Sarah Wildman: Lady Bird Johnson walked the first-lady tightrope perfectly

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sarah Wildman was until recently an assistant editor at TNR.]

In 1964, fresh from a bruising battle over President Lyndon Johnson's recently signed Civil Rights Act, Lady Bird Johnson got on a train to stump for her husband. Alone. It was the first time a first lady had ever attempted a solo campaign to support her husband's bid for office. But the "Lady Bird Special," as her whistle stop tour was called, was no White House Easter Egg Roll photo opportunity, nor perfectly orchestrated reading lesson, nor carefully choreographed pep rally. Lady Bird insisted on taking her message to her roots--the roiling angry Southern states. She wanted to go where "the pavement runs out and the city people don't often go." She wanted to meet the poor, the country people, the cynical, the angry; she wanted to show them the South wasn't just a "whipping boy" for the Democratic Party--that she too was the South. It was a message: The White House hadn't forgotten these states even if her husband--and, by extension, herself--was forcing that same South to trade in a racist past and present for a more equitable future. She crossed eight states, speaking to a half-million people, traveling only by train, Harry Truman style. And she organized it all without using her husband's advance men, braving bomb threats and demonstrators all the way. In Columbia, South Carolina, when the roar of racist hecklers began to drown out her message, Lady Bird broke from her notes, raised an appropriately white-gloved hand and said "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine. Thank you." And she got their attention.

By all rights the tenure of Lady Bird Johnson at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should have been a disaster. It not only began with tragedy--the assassination of John F. Kennedy--it picked up the reigns from a woman considered the most chic, the most cosmopolitan, and the most beautiful in the country. Lady Bird wrote in her diary that when Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis it was like a ghost had finally stopped following her down the hallways of the East Wing. But despite that private burden, Lady Bird never tried to mold herself after the socialite princess of Camelot. Nor did Lady Bird fall back into the docile, apolitical background haunted by Jackie's immediate predecessors, Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman. She was far more public than the three who came before her, and as much of an activist as Eleanor Roosevelt herself, the ne plus ultra of activist presidential spouses. "She went one step further than her heroine and role model Eleanor Roosevelt by being more intimately involved in the president's day to day life and political career," Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, e-mailed me this morning. "If Eleanor Roosevelt showed just how influential a first lady could be in advancing her own concerns, Lady Bird Johnson demonstrated just how influential a first lady could be in shaping and selling the president's agenda."

Lady Bird, who died yesterday at the age of 94, did it all at a moment where to be anything less than a trail blazer would have been a liability--feminism was just taking root--but anything more individualist could have backfired--because traditionalist strongholds were digging in. She took the impossible job of first lady and made it her own, recognizing immediately that the pulpit and media attention her elevated status afforded her was unique. She pushed through legislation, raised awareness on social and environmental issues, and promoted her husband's presidency. And she did it all in a Southern accent so down-home, yet so genteel, and so gentle, she never lost a battle, and rarely made an enemy. ...

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