the cramped cabin. As Johnson raised his right hand, Lady Bird stood at his right, and Jacqueline Kennedy at his left, explaining her presence by saying, “I think I ought to. In the light of history, it would be better if I was there.”
“Oh, Lady Bird, we’ve liked you two so much,” she told the new First Lady.
Struck by the sight of “that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood,” Mrs. Johnson asked if she wanted to change clothes. The woman she always thought of as “gentle” now showed a “fierceness.” “I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” she said.
The day after President Kennedy’s funeral, Jackie invited Lady Bird up for tea, offered household details on running the mansion, and then said, “Don’t be frightened of this house—some of the happiest years of my marriage have been spent here …”