Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
At the Epicenter
Her Early YearsA Political WifeAt the EpicenterShattered DreamsWinding DownResources and Links
Additional FeaturesAt the Epicenter November 1963 - January 1965
Lady Bird and Lyndon
President Johnson talks on the telephone while Mrs. Johnson lunches with U.S. Ambassador to West Germany George McGhee.  Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto


At the Epicenter

A closer look at the assassination of President Kennedy.

Learn more about Lady Bird's 1964 Whistlestop tour of the South.

Selections from Lady Bird's Diary on the assassination of President Kennedy.

LBJ addresses Congress following JFK's assassination.

President Johnson's speech on the Great Society.


At the Epicenter

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, on tape: It all began so beautifully. We were going into Dallas. In the lead car, President and Mrs. Kennedy, John and Nellie. And then a Secret Service car, and then our car.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: So began Lady Bird's diary of her White House years, as she recalled the searing moments that took her husband into the presidency.

NELLIE CONNALLY: I turned around and said to him, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you." And there was a second or two, and I heard this noise.

[screams and sirens]

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: At Parkland Hospital, Lady Bird found Mrs. Kennedy alone in a small hallway.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, on tape: I don't think I ever saw anybody so much alone in my life. And then I went in to see Nellie.

NELLIE CONNALLY: And she just opened her arms, and I flew into them, and I cried. For the first time, I cried and cried in her arms, and she said, "Nellie, we have to go back to Washington."

LIZ CARPENTER: And so we did, to Air Force One, taken aboard this silent and sobbing plane. And Mrs. Kennedy's shaken, was now aboard. She stood by Johnson as he was sworn in.

JUDGE SARAH T. HUGHES: I do solemnly swear...

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I do solemnly swear...

JUDGE SARAH T. HUGHES: That I will faithfully execute...

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: That I will faithfully execute...

JUDGE SARAH T. HUGHES: The office of president...

NELLIE CONNALLY: Imagine, if you can, that you have the President and the First Lady in your state, that you're entertaining them, that he is assassinated, and that you become President and First Lady. That's a pretty big load to carry.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, on tape: The first thing I was aware of... was that sea of faces stretching away on every side. [voice cracking] I wanted to cry for them and with them, but it wasn't possible to permit the catharsis of tears. I don't know quite why, except that perhaps continuity of strength demands it.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird said she had been thrust onto a stage "for a part I never rehearsed." From her first day as First Lady, she knew she'd always be compared to Jacqueline Kennedy. She knew that, when people looked at her and Lyndon, they really wanted to see Jack and Jackie.

She said that in her diary. Almost every day, she spoke into her tape recorder, confiding her experiences and feelings. The result is the most complete self-portrait of a First Lady we've got. Years later, portions were published as a book.

LIZ CARPENTER: And that book is, I think, the best record of family living that go on in the White House next to the very scant Abigail Adams letter about "this house was built for the ages."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The diary reveals an LBJ who needed his wife's counsel more than ever.

TOM JOHNSON: What we knew, at all times, was that she was the most trusted, most loyal, most dependable person that President Johnson could turn to on any issue, but her presence was never one of intruding.

Mrs. Johnson understood that, though she was smarter and quicker and better-read than most of the men she was encountering, she had to have this kind of façade or whatever it is you want to call it to make things work, but it made her effective.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I didn't want to get in there and take authority and run the show. And I think he listened to me with a very considerable respect, but I think he came to, as just the whole United States came to, value the woman's role more.

TOM JOHNSON: He would often call her after a public event, even when she was in another city, to get her critique of the speech.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, on tape: You want to listen for about one minute to my critique, or would you rather wait till tonight?

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON, on tape: Yes, ma'am. I'm willing now.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Your looks were splendid. During the statement, you were a little breathless and there was too much looking down and I think it was a little too fast.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: They didn't know what to cut out.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: In general, I'd say it was a good "B+." How do you feel about it?

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I thought it was much better than last week.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In spite of his wife's coaching, Lyndon Johnson would never be a television star. But behind the scenes, he twisted arms more effectively than almost any other president.

LBJ called on congress to attack poverty and racial prejudice. He named his program "The Great Society."

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed at the White House by President Johnson.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In July 1964, just seven months in office, LBJ signed the historic civil rights bill, to open hotels and restaurants to blacks. Both Johnson and Lady Bird were committed to civil rights in spite of the political risk.

PROTESTER: The only way we can survive is to destroy the civil rights bill and all of its backers!

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: White southerners were furious at LBJ. The President felt that even blacks didn't seem to appreciate what he had done. Depressed, he told an aide that perhaps a southerner could not unite the country.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON, on tape: I do not believe I can physically and mentally, uh, carry the responsibilities of the bomb and the world and the negroes and the South, and I know my own limitation, but they think I want great power. All I want is great solace. A little love-- that's all I want.

LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB: Daddy sounded tough, but was really a softie. Mother didn't show emotion, and if you hurt her feelings, she wouldn't let you know. Daddy had highs and lows, and they were always very evident. Mother was very even-keeled and kind of very velvet.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Holed up in his bedroom, Johnson told Lady Bird he was ready to quit but she had seen these depressions before. She wrote him a letter, and told him to pull up his socks.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, on tape: Beloved, you are as brave a man as Harry Truman or FDR or Lincoln. To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: In the South, we have a much-loved hymn, "There Is a Balm in Gilead," and I think that Mrs. Johnson was a balm for President Johnson. And, Lord knows, this is a man with a tortured soul who needed a balm.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Bolstered by his wife, Johnson accepted the Democratic presidential nomination.

ANNOUNCER: And Lyndon Baines Johnson was nominated by acclamation.

[crowd cheering]

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: His Republican opponent was Barry Goldwater, a conservative senator, who was eager to get votes from the angry white South. Lady Bird was proud of her southern heritage and of what her husband had done for civil rights.

She wanted to reach out to her people, white southerners, so she decided to make a four-day whistle-stop tour-- The Lady Bird Special-- through some of the angriest states in the South.

This was the first time a president's wife had campaigned on her own for her husband. In an accent that sounded just like theirs, she told southern voters that it was time to end segregation and join the modern world.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Although you might not like all I say, at least you understand the way I say it. [crowd cheering]

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: The FBI had received so many bomb threats about her whistle-stop campaign that a train went ahead of her own train and swept the tracks. And this is another example of her moral courage, because she went where her husband couldn't go.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Placards said "Black Bird, go home." Hecklers tried to drown her out.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Just a moment, Please. Just a moment. This is a free country, and I respect your right to your opinion. Now, will you give me just one minute to finish this?

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: There was nothing to do, except just kind of hold your head up and smile and keep on talking. It would have just been very, very wrong to have shown any evidences of concern, or fear. Very bad idea, it would have been.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: When the Lady Bird Special reached New Orleans, a proud president was waiting.

LIZ CARPENTER: He was so grateful to her. At the end of the trail he just couldn't stop hugging her.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Johnsons spent election night 1964 in Austin at the Driskill Hotel. Exactly 30 years after their marriage, they had come back to the very place they had first met. That evening, they enjoyed the greatest presidential victory in modern times. The White House would really be theirs.

Two weeks later, LBJ gave his wife a surprise party at the White House for their 30th anniversary. They were dancing, and he whispered to her, "Well, you've come a long way from that purple dress."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Johnsons didn't know it that night, but for the next four years, there would be few such happy moments.

Much later, Lady Bird told me, "The first year or two in the White House were wine and roses, "but by the end, it was pure hell."


Production of Lady Bird had been funded in part by the generous support of The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston; The Belo Foundation; The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, Inc.; Mr. Ralph S. O'Connor; The Marjorie Kovler Fund; and The Ms. Foundation For Women.

Lady Bird is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU - Austin.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved