Luci Baines Johnson
On her father’s legacy.
Evan Smith: Your father’s hundredth birthday is upon us, as is the fortieth anniversary of his last year in the White House. You yourself were only twenty years old in 1968. Does it feel like that much time has passed, or does it feel like yesterday?
Luci Baines Johnson: So much of the work that was part of the Great Society is my life’s work. It’s not a closed chapter. It’s an ongoing mission. Jack Valenti summed it up when he said, “Those of us involved in the Great Society look back upon it as the springtime of our lives.”
ES: What would your dad think of the world in 2008?
LBJ: Anyone who is a graduate of the political stump knows that trying to hypothesize about what somebody might have thought, said, or done is mighty dangerous territory to get into. But you and I were having a conversation earlier about how when [LBJ aide] Harry McPherson went to vote [in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in Maryland], the person who gave him his ballot said something like, “Wow. Wouldn’t Lyndon Johnson have thought this was great?”
ES: The implication was that President Johnson would have marveled at Barack Obama’s being a candidate for president.
LBJ: Oh, I think it was a dual implication. At that point, the two people in the primary were Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama. Lyndon Johnson felt that womanpower was America’s greatest untapped natural resource. And, of course, he was a man who spent his political life trying to right the wrongs of segregation and open the doors of opportunity to all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, our gender, our ethnicity, our religion. I can show you a note from my father on my seventeenth birthday—it’s actually the only handwritten letter I have from him. A history teacher always, he timed it at 12:10 p.m. At four o’clock that afternoon he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Can you imagine a better birthday present for me, something that changed all of our lives? What a thrill.
ES: And now we have an African American nominee.
LBJ: I was standing right behind my father on that day in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act into law. As a young adolescent—I probably had a date that afternoon—I said to Daddy, “Why are we going up to the halls of Congress? Why aren’t we just signing it here in the East Room?” My father shook his head and said, “Oh, Luci Baines, don’t you get it? We’re going up to the halls of Congress because the Congress will never look the same again as a result of the courageous decisions that these men and women are making. Some who are here today will not be here again because they dared to support the Voting Rights Act. And some who will be coming would never have had the opportunity but for this act.” And that has been the case.
ES: Is civil rights his greatest legacy?
LBJ: It’s a dynamic duo: It’s civil rights and education. I was stunned, in 1972, when my father had his education papers opened before his civil rights papers, because of those three magnificent pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. I said to him, “Daddy, why are you opening those first?” He looked at me and said, “Luci, it doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. If you don’t have an opportunity to take advantage of all the education you can, you’ll never be your best.”
ES: So it’s both.
LBJ: It’s kind of like, who do you love the most, your mother or your father? They bring different things to the table. Of course, to be able to vote, to be able to buy a house in an affordable neighborhood, to be able to participate fully in American life, to enjoy our planes, trains, hotels, motels, water fountains—no one, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, would ever want to turn back the clock on those. Well, I can’t say no one, but most Americans. The vast majority of Americans.
ES: It’s interesting that you hesitated. It’s an acknowledgment of the reality that here we are in 2008, all these years later, and we still haven’t resolved the race question.
LBJ: We definitely have a ways to go—those are a few words that I do think I can put into Daddy’s mouth. The work is far from done. But the impact was enormous and survives.
ES: Another of President Johnson’s lasting legacies is his success at persuading people to do things that might not have seemed to be in their self-interest. I wonder if part of the reason we can’t deal with some of these problems today is that there aren’t people in positions of high leadership with those same powers of persuasion.
LBJ: My father thought that politics was not a zero-sum involvement. It wasn’t “I win, you lose.” It was “We work together, we get something better. I might not get the whole loaf I want. You might not get the whole loaf you want. But together, we can make something of it.” I’ll tell you, a beautiful example of that is when he didn’t give the first pen used to sign the Voting Rights Act to one of the great civil rights leaders who was there. I felt that they were so deserving, but my father gave it instead to [Republican senator] Everett Dirksen [of Illinois]. I asked him why, and he said, “Because all of those great civil rights leaders were already for that legislation. They had already made that commitment. We could stand in our corner and espouse the righteousness of doing it, but if we hadn’t been able to get Everett Dirksen to step across the aisle and bring our foes with us, we would have had a great bill, but we wouldn’t have had a great law.” That’s the difference. “Compromise” didn’t mean compromising your principles; it meant creating something for a greater good.
ES: I was thinking more of that famous series of photographs of him with Theodore Green, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he’s really invading the guy’s space.
LBJ: They talk about the long arms of Lyndon Johnson—when you refer to those photos, that comment usually follows. Lyndon Johnson had a 17- to a 17-and-a-half-inch neck. He had a 33-and-a-half-inch sleeve. He not only didn’t have long arms, he had quite short arms for a man his size. But it’s how he used them. To me, that’s the beauty of the story. He had long arms of persuasion.
ES: Is that how you remember him, as a larger-than-life father?
LBJ: Oh, yes. I’ll tell you a story about my daughter Nicole. We got into a bit of a humorous debate, and I turned to her and said, “I would never, never have talked to my mother that way.” And she said, “I would never have talked to your mother that way either.” I use that to illustrate that I’ve enjoyed a more candid relationship with my children than with my parents. That presence, that atmosphere of accomplishment, that position of being a senator or a majority leader or a vice president or a president or a first lady, cast a shadow over my relationship with my parents.
ES: It made it less intimate?
LBJ: I don’t think it made it less intimate, but the kinds of transgressions that I’ve enjoyed with my children, where they’ll talk back or fuss or be defiant—those things would never have happened.
ES: How easily did he persuade you to do things?
LBJ: Here’s what my father did. He would say things like “I’m fifty years old. I don’t have all the answers. God is not through with me yet, Luci Baines. But my judgment says that nothing good happens on the streets past midnight, and that’s why I really am concerned about you being out then. But you’re a bright girl, and you’re a good girl, and I expect you to do the right thing. You always have. So I’m not gonna tell you what you can or cannot do because I don’t want to make our relationship adversarial. I’m just gonna tell you I have faith in you.”
ES: Parenting by Lyndon Johnson.
LBJ: If he had just told me, “You cannot,” I might have been up to defying him. But when he told me I was smart and I was good and I was thoughtful and he had faith in me—ohhh! There was no chance of me doing anything except what he wanted me to do.
ES: As someone whose father was in the White House when she got married, you probably have a perspective on the Jenna Bush nuptials, which took place just a few months ago.
LBJ: I empathize with every member of a first family. So when Jenna was going to be married, I took it upon myself to write the Bush family to say, “I don’t know if any of this will be useful to you, but it would have been useful to me if I had known it ahead of time, so I’m sharing this with you in case it is.” I reminded them that when I married, the mother of the bride traditionally made most of the decisions. I chose the groom—we have four beautiful children and nine precious grandchildren—but the marriage ended in divorce. I chose the wedding dress, for the reasons most people make those kinds of choices: what I felt looked pretty on me, what my parents said was within the budget. I was only nineteen, so I didn’t think about whether it had a union label. I would never have wanted to offend the ladies of the garment workers’ union, who had been good supporters.
ES: You warned Jenna Bush to buy American—
LBJ: To make sure it had a union label. The third decision I made was the date. My husband was in business school at the University of Texas, so we chose the date together, based on his schedule and how it fit in with my personal needs. As a postwar baby, I didn’t realize it was the anniversary of the day we had bombed Hiroshima. So when we showed up at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to be married, there were picketers outside, saying, “How could you be so insensitive to have your grand wedding on a day when so many people have met such tragedy?” So I wrote the Bushes and said, “These were the three decisions I made, and you can see they didn’t work out very well. If I had only thought about things earlier, all of it might have been avoided.”
ES: The time that you spent as the child of a president is one you look back on favorably?
LBJ: Yes, very favorably. My father told me when I was sixteen years old, when the campaign began, that I could either be resentful of the limitations that being the president’s child imposed upon my life or I could savor the opportunity. He said, “Luci Baines, I can’t be with all the people I need to be with. I can’t be the eyes and ears of my nation. But you can. You can go to some of the places I’ll never be able to get to. At every stop, I want you to make sure you can recall three people you’ve met and three things that are important to them, and I want you to bring those back to me. I’m counting on you. I need you.” It stopped me from becoming a narcissistic adolescent and made me feel useful. It made me feel important. Mostly, it made me get out of myself, which is something that’s very useful if you’re young, when you tend to be looking more inward than outward. To this day, at every cocktail party, at every event I go to, you will see me at the last few minutes running around to make sure that I meet that third person.
ES: How hard was it for you to hear him criticized over Vietnam?
LBJ: One of the challenges for me back then was that Pennsylvania Avenue was much more approachable. People actually picketed on the sidewalk right in front of the White House, and my bedroom was on the north side. Frequently, the last thing I heard before I went to bed was “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” My husband was in Vietnam. I had a little baby I was trying to raise by myself. My sister’s husband was in Vietnam. She had an infant she was trying to raise by herself. I had a sister-in-law whose husband had just come back from Vietnam. So “LBJ’s war” was not a war he had sought. It was a war he had inherited. It was a war he was trying desperately to get out of. Every night when he watched the news, it was like a dagger being thrust into his stomach.
ES: Is this another case in which you empathize with the first family, specifically with President Bush, who has been attacked on Iraq?
LBJ: The circumstances are different. But regardless of whether you agree with people’s decisions, the hard part is the personalization. The first thing you hear out of the mouths of the Democrats is respect for John McCain’s service to his country and the sacrifice he’s made. Americans want to maintain very different points of view, but there’s a level of decency that we all want to strive for.
ES: You were one of the only children of a former president not to endorse in the Democratic primary. The daughters of Nixon, Kennedy, and Carter all supported Senator Obama, as did Eisenhower’s granddaughter, while, obviously, Chelsea Clinton supported her mom. You and your sister were conspicuously absent from the discussion. Why?
LBJ: I have immense respect for Senator Clinton and immense respect for Senator Obama. I also had immense respect for Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson. But after 1968, my father turned to me and said, “Luci, I’m asking you not to get involved in primary politics, especially on the presidential level. There will be those who will choose sides, and you will have your own opinion and your own vote—I know that. But I want you to be able to be part of the healing process for the Democratic party.”
ES: Was it tempting this time?
LBJ: Oh, gosh, yes. And I will support Senator Obama with great enthusiasm, as I would have supported Senator Clinton with great enthusiasm.
ES: It’s been quite a dramatic election cycle, hasn’t it?
LBJ: Recently I was going through my mother’s effects and found a piece of parchment in one of her purses. It was a quote I expect she wanted to use in some speech, and it rings so true for the time we’re in. “Not to destroy, but to construct. I hold the unconquerable belief that science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war. That nations will come together not to destroy but to construct and that the future belongs to those who accomplish most for humanity.” As I look back at the Democratic party primary process, I believe with all my heart that every single one of those who participated was trying not to destroy but to construct a future that would accomplish the most for humanity. The Democrats have a candidate with a phenomenal capacity to motivate Americans to care about their country and to give their time and talent and treasure. That is a phenomenal attribute. And the decision will be made by the party to nominate him at the moment of Lyndon Johnson’s hundredth birthday and on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, during two days, August 27 and 28, when great leaders from the civil rights community and the community of those who were in our government came together and said, “We shall overcome.” To me, that’s a moment to celebrate. And I will celebrate it.