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Lyndon and Lady Bird Campaign for vice president in 1960
Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson, a candidate for vice president in 1960, campaign in Texas.

A Political Wife


Political Wife

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: By 1937, the young woman who had begged LBJ to stay out of politics helped put him in Congress. Johnson ran for the vacant seat in his home Texas district using $10,000 that Lady Bird gave him from her mother's inheritance.

After his victory, she was determined to share his career. If Lyndon insisted on being a politician, she would learn to be a political wife.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: He was a natural teacher. He just introduced me to the world of politics. It was his life and his career, and I wanted to serve and help, but it was never really my life.

LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB: She was going to be the best wife anybody could be, and one of the ways she could help her husband was to learn about his business. If her husband had gone into making cars, she would have learned about the selling of cars.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Lyndon had given me my camera for Christmas, I think, of '38 or '39.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird used her new camera to capture her husband's first campaign for the Senate in 1941.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, voice-over: This is the beginning of Lyndon's campaign for the Senate.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: LBJ ran as a Roosevelt New Deal Democrat, hoping to leap to national leadership at the age of 32. The race was painfully close, and he lost. Now, Lady Bird had to cope with a husband prone to spells of depression and bitterness. LBJ still had his House seat, but he feared that he was going to finish in the minor leagues.

After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy, a promise he had made to the voters. With his aide John Connally, he went to the South Pacific.

NELLIE CONNALLY: Our husbands, busy beavers that they were, went off to war. So they moved Lady Bird in to run his office. And I was her inefficient, unequipped assistant. She was a very good Congresswoman, even though she wasn't.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I learned a good deal about self-esteem. It gave me a feeling that I could hold down a job if suddenly I didn't have Lyndon.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: While their men were gone, Nellie Connally and Lady Bird distracted themselves by staging plays and skits, recorded by Lady Bird's camera.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, voice-over: And here am I, my first date, very exciting. And you can see he has a wicked gleam in his eye. It all ended happily.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: When LBJ returned from the South Pacific, Lady Bird told him that politics was not a reliable way to earn a living. With her journalism degree, she decided to invest in radio. Using money from her mother's estate, she bought a failing Austin station, KTBC. LBJ's political connections helped them to build a business.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: He asked me to go from Washington back home to Austin and look that place over that we had bought. He had, he had talked me into doing more strange jobs in my life for which I felt no aptitude or desire to learn.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: Well, daddy believed mother could do anything. And he used to tell her, "You know, Bird, you're a woman whose got two degrees from the finest university in the state of Texas. By gosh, of course you can make this ramshackled radio station a going proposition."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Learn she did. She was her father's daughter and showed a knack for business. With her eye on the dollar and LBJ's help from Washington, KTBC became the crown jewel of a Johnson media and business empire. But if you ask Lady Bird, the businesses weren't her career -- LBJ was.

She also wanted children. In 1944, after several miscarriages, she gave birth to a daughter named Lynda Bird. "If everyone had the same initials," they joked, "they'd be a one-suitcase family."

Three years later, came Luci Baines. Now there were 4 LBJs. The Johnson dog was named "Little Beagle Johnson." But there was no doubt who the most important LBJ was in that household.

DIANA MACARTHUR: In his family life, he was the center of the universe. If he brought constituents or some of his political friends home with him and she had gone to rest, she'd get up and she'd be down there, warming up something for them to eat. He came first.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But the perfect political wife didn't always have the time the two growing children demanded.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I didn't get to spend as much time with them as I wanted to or should, and I was really torn between my children and my husband's job and sometimes felt sorry for myself and sorry for them. I think it was better for us that I spent all the time I did with Lyndon.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: I didn't always understand it. In fact, I wrote a poem for her one mother's day, and it was called You're Not a Real Mother. "A real mother wouldn't leave her children." And I resented my father because I felt that that was what kept us from having a more normal life.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lyndon Johnson got a second chance to run for the Senate in 1948. With a victory of only 87 votes in a disputed election, he was lampooned as "Landslide Lyndon."

But four years later, he became the Democratic leader of the Senate. Almost overnight, Lady Bird became one of the most powerful women in Washington.

NELLIE CONNALLY: You know, when people ask me, "Who do you admire?" I say, "the political wife who manages to stay the time without becoming a drunk, uh, have affairs, or get a divorce." Because it is a hard life and she handled it beautifully.

DIANA MACARTHUR: What's interesting about Lady Bird is that she was totally there for her husband and her family, and she did not repress her own soul.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In 1955, LBJ suffered a heart attack that almost killed him. From his sickbed, he told his wife, "Stay with me, Bird. I'd rather fight with you beside me." From that moment on, Lady Bird always wondered whether each day would be her husband's last.

SEN. LYNDON JOHNSON: Well, I feel pretty good. I'm going to feel better after two or three months in Texas.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: At the advice of his doctors, She brought him home to their ranch in Texas to watch his eating, drinking, and smoking. Johnson had bought the ranch from his relatives without asking his wife. The rundown ranch house needed major renovation.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: At first, I was angry that he had done something like that without consulting me, but when I saw how much he wanted it, it would have been like taking candy away from a two-year-old child. He was very beguiling in most every other way.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: While recuperating at the ranch, Johnson entertained friends from Washington, like the Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham and his wife Katharine.

KATHARINE GRAHAM: You couldn't control him in any way. And he was always doing too much or taking a drink on the sly when he was supposed to be recovering from his heart attack. And he imposed on her terribly. He would call for dinner at 10 at night. And she did everything without-- I would have killed him.

DIANA MACARTHUR: I supposed she learned when he needed space, when he needed praise, when he needed to be soothed, when he needed to be amused, and sometimes, when he needed to be told, "that's going too far."

LEWIS L. GOULD: He gets a phone call on the phone in his car and she says, "You know, we're getting dinner ready and you better come back." And he keeps driving.

Then there's a couple more phone calls, and then she says, "Well, we're putting dinner on the table. We'll have something ready for you when you get back." And he says to the fellow he's with, "We'd better get back there quick. She's really mad."

ANNOUNCER: Convention fever grips the...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Recovered from his heart attack, the Senate's powerful Majority Leader had his eye on the presidency.

But Johnson lost the Democratic nomination to John F. Kennedy. The next morning, JFK asked him to take the vice presidency. After initial doubts, Lady Bird told her husband to take it, saying, "Power is where power goes."

At Hyannisport, the Johnsons met with the Kennedys to map out the campaign. Jacqueline Kennedy was startled to find that Lady Bird was so involved in LBJ's career. She joked that Lady Bird would crawl naked down Pennsylvania Avenue for Lyndon.

Lady Bird brought John Kennedy's sister Eunice and sister-in-law Ethel to Texas Where there were doubts about a possible catholic president.

LIZ CARPENTER: We put together a flying tea party, and Lady Bird introduced these two young women who talked funny, according to Texas standards, who looked so much like Jack, with the buck teeth and the accent from Massachusetts and that they were charmers. And nobody in town wanted to miss this.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Kennedy and Johnson carried Texas, which helped them to win a very close election. Now Lady Bird Johnson was the wife of the Vice President of the United States, but she had to deal with a husband who said of the job, "I detested every minute of it."

ANNOUNCER: The president arrives at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, for a display of aerial might, while Vice President Johnson looks on.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Kennedy's staff treated Johnson with disdain, and made snide comparisons between Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird.

DIANA MACARTHUR: Lady Bird has had her share of people thinking that she was a country hick, that she had a southern drawl, that she wasn't bright, that she was too shy. And all I can say is is that she certainly fooled a lot of public opinion.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: On November 22,1963, the Kennedys arrived in Dallas for a political visit. Lyndon and Lady Bird were there to welcome them, along with old friends Nellie and John Connally, now governor of Texas. The plan was for the Kennedys to stay overnight at the LBJ ranch. The Johnson cook was baking cherry pies. A Johnson horse was being groomed for the president.

As they drove through Dallas, the largest worry on Lady Bird's mind was that by mistake she might take the Kennedys into the ranch house through the kitchen. That was the door the family always used.



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