LUCI BAINES JOHNSON once asked her mother how she wanted to be remembered. Lady Bird Johnson, Texas’ reigning matriarch, responded with the kind of Southern, salt-of-the-earth remark that comes naturally to her: “I made a lot of little lists in my life, and I checked a lot of things off.”
As she sat behind her desk at the Austin offices of radio station KLBJ, Luci consciously mimicked Lady Bird when I asked her to reflect on her recent accomplishments. “I’ve checked a few things off my own list,” she said. And, indeed, it has been a time in which Luci, who had played the role of “professional daughter” all her life, has finally come of age. Five years ago, she took her mother’s place as chairman of the board of the LBJ Holding Company, the parent organization for the Johnson family’s business interests, whose combined value is estimated to be $150 million. Last May she completed her long-delayed undergraduate studies, earning a degree from St. Edward’s University, a small Catholic college in Austin. In July she turned fifty and, with her husband, investment banker Ian Turpin, negotiated a merger of the Johnson family’s Austin radio holdings with those of a Virginia-based company—the first openly aggressive move that the LBJ Holding Company has made since the bust. “All my life I’ve reacted to large events that were going on around me,” Luci said, holding a cup of coffee and watching the steam rise. “Now I’ve decided to act.”
None of us escapes our biology and heritage, and certainly not Luci Johnson, whose birthright is bigger and more glaringly public than most. Her father, Lyndon Baines Johnson, has been dead for 25 years, a period of time in which her mother emerged as a power in her own right by reinterpreting their White House years, protecting her husband’s memory, running their business, and championing a cause: wildflowers. As Lady Bird grows older—she is now 85—Johnson watchers are beginning to ask who will carry the flag. In Texas, at least, the flag is in Luci’s hands. In 1996 the LBJ Holding Company bought out the family business interests held by her elder sister, Lynda Bird, who is married to U.S. senator Charles Robb of Virginia and has staked her claim on the Potomac, near the family’s old Washington stomping grounds.
As we talked, Luci signed letters using the initials she shares with her parents and her sister in a script that is, loop for loop, a carbon copy of Lyndon’s. “I can’t help it,” she explained with a shrug. “Like many other girls, I learned to write by sitting at my father’s desk and tracing his signature.” The initials, the signature, the business, and the tendency to wear her high hopes and her idealism on her sleeve are only part of the legacy she has inherited. Physically, Luci is a dead ringer for LBJ’s strong-willed mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, a well-educated woman who was the primary source of her son’s fabled ambition. Luci has Rebekah’s dark hair, piercing gaze, and pale, finely drawn features, the ones that give her the appearance of a Southern lass—even in middle age. Evidence of her family ties is on view in her office: It is filled with family photos, along with notebooks full of speeches and press clippings, and framed commendations from half a dozen or so national charities that she has supported. They are reminders of what she called, with a heavy sigh, “the privilege and weight of my heritage.”
What weight, exactly? The answer seems obvious, but it is spelled out movingly in a letter her mother recently read aloud on the television program Nightline. In the spring of 1964, six months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lady Bird wrote to LBJ to encourage him to run for the presidency on his own—but not without realizing that the entire Johnson clan would pay a price. “In the course of the campaign and in the ensuing years,” she noted, “you—and I—and the children—will certainly get criticized and cut up, for things we have done, or maybe partly-in-a-way have done—and for others that we never did at all. That will be painful.” Lady Bird’s prediction came true, and Luci’s acceptance of criticism has been part of her coming of age. “At some point I learned that I couldn’t control what people thought of my parents, my sister, or me,” she said. “Now I just try to do what I think is right for me.”
Her struggle to make her own life, separate from her family, started in adolescence. At thirteen she established her own religious identity by attending mass and eventually converting to Catholicism (Lady Bird is Episcopalian; Lyndon was born Baptist but joined the Disciples of Christ at age twelve). At sixteen, when she was a junior in high school at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C., a student burst into her Spanish class with the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. At first no one said anything about her father, and she wondered if he, too, had been shot. Later that afternoon, she saw one of her father’s Secret Service agents walking toward her on campus, and she knew instantly that her father had become president of the United States. “I tried to run the other way,” she recalled. Not long after that, she changed the spelling of her name from Lucy to Luci. “I didn’t have a name like Elizabeth that I could shorten, so I changed the spelling,” she said. “It was my way of going out on my own a little.”
Her first night in the White House, she and a friend lit a fire in the fireplace that quickly got out of control—an incident that made headlines around the country. She spent the rest of her first week there cleaning smoke stains off the walls. From then on, she regarded the White House, she said, as “the Great White Zoo.” At nineteen she married a National Guardsman, Patrick Nugent,