The story of the making of the Johnson family fortune has often been cast as an example of LBJ’s ability to manipulate others for his own advancement in business as well as politics. Yet Lady Bird’s role was equally important: He had the influence, but she had the cash. From 1937 to 1942 she used $41,000 inherited from her mother’s estate to lay the foundation for their fledgling media company, which she ran as president and later as chairman of the board. In time she became a multimillionaire in her own right, the only first lady in history to do so.
While LBJ—then a U.S. congressman—kept his eye on political prizes, Lady Bird focused on the accumulation of wealth. Privately, he sometimes complained that she cared too much about money. “She has the first nickel she ever had tucked in her bra,” he told his closest aides. The view of Lady Bird as tightfisted was also advanced by historian J. Evetts Haley, who wrote in his 1964 anti-Johnson tract, A Texan Looks at Lyndon, that money was one of her “obsessions” like Lady Macbeth, Haley argued, she was a schemer who manipulated her powerful husband as a way to acquire power for herself. Others saw a woman who had gravitated toward strong men, including her father, her husband, Sam Rayburn, and John Connally. In business and politics, the theory went, she formed key alliances that gave her the means to compete in a male-dominated world.
Even in the initial stages of the business, Lady Bird had her own ideas. She suggested that she and Lyndon buy a newspaper, not a radio station. “Newspapers were what I new,” she explained. “Radio was unfamiliar to me. I was more comfortable with the written word.” She made inquires about the newspaper in Jefferson, not far from her hometown of Karnack, but realized it was so small that “it would never satisfy our ambitions.” Lyndon then tried to buy the Waco News-Tribune, but a combination of factors killed the deal, including Lady Bird’s unwillingness to pay the asking price.
Ultimately she reversed herself, and she and Lyndon soon set their sights on KTBC, a small radio station in Austin that had lost about $7,500 in 1941 and had liabilities of roughly $19,000. KTBC had operational problems as well: It had a mere 250 watts of power and only broadcast during daytime hours. At