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Sidebar three – Lady Bird Legacy

March 5, 2013

 Sidebar three – Lady Bird Legacy 

            Lady Bird in Her Words

You won’t find any titillating gossip in Michael L. Gillette’s new oral history of Lady Bird Johnson. The genteel former first lady had no instinct for this. But you will find some new and intriguing insights into Lady Bird’s oft-told life story.

She reports with rare candor, for instance, on the good times and zany friends and many beaus she had while attending the University of Texas at Austin.

“I really did have quite a range of friends,” she admits. “Every spring there would be some new man that I would see a lot of and be terribly interested in, but they never really amounted to much.”

She is equally frank about her whirlwind courtship with Lyndon Baines Johnson, months after her graduation from UT. As a suitor, she says, LBJ “came on strong.  And he was very direct and demanding. I didn’t know quite what to make of him.”

Gillette, executive director of Humanities Texas, was in charge of the oral history program at the LBJ Presidential Library from 1976 to 1991. His book, published in November, 2012, is a compilation of the 47 recorded interviews conducted with Lady Bird from 1977 to 1996 by both Gillette and Harry Middleton, former director of the LBJ Presidential Library.

Many events covered in Lady Bird’s voluminous 1970 book, “A White House Diary,” are revived here.  But Lady Bird adds new insights, under Gillette’s questioning, especially when delving into LBJ’s controversial political decisions.

One occurred in 1956 when John F. Kennedy asked LBJ, then the Senate majority leader, to be his vice presidential candidate.  LBJ didn’t want to accept and Lady Bird opposed the idea at first. “I loved the Senate just as he did. I did not know how good a number-two man he would be…”

House speaker Sam Rayburn persuaded LBJ to accept Kennedy’s offer—which Robert Kennedy opposed from the get-go.  When Gillette asks Lady Bird if LBJ considered asking Robert Kennedy to be his vice presidential candidate in 1964, she replies coolly: “No. He would have wanted a running mate he had warmth for.”

While she doesn’t gossip, Lady Bird offers rich stories about the Washington political and social scenes and former First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy and Pat Nixon.

In one big surprise, Gillette discounted the oft-repeated claim that Lady Bird’s nickname was coined by her black nurse. “Mrs. Johnson once told me that the nickname had actually come from her two black childhood playmates, who themselves were nicknamed ‘Stuff’ and ‘Doddlebug,’” Gillette writes. “It was later deemed more respectable to assign credit to the nurse and avoid the impression of interracial socialization.”          

At the heart of this enduring oral history, however, is the transformation of a shy southern girl into a powerful political wife and an environmental champion in her own right.

Gwen Gibson

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