Lady Bird Johnson chronicled her life in a series of interviews spanning almost 20 years. Oral historian Michael Gillette recounts his interviews with the former first lady, and we hear her firsthand account of life and marriage with President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Guests

  • Michael Gillette executive director of Humanities Texas, former director of the LBJ Library's Oral History Program and author of "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History."

Photo Gallery: Lady Bird Johnson’s Life In The White House

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History” by Michael Gillette. Copyright 2012 by Michael Gillette. Reprinted here by permission of Oxford University Press, USA. All rights reserved.

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Lady Bird Johnson recorded dozens of detailed interviews before her death in 2007. The former first lady gave a candid account of her life, her marriage to Lyndon Baines Johnson and her time in the White House.

  • 11:07:14

    MS. DIANE REHMShe became fast friends with her interviewer Michael Gillette. He's the author of a book titled "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History." He joins me in the studio and you are welcome to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, thanks for being here.

  • 11:07:46

    MR. MICHAEL GILLETTEGood morning.

  • 11:07:49

    REHMMichael, tell us how these interviews came about.

  • 11:07:55

    GILLETTEWell, I directed the library's Oral History Program beginning in 1973 and Mrs. Johnson was, of course, high on our wish list of priorities and it was just a matter of getting her to set aside the time to devote to the interviews.

  • 11:08:13

    REHMAnd of course, she would have been 100 years old this month.

  • 11:08:21

    GILLETTEDecember 22nd, that's right.

  • 11:08:24

    REHMWhen you approached her, how did she first react about having you record an oral history?

  • 11:08:35

    GILLETTEWell, I think she was interested in building the library's records and recording the record of that administration and she knew that she was a part of that so she responded positively. The problem was she was a very busy woman in those years and had many other demands on her time so that was my competition.

  • 11:09:03

    REHMMichael Gillette is the executive director of Humanities Texas and former director of the LBJ Library's Oral History Program. Tell us how she talked about her early years growing up in Texas.

  • 11:09:26

    GILLETTEWell, her earliest years were years of isolation in a very rural setting in deep Eastern Texas, Karnack, and she spent a lot of time alone. She developed a great love of reading and she developed a great interest in nature in those years. Her mother died before she was six years old.

  • 11:09:47

    REHMHow?

  • 11:09:48

    GILLETTEShe fell on the stairs and went to the hospital and never came out of it. And it was a sad occasion and we don't know a lot about the details other than she fell on the stairs. Maybe a dog tripped her, but her maiden aunt, Aunt Effie, came to live with the family and became Mrs. Johnson's companion for years and years.

  • 11:10:17

    REHMThat must have been so difficult for Lady Bird as a child.

  • 11:10:24

    GILLETTEI'm sure it was and her father, her father's business required his presence at the store a great deal so she really didn't have his company a lot of the time.

  • 11:10:35

    REHMWhat kind of a store?

  • 11:10:37

    GILLETTEWell, it was one of these general stores. He was a dealer in everything and provided a lot of dry goods and supplies for the farmers in the area, shipped fish that the fishermen in the area would catch and shipped them to Fulton's Fish Market in New York.

  • 11:10:57

    REHMHe remarried twice?

  • 11:10:59

    GILLETTEHe did remarry twice.

  • 11:11:01

    REHMAnd how did she get along with those women?

  • 11:11:05

    GILLETTEI don't think she was close to them. I think she had a civil relationship with them, but I don't think they were especially close. I know that she went out of her way to be friendly to them and particularly Ruth was a godmother of one of her children so.

  • 11:11:27

    REHMBut she remained closer to her aunt who had come to care for her?

  • 11:11:33

    GILLETTEOh, absolutely.

  • 11:11:33

    REHMYeah, how did she get her nickname?

  • 11:11:34

    GILLETTELady Bird.?

  • 11:11:38

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:11:39

    GILLETTEWell, the story that she told me, and this was not something that was on the tape, but she told me off-tape that the name was actually given to her by two young, African-American playmates when she was a little girl. One of the playmates was named Doodlebug and the other one was named Stuff.

  • 11:11:59

    GILLETTEI think they were the children of the woman that cooked for the family. And she was anointed Lady Bird, but it was later deemed more socially acceptable to attribute the name to an adult nurse named Alice Tittle.

  • 11:12:21

    REHMMore acceptable than to attribute it to her little playmates?

  • 11:12:25

    GILLETTERight, because it denoted a kind of social interaction that some people might be offended by in those days.

  • 11:12:35

    REHMThat's very interesting.

  • 11:12:37

    GILLETTEAnd she made it clear this was not her decision to attribute it to the adult nurse. It was others who made that call.

  • 11:12:49

    REHMShe was fresh out of college when she met Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was on his way to a date with another woman. Is that correct?

  • 11:13:03

    GILLETTEThat's correct. She had actually been given his phone number when she took a trip to Washington a couple of months before they met, but she was dating another young man who was here in the city, a beau from the University of Texas, so she didn't bother to call him.

  • 11:13:23

    GILLETTEBut the mutual friend, Gene Boeringer, who had given her the number continued to try to get them together and as luck would have it, they just encountered each other in Gene's office in the state capital one afternoon. And so it was a chance meeting really.

  • 11:13:43

    REHMThis was in Austin?

  • 11:13:45

    GILLETTEIt was in Austin that's right.

  • 11:13:48

    REHMAnd how did they interact?

  • 11:13:52

    GILLETTEWell, he was certainly interested in her from the beginning and, as she phrased it, there was something electric going on.

  • 11:14:00

    REHMAll right, let's hear her version.

  • 11:14:03

    GILLETTEWell, how was he different from the other young men that you knew at this point?

  • 11:14:09

    MS. LADY BIRD JOHNSONWell, he came on strong and he was very, very direct and dynamic and, you know, just had a sense of this is. I didn't know quite what to make of him.

  • 11:14:26

    GILLETTEDid you sense that magnetism?

  • 11:14:27

    JOHNSONI did, that quite, quite clearly and I do believe before the day was over he did ask me to marry him and I thought he was just out of his mind. I mean, I just -- I'm a slow, considered sort of person generally and certainly not given to quick conclusions, much rash behavior.

  • 11:14:53

    REHMThat was so extraordinary, that on the first day he met her he would ask her to marry him.

  • 11:15:03

    GILLETTEWell, it was actually the next day. You know, he met her that evening and had drinks with her...

  • 11:15:10

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:15:11

    GILLETTE...and Gene...

  • 11:15:12

    REHMOne day...

  • 11:15:12

    GILLETTEYou're right.

  • 11:15:12

    REHM...transpired before he asked her to marry him...

  • 11:15:16

    GILLETTERight, right, they had their first date. They went riding around Austin and it was in the course of that day-long ride that he asked her to marry him.

  • 11:15:25

    REHMAnd what did she say?

  • 11:15:28

    GILLETTEWell, she said she didn't say yes and she didn't say no. She just sat there with her mouth open. She was just stunned by his audacity.

  • 11:15:41

    REHMAnd how soon after were they married?

  • 11:15:45

    GILLETTEWell, they were married about a little over, say, two and half months later.

  • 11:15:52

    REHMAnd even that was pretty quick for back then?

  • 11:15:54

    GILLETTEIt was. It was.

  • 11:15:55

    REHMHow did her father feel about her marrying LBJ?

  • 11:16:01

    GILLETTEWell, he was famously quoted as saying, you've brought home a lot of boys and this time you brought home a man. He took to LBJ right away. The two men seemed to enjoy each other's company.

  • 11:16:14

    REHMWhy do you think that was? What was it about them that blended so well?

  • 11:16:21

    GILLETTEWell, they were both large men, very direct, strong men and I think that her father sensed that this was someone who was going places, who was ambitious, who was not necessarily the average guy that she might bring home.

  • 11:16:42

    REHMAnd LBJ's position at that time was a member of the state delegation?

  • 11:16:48

    GILLETTENo, he was a secretary to a congressman. He was a congressional aide to a man named Richard Kleberg, who was one of the owners of the King Ranch. And in fact, after that first day riding around Austin, the next day he took her to meet his parents in San Marcos and then on down to the King Ranch to meet the Klebergs.

  • 11:17:14

    REHMAnd what did his parents think about her?

  • 11:17:22

    GILLETTEWell, we don't know a lot about what his father thought, but his mother, I think, was concerned. Mrs. Johnson thought that LBJ's mother was concerned that her beloved, eldest son might be too serious, too quickly about a woman and one of LBJ's sisters was clearly concerned and...

  • 11:17:48

    REHMAnd expressed those concerns, too.

  • 11:17:54

    GILLETTEWell, at least in terms of her looks at Lady Bird, but Lady Bird too was concerned. She was a little bit frightened. She wasn't sure that she wanted to know this man any better, but she was fascinated by him and she said it was exciting to be around him.

  • 11:18:17

    REHMMichael Gillette, he's author of a book. It's titled "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History." He's executive director of Humanities Texas, former director of the LBJ Library's Oral History Program.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMWelcome back. If you just joined us, Michael Gillette is with me. He's author of the new book titled, "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History." He's executive director of Humanities Texas and former director of the LBJ Library's Oral History Program. We were talking just before the break about the fact that they were married in two and a half, three months. She wanted to wait a year, but didn't he give her an ultimatum, Michael?

  • 11:20:49

    GILLETTEHe did. He did. He said, if you don't love me enough to marry me now, you never will. And then I'll just be in torment for six months while you're deciding. So it was really an ultimatum and she said, I didn't want him to go out of my life.

  • 11:21:07

    REHMWhat do you think was her -- was it her personality, was it her background? What was it that LBJ wanted so much from Lady Bird?

  • 11:21:27

    GILLETTEWell, I think he was -- I think he was genuinely smitten by her. I think he was attracted to her. He obviously had had other romantic interests as had she. And so I think they both sensed that this one was different.

  • 11:21:49

    REHMDid she know from his position in Austin that he really wanted to enter politics?

  • 11:22:01

    GILLETTEYou know, she said in the interviews that she was -- she knew he would do something important. But she was surprised when one of the people who worked with him, L.E. Jones, was riding with her in the car and said, I suppose he'll run for Congress someday. She said she almost drove the car off the road. She was so shocked to hear that. So she felt herself a little bit naïve that she had not anticipated that. But he was in a political world. He was a secretary to a congressman and he was the speaker of the Little Congress, so he operated in that world.

  • 11:22:45

    REHMHe was an ambitious man, clearly, right from the start. But when he talked about running for Congress, how did her father feel about that?

  • 11:22:58

    GILLETTEWell, I think her father had a low opinion of politicians generally. It was, let's elect the guy who needs a job the most. But this was at a local level, and yet I think he felt that if LBJ wanted to pursue this course, that he would be supportive. And he did lend Mrs. Johnson $10,000 as an advance of her part of the estate for that first campaign.

  • 11:23:31

    REHMAnd how well did she manage in that first campaign?

  • 11:23:37

    GILLETTEWell, aside from being a major donor to the campaign, she basically did the laundry. She really was not invited to participate in the campaign. She was involved to a greater extent in every subsequent campaign, but this one, the head of the campaign did not welcome women being involved.

  • 11:24:01

    REHMI see. You know, in your book, you described them as really almost opposites. And that seemed to be the way a lot of people saw them. She seemed to be conservative and cautious. As she herself said -- and they -- she talked about her married life. Let's hear what she had to say.

  • 11:24:36

    GILLETTEDid you ever disagree with the president?

  • 11:24:38

    JOHNSONOh, sure. I disagreed with him when he talked in times of anger. And when he said things, words of your mouth have wings and they've fallen off and you can't recall them. And they remembered and the people who are hurt can hurt you back. And hurts wind up by hurting the one who inflicted them. And Lyndon was a very sensitive person, and sometimes his worst enemy.

  • 11:25:07

    REHMSo she would be cautious and would caution him to be cautious.

  • 11:25:15

    GILLETTERight. And she had that influence. She had a leveling influence, I think, on him and a calming influence, which he needed. She also repaired a lot of the hurt feelings that he caused with friends and staff people and political allies.

  • 11:25:35

    REHMWorld War II erupted and LBJ became the first member of Congress to enlist. He joined in the Navy. How did Lady Bird talk about that period of time?

  • 11:25:56

    GILLETTEWell, she was a -- they made the decision that she would essentially run the congressional office. She would work there without pay and be his eyes and ears, be his surrogate member of Congress, if you will. And so in those months of 1942 when he was on active duty, when he was on the West Coast and then later on in the South Pacific, she was in the office. And this was a very important -- this was an important experience for her because it gave her confidence that she could do things, that she could be more than just a housewife.

  • 11:26:40

    GILLETTEIt also made her appreciate his life so much more because she had walked in his shoes for that period of time. And she was much more understanding as a result of that. But it really did set up a larger role for her in his life. He learned to trust her more. He learned to rely on her more. He had a better sense of her capabilities after that experience.

  • 11:27:07

    REHMShe actually began to nudge him forward.

  • 11:27:12

    GILLETTEShe did. She did. She was just as ambitious for him as he was. And there were times when he seemed ambivalent about running and usually she did not share that. She was eager to press ahead, particularly in 1948 when he had doubts about running. She was eager to try it again. They had lost seven years earlier in a very close election. But she wasn't dispirited. She wasn't shy about trying again.

  • 11:27:48

    REHMOf course, he was dispirited. It's probably too lame a word.

  • 11:27:55

    GILLETTEWell, he was. And right at the beginning of the campaign he had an acute kidney stone attack and was hospitalized in Dallas, and was going to have to have an operation and would probably have to drop out of the campaign. But she managed to keep him in harness long enough to have him flown to the Mayo Clinic and where a special procedure was performed that did not immobilized him more than a few days.

  • 11:28:29

    GILLETTESo he was back in the campaign. And her role in keeping him a viable candidate during that time was critical.

  • 11:28:39

    REHMAnd they had two daughters, Lynda and Lucy. Lynda, of course, lives in this Washington, D.C. area. How did she manage to care for them as well as do everything else expected of her?

  • 11:29:00

    GILLETTEWell, she had a very divided life, and it was a difficult straddle for her to spend the time with her children that she wanted to spend with them and to spend the time with him, helping him in his career.

  • 11:29:21

    JOHNSONIn fact, I get a lot of black marks as I look back upon those years. I should have put those children on a diet and been a most determined -- a more determined mother. I should have gone to every last one of those towns and speeches that show them a map of Texas. Instead, I just sort of tried to do both things, straddling between going with Lyndon and staying with the children and not doing a very good job of either.

  • 11:29:54

    REHMShe really was conflicted in that sense, wasn't she?

  • 11:29:58

    GILLETTEShe was indeed. And fortunately, they had a number of staff members, both the domestic staff at home and the office staff, who were very close to the Johnson girls, Willie Day Taylor and Mary Rather, who filled in for Mrs. Johnson a lot when she was traveling with LBJ.

  • 11:30:22

    REHMYou said that during one of those campaigns Lyndon had a kidney stone and she carried on for him. He had a number of illnesses throughout his career.

  • 11:30:40

    GILLETTEIt seems that he had an illness every time he was in one of his exhaustive campaigns. And even in '37, he spent election night in the hospital. And it certainly took a toll on him and he -- but he campaigned until he couldn't campaign anymore every day. It was physically so demanding.

  • 11:31:07

    REHMHe had his first heart attack at 46.

  • 11:31:11

    GILLETTEIn 1955.

  • 11:31:15

    REHMAnd how long was he laid up?

  • 11:31:18

    GILLETTEOh, it was a good six months.

  • 11:31:22

    REHMAt the time, you write that she said she was worried he might commit suicide.

  • 11:31:33

    GILLETTEShe talked about the dark moods that he had in his recuperation period and that it was something that was part of the disease, heart attack, exacerbated because he always had mood swings. But they were worse at this time and she did have a fear that he might do something rash in those dark moments.

  • 11:32:02

    REHMHow did she help him during those periods?

  • 11:32:06

    GILLETTEWell, she certainly helped him with just the companionship, the adopting a healthier diet and I'm sure providing friends that would boost his spirits during this time.

  • 11:32:28

    REHMAnd got him back to some point of equilibrium, do you think?

  • 11:32:34

    GILLETTEYes, uh-huh.

  • 11:32:36

    REHMReally had to work hard at that, I'm sure.

  • 11:32:40

    GILLETTEWell, he did. But he really did change his dietary habits. He quit smoking, as you probably know, and lost considerable weight and, as a result, healthier, was able to resume his duties as majority leader of the Senate.

  • 11:33:01

    REHMMichael Gillette, his new book is titled, "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There has been a great deal written about Lyndon Johnson's infidelities, even his verbal abuse directed at Lady Bird throughout their marriage. Did she talk about that at all?

  • 11:33:35

    GILLETTEShe didn't talk about his infidelities in the interviews. Off-tape she acknowledged that he -- that other women found him attractive and he found other women attractive. And she tried to learn from them, and improve her grooming and her selection of clothes. She also indicated that although he hurt her sometime with his abusive statements, that she knew that he loved her and that was important to her.

  • 11:34:25

    REHMBut she knew he was attracted to other women.

  • 11:34:30

    GILLETTEOh, he did -- she did know that. She had to know that, yes.

  • 11:34:34

    REHMAnd -- but she did not acknowledge to you that she knew he was having relations with other women?

  • 11:34:44

    GILLETTENo.

  • 11:34:45

    REHMShe never said anything about that? Civil rights became something of a major cornerstone of LBJ's leadership as Senate majority leader. Race and politics, I think, sort of played a major role in their lives. Let's hear what she had to say about this.

  • 11:35:16

    JOHNSONLyndon underwent a vast change, I cannot say exactly when it began. I think maybe he knew -- mid-'50s, I'm not sure. I know by '57 it was well underway that he knew that he had to overcome segregation, we had to accept the blacks in law, in education, in the economy, and this was a growth process with him. There is no sudden strike of lightning.

  • 11:35:59

    REHMDo you think that she, Lady Bird, brought Lyndon along on the issue of segregation?

  • 11:36:11

    GILLETTENo. I think that he was sensitive to discrimination and the evils of discrimination in his own mind. He had grown up in an area that did not have many African Americans. But...

  • 11:36:34

    REHMWhereas she had had playmates.

  • 11:36:37

    GILLETTEShe had. She had grown up in Harrison County, which had probably the largest African American population in relation to the white population of any county in the state. But Lyndon Johnson had been a schoolteacher in south Texas in Cotulla one year while he was in college and seen the discrimination that those Hispanic children faced really seared him and really generated a consciousness not only with regard to the discrimination that minorities faced, but also the importance of education and a desire to launch a poverty program. That was an experience that he carried with him throughout his life.

  • 11:37:29

    REHMMichael Gillette, he's author of "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History." When we come back, we'll open the phones. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd it's time to open the phones 800-433-8850. First to St. Louis, Mo. good morning, Rick, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:17

    RICKGood morning. Good morning. Very interesting program. I'm just finishing the fourth book of Robert Caro's four books on Johnson. And what I found interesting in the discussion here, one of the things that you touched on. You asked if Lyndon had any suicidal tendencies. And it just sounded to me like the answer was more surmising it rather than anything concrete.

  • 11:40:39

    RICKI mean, we know that he was given to lots of depression -- severe depression. But I never, in all of the exhaustive things from Caro, never indicated that he was that far, you know, where it would be possibly suicidal. I was just curious if this was anecdotal or you're surmising or how you come to this conclusion.

  • 11:40:57

    GILLETTEWell, I think Mrs. Johnson thought that it was a product of the heart attack. That often -- I won't go so far as to say suicidal. But the depression was such that she was afraid that he might harm himself. And she was concerned because they did have guns in the ranch. And that was a context in which she was expressing her concern.

  • 11:41:27

    RICKOkay. Okay, I can understand that then. That sounds more -- because I just -- like I said in the Caro books, you certainly got the feeling, you know, that he was not the most stable guy in terms of that. But that I didn't -- you know, you never read the severity. But I can understand along with the heart attacks, et cetera.

  • 11:41:43

    GILLETTEYeah.

  • 11:41:44

    RICKSo I appreciate that.

  • 11:41:45

    REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. And to Diana in Chevy Chase, Md. Good morning.

  • 11:41:53

    DIANAGood morning. Thank you. And I find it very interesting. Funnily, my question is also related to a Caro book. I just finished reading the first volume of his wonder -- rereading it. And from --I gather from the notes that she -- Lady Bird initially cooperated with Mr. Caro. But then did not. And, of course, at least, in the first volume it's not a particularly flattering portrayal of how he spoke with her -- spoke to her and a portrayal of an affair. And it's a positive -- fascinating portrayal of her relating to Sam Rayburn and other things. But I wonder if the author has any comments about her not cooperating with Caro. And about the portrayal, at least, I'll only speak to the first volume.

  • 11:42:51

    GILLETTEWell, I think that every family views a biography different than the other readers. And you never know how a family member is going to react to a biography of one's husband or one's father. And I think there's a different standard for what family members will approve of. And what they find painful. I don't know about the association between Mrs. Johnson and Bob Caro. He certainly was a prodigious researcher. Spent, as you know, many, many years at the library researching that volume and the others that followed. But I think that each author has, you know, his story to tell. And the family members are not going to be happy with it...

  • 11:44:01

    DIANARight.

  • 11:44:03

    GILLETTE...necessarily so...

  • 11:44:04

    DIANAWould you like to comment on whether you think that it's a somewhat accurate portrayal?

  • 11:44:10

    GILLETTEWell, I certainly think that the description of oh so much of LBJ's life is not only accurate, but reveals things that we otherwise would never know about Lyndon Johnson.

  • 11:44:28

    DIANARight, right.

  • 11:44:30

    GILLETTEAnd Bob Caro has turned over so many rocks and resources that had been hidden for years. And he tells the story beautifully.

  • 11:44:43

    DIANARight.

  • 11:44:43

    GILLETTEI would say that I think Mrs. Johnson was more popular, was more socially active than maybe the first volume would...

  • 11:44:53

    DIANARight.

  • 11:44:54

    GILLETTE...would suggest. She had beaus. She had boyfriends. She was an extremely popular co-ed. She was shy, no question about that.

  • 11:45:06

    DIANARight.

  • 11:45:07

    GILLETTEBut that didn't keep her from having fun.

  • 11:45:09

    REHMHmm, hmm. All right, Diana.

  • 11:45:10

    DIANAWell, thanks. Thanks so much. OK, bye-bye.

  • 11:45:12

    REHMAnd thank you, bye-bye. And to Traverse City, Mich. Good morning, Kris.

  • 11:45:21

    KRISGood morning. Thank you so much for taking my call.

  • 11:45:24

    REHMSurely.

  • 11:45:26

    KRISI'm really -- this is sort of -- I'm kind of jittery all over because I haven't talked to Michael in 35 years. But Michael, this is Kris Love from Baytown.

  • 11:45:36

    GILLETTEHow are you, Kris?

  • 11:45:38

    KRISI'm well. And I'm very happy to hear that you must be well also. And I just called because when you said that -- that LBJ was engaged to someone prior to marrying Lady Bird I'm -- and I'm going to say something which I've considered carefully because I think Nettie Lee Bradshaw's family is pretty much passed away and they probably wouldn't mind anyway. But she told me many years ago that -- and you know who I'm speaking of, right?

  • 11:46:12

    GILLETTEOh, I sure do.

  • 11:46:14

    KRISShe said that she was the one who was engaged to LBJ prior to this event.

  • 11:46:21

    REHMAnd then...

  • 11:46:22

    KRISOur history teacher from high school in Baytown.

  • 11:46:25

    REHMHuh. And then what happened?

  • 11:46:28

    KRISShe didn't go into great detail. She said she was his girlfriend of his for a long time in -- in Austin and was engaged briefly. And then it broke off. And Nettie was not a person to have any kind of problems with -- with life. She just moved on, but...

  • 11:46:45

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:46:45

    GILLETTEShe did.

  • 11:46:46

    KRISI just thought...

  • 11:46:47

    GILLETTEShe was Jesse Kellam's first cousin. Jesse Kellam was the manager of KTBC and the Johnsons' radio station. And so she was certainly associated with LBJ through Jesse. I happened to be in Nettie Lee Bradshaw's civics class on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated.

  • 11:47:17

    REHMWow. Wow.

  • 11:47:18

    GILLETTEAnd she was very distraught, as were we all.

  • 11:47:22

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:47:23

    GILLETTEBut she did arrange for me to interview Lyndon Johnson in April, 1970. And I remember the affectionate note that he wrote to her after that fact. So they had a friendship. And I don't know what happened to them. I don't know. But I think we'd all agree he married the right woman.

  • 11:47:45

    REHMKris, thanks for your call. Michael, do you believe, having talked with Lady Bird for many, many hours, do you believe he wanted to marry her in part because of money?

  • 11:48:08

    GILLETTEYou know, I don't think we will ever know the answer to that. Surely, it would have been a plus that she was, as some put it, an heiress. But whether that was sufficient to cause him to ask her to marry him, we'll never know.

  • 11:48:35

    REHMShe claims that he never wanted to be vice president or even president. Let's hear what she had to say.

  • 11:48:50

    JOHNSONHe was using up all he had being majority leader. That was a full time job, which he loved. And I do not think he was planning, plotting, intending heading in the direction of being president.

  • 11:49:07

    MR. SHELDON STERNYou don't?

  • 11:49:07

    JOHNSONI do not think so. I think reluctantly and at the last minute he was propelled into that...

  • 11:49:17

    REHMInto that ticket first with John F. Kennedy and then tragically on the night of November 22, 1963. She told you that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Texas, her home state, had kind of a nightmare quality to it.

  • 11:49:44

    GILLETTEUh-hum. And I think she felt that way. Absolutely.

  • 11:49:49

    REHMShe was ashamed that her own country could behave that way.

  • 11:49:58

    GILLETTEWell, just the fact that it happened in Texas. She certainly didn't blame Dallas. But the fact that that was the setting of the assassination and that she and LBJ were from Texas just heightened the tragedy for her, I think.

  • 11:50:20

    REHMWhile he was vice president, how did she get along with Jacqueline Kennedy?

  • 11:50:30

    GILLETTEOh, I think she got along fine with Mrs. Kennedy. And she substituted for her often at social events, which she enjoyed. She said in the interviews that LBJ had a lot of wry amusement seeing how happy she was in the job as vice president's wife, as opposed to his restlessness and unhappiness in the job. But she loved to travel and she had the greatest opportunity of her life to travel during those three years. And so she was having the time of her life.

  • 11:51:10

    REHMLet's go now to Cleveland Heights, Ohio good morning, Jeff.

  • 11:51:15

    JEFFMorning. You kind of talked about my question a little bit. I was just curious what, you know, she had to say about her relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy. I mean, I would think that becoming -- going from vice president's wife to first lady so dramatically must have presented all kinds of difficulty. I was just kind of curious what their relationship was and how she managed to make that transition. Thanks very much.

  • 11:51:37

    GILLETTEWell, they were senate wives together before either of them moved to the executive branch. And when -- right after Mrs. Kennedy married Senator John Kennedy Mrs. Johnson hosted a number of new senate wives at her home. And introduced Jacqueline Kennedy to the other senate wives that she thought she should meet.

  • 11:52:05

    GILLETTEI think that after the assassination Mrs. Johnson did everything she could do to advance those things that Mrs. Kennedy was interested in. The decoration of the White House, for example, the acquisition of antiques and finishing the splendid remodeling of the White House that Mrs. Kennedy had undertaken. She went and visited Mrs. Kennedy soon after the assassination.

  • 11:52:42

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:52:43

    GILLETTEAnd Mrs. Kennedy gave her a memo, a long memorandum, describing all of the things that she had been working on. And as someone told her, there was not a Kleenex box in the White House by accident that Mrs. Kennedy had not put there on purpose.

  • 11:53:03

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Did Lady Bird talk about regrets regarding Vietnam?

  • 11:53:16

    GILLETTEShe did. She certainly saw that it was an unsolvable problem that was preventing the expansion of the war on poverty which was the war that LBJ really wanted to pursue. And the expansion of her beautification program, as well as all the other great society programs that were stunted because of the Vietnam War.

  • 11:53:52

    REHMAnd personally, for him, that must have been just very, very difficult.

  • 11:54:00

    GILLETTEShe did see how trying it was for him and the fact that he felt that he -- he couldn't win. He couldn't get out. He couldn't extricate the nation from it. It was a very difficult strained time for both of them really.

  • 11:54:21

    REHMIt's interesting because rather than have you read from that last portion of the book let's just talk about how she saw that he would run once, but then would not run for re-election.

  • 11:54:42

    GILLETTERight. Well, he was, at least outwardly, ambivalent about running for re-election in 1964. And, again, we'll never know whether he just wanted to be courted, whether he wanted people to urge him to run. But he, at one point in the White House, he was, as she said, wrestling with his own demons. And -- and she -- he wouldn't talk to her. And she sent him a memo encouraging him to run. And because he could do the job so well and then he could retire after four years and not seek re-election in 1968.

  • 11:55:31

    REHMSo he took those words to heart.

  • 11:55:34

    GILLETTEWell, he did. But, again, we -- we have no way of knowing what he would have decided without her influence. But she did influence him on a whole range of things.

  • 11:55:44

    REHMA great deal. A great deal. Tell me about her 50th high school reunion. You went with her to that event.

  • 11:55:53

    GILLETTEI did. She called me up one day when I was in my oral history office and posed the question how would you like to do something zany, Mike. And I'm wondering what could she possibly mean by zany. And then she quickly explained that she'd like for me to accompany her to her 50th high school reunion at Marshall High School. And, oh, it was a wonderful experience. We went to the program. And she was the youngest looking graduate there. And she gave a speech. She was very comfortable doing so, unlike her -- her graduation when she was relieved that she wouldn't have to make a speech.

  • 11:56:37

    REHMHuh.

  • 11:56:38

    GILLETTEAnd we went to the cemetery where her mother was buried.

  • 11:56:40

    REHMI see.

  • 11:56:41

    GILLETTEAnd the brick house where she grew up, a wonderful old antebellum plantation home.

  • 11:56:48

    REHMWell, what a grand circle you were on with Lady Bird Johnson. I have to tell you I feel so privileged here in Washington, D.C. seeing all of the landmarks graced by Lady Bird Johnson and beautiful landscapes. The flowers in the spring just absolutely wonderful.

  • 11:57:17

    GILLETTEShe loved this city.

  • 11:57:19

    REHMExactly. Thank you so much for being here. Michael Gillette. The book is titled "Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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