LBJ’s Living Legacy

Twenty-seven years after his death, Lyndon Johnson lives on in his friends, advisers, and four generations of family.
(l. to r.) Larry Temple, A. W. Moursund, Walt W. Rostow, E. Ernest Goldstein
Photograph by Robert Clark

Robert Hardesty, Liz Carpenter, and George Christian were wearing their Sunday morning best on a Friday afternoon, waiting patiently for their picture to be taken. While the photographer coaxed them into position—telling Hardesty to move in a bit closer and Christian to turn slightly to the left—they talked about their favorite subject: politics. “You’re here with three political addicts,” Carpenter said, as the conversation between the former Lyndon Johnson aides veered into the day’s headlines: the execution of Gary Graham, the likely running mates of George W. Bush and Al Gore, and the latest twist in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s run for the Senate. Soon the topic turned to age. Christian, who is 73, said to Hardesty, four years his junior, “Bob, you don’t know how many times I have wished I was sixty-nine again.” “Yes, Bob,” the 79-year-old Carpenter counseled, “enjoy your youth while you still have it.” They had gathered to be photographed as part of a gallery, commissioned by Texas Monthly, that includes thirteen other advisers who were close to Johnson—from special assistant Jack Valenti to the head of the War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver. As the conversation that day revealed, time is a precious commodity for this dwindling group of survivors (“Everyone’s trying to get a speech out of me before I die,” Carpenter said later). Many of the principal players from the Johnson administration have already passed away. They include national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, press secretary George Reedy, and aide Walter Jenkins. Horace Busby, a longtime adviser, died a week and a half after the magazine contacted his office. In fact, it was 36 years ago this month that the Democratic party handed Johnson, then an incumbent president, its official nomination. Three months later he beat Barry Goldwater by winning the largest percentage of the popular vote in the twentieth century. The rest, of course, is history, or so we thought. Johnson passed the country’s most sweeping civil rights and anti-poverty programs while presiding over the greatest foreign policy debacle in American history. The war in Southeast Asia damaged his presidency so greatly that, less than four years after his triumphant election, he announced that he wouldn’t run again. Johnson’s place in history hinged on one word: Vietnam.

Twenty-seven years after his death, however, Lyndon Johnson has new life. Much of the resurgence has to do with Harry Middleton, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, whose release of embargoed presidential tapes touched off a wave of revisionist history. Johnson’s image has been burnished by his old friends and colleagues as well. The surviving members of his administration believe that the country has only recently begun to recognize fully his leadership on civil rights, health care, education, the environment, and a number of other programs. “From most people, I used to get—even up until a year or two ago—a rueful appreciation of Johnson, saying how many great things he did for the country and that it was just too bad about Vietnam,” says Harry McPherson, a special assistant and counsel in the Johnson White House. “Now I don’t get the latter. I just hear, ‘Your boss was a great president who had vision.’” Joseph Califano, a top domestic affairs aide to LBJ, agrees: “Very bluntly put, the Vietnam War is over, but the Great Society programs go on. The issue between Bush and Gore is not whether to have Medicare or not, it’s how to save it. The whole dialogue has changed, and those programs are standing the test of time.”

Still, the greatest supporters Johnson has are his family, four generations of which also appear in this portfolio. Lady Bird’s place as one of the most respected women in Texas history is assured. She spent much of her time in the years following Johnson’s death watching over his business empire and the LBJ Foundation, which supports the LBJ Library and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. More recently, she has been devoting her time to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which she founded in 1982. “Her family comes first,” says 56-year-old Lynda Johnson Robb, “but the Wildflower Center is the center of her attention.” Lynda, who is Lady Bird’s eldest daughter, has been married for 33 years to Virginia senator Charles Robb, who is running a tight race for reelection this year. “My husband is a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, and he’s fighting for prescription-drug coverage for the elderly,” Robb says. “My father would approve.” Her eldest child, Lucinda, 31, is the director of recruiting for the Teaching Company, a company that sells educational materials. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with Lynda’s youngest daughter, Jennifer, 22, a high school math teacher and field hockey coach. Catherine, 30, the middle child, is a lawyer in Austin. Lynda says that all of her girls love to travel, a passion that inspired Lucinda to backpack through Southeast Asia—including Vietnam—by herself. She loved the country so much that after she returned home, she persuaded her sisters to join her on another trip there.

Lady Bird’s youngest daughter, Luci, 53, returned to Austin from Toronto after the economic bust of the eighties to run the LBJ Holding Company, which her parents had been building since the forties. In 1993 she became the chairman of the board. Her husband, Ian Turpin, serves as its president. The company has interests in broadcasting, private equity investments, and real estate and has been particularly involved in the revitalization of downtown Austin.

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