Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson 1912-2007

I was very sad to hear of the death Lady Bird Johnson, a woman who served as First Lady with uncommon grace. I thought I would share a story about her that not many people know about, which comes from a piece I wrote about the Walter Jenkins scandal. Jenkins was one of Johnson's closest aides and when he was arrested for a gay liaison in a YMCA bathroom on the eve of the 1964 election. Lyndon Johnson was afraid that it would have an impact on the campaign. Lady Bird was more concerned about doing the right thing:

In the hours after he learned of the arrest [Johnson] said little publicly, releasing only a perfunctory statement to the press announcing Jenkins' resignation. Lady Bird Johnson, however, knew exactly what to say. Against her husband's wishes, she issued her own statement of compassion and support for Jenkins. It was the only time she publicly defied her husband in their 39 years of marriage.

In a White House recording of a telephone conversation, Lady Bird tells Johnson that if "we don't express some support to him, we will lose the entire love and devotion of all the people who have been with us." Though he tries to dissuade her from getting involved, telling her patronizingly, "We have the best minds working on it," she refuses to budge. Finally she responds, in a voice dripping with honey and heartache: "My love, my love, I pray for you along with Walter. You're a brave, good guy, and if you read some things I said in Walter's support they'll be along the line that I just said to you." Her emotional statement, which began, "My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country," transformed the climate surrounding the scandal. In its wake, a host of newspaper editorials recommended compassion for Jenkins.

You can read the rest of my piece here.