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Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
Her Early YearsPolitical WifeAt the EpicenterShattered DreamsWinding DownRescources and Links
A Political Wife November 1934 - November 1963
Josefa, Rebekah, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (Photo Credt: Austin Statesman)
Congressman Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird, Lyndon's sister Josefa (left) and


DOCUMENTARY:
Part II: A Political Wife

 

Following their wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson moved to Washington as he continued his work for Texas Congressman Richard Kleberg. But Lyndon's days appeared numbered as Kleberg and his wife began to worry about their ambitious young aide. The issue reached a head in 1935 when the Congressman asked Johnson to find another job. Then Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal stepped to save Johnson's political career.

Johnson called on some senior congressional friends to get him a job at the newly formed National Youth Administration, an organization created to offer job training to the millions of unemployed youths of the nation. After some hesitance due to his age, Lyndon became the youngest state director of the NYA at only 26 years of age.

The new job allowed him to reach out to different parts of Texas and to continue building the political relationships that would serve him in later years.

In February 1937, the 12-term congressman from Johnson's home district, James P. Buchanan, died of a heart attack and special elections were called. Lyndon wanted to run, but worried he would not have the needed financial support to win. It was at this moment, Lady Bird carved out her role as the quintessential political wife.

Drawing on her inheritence from her mother, Minnie Taylor, Lady Bird gave Lyndon $10,000 for the campaign. The money allowed Johnson to be the first to declare his candidacy and to begin the grueling 42-day campaign.

Life on the campaign trail was not Lady Bird's forte, and she harshly criticized herself for being shy as her husband worked the crowds. But the partnership won big that Spring with Lyndon Johnson garnering twice as many votes as his next rival. With Lady Bird's moral and financial support, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as a member of the House on May 13, 1937.

Almost as soon as the oath was administered, LBJ was looking for his next big win. His chance came in 1941 with the death of another veteran politician, U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard. This time Johnson would not face a field of seven other relatively unknown candidates; he would take on the sitting governor, Willy Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, in the Democratic primary.

Early polls put Johnson at seven percent with little hope of winning. But he campaigned with the same tenacity that had lifted him to the House. Again, Lady Bird stayed mostly in the background.

Despite debilitating depression and anxiety, Johnson led on primary day by 5,200 votes out of 600,000 cast. O'Daniel contested the results and for five days vote counters went through the ballots and Johnson, accusing his challenger of rigging the recount, watched his win evaporate. In the end Johnson lost by 1,311.

Despite Lady Bird's best efforts, Johnson languished in a deep depression. That is until Dec. 7, 1941. With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war, Lyndon resigned his seat from Congress and volunteered for active duty in the Navy. Lady Bird took over Lyndon's congressional office, orchestrating his re-election despite that fact that the candidate was overseas. Like other women during this period, Lady Bird said she learned more about herself and her own abilities during the war.

The war and Lyndon's failed senate bid also taught her that politics was no way to make a living and that the Johnsons needed a steady income. She used more of her mother's money and Lyndon's connections to purchase a faltering Austin radio station in 1942 for $17,500. KTBC was a 250-watt station that was losing at least $600 a month with no profits in sight. While Lyndon urged CBS to make the station an affiliate, Lady Bird poured over the books to better track ad revenue. Slowly the station turned around and later served as a base for a multi-million dollar communications company based in Austin. What Lady Bird had quietly done was to become the first and only First Lady to build and maintain a fortune with her own money. Lyndon may have had the power, but Lady Bird had the money.

Lady Bird Johnson holds on to her hat as she and Lyndon drive across the When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress to return to Washington in July 1942, LBJ looked to continue building his political base, but Lady Bird was looking to build a family. Three times, she had become pregnant only to lose the baby. In 1943, Lady Bird became pregnant again. Throughout a difficult term, Lady Bird continued to travel back and forth to Austin and build her media business. Then on March 19, 1944, Lady Bird went into labor and 12 hours later gave birth to her first daughter. Lady Bird's mother-in-law recommended the name Lynda Bird after her son Lyndon and Claudia's nickname. In late 1946, Lady Bird again became pregnant and gave birth to Luci Baines in 1947. In an attempt to give Lyndon the son he wanted, she became pregnant in 1949, but lost the baby in the first trimester.

Lyndon continued to focus almost exclusively on his political career. In each of his House races he would cruise to re-election, but he also continued to hold loftier ambitions. In 1948, he declared himself a candidate in the race for an open U.S. Senate race. But he needed to face a former governor, Coke Stevenson, in the primary. The two battled throughout the primary. Even Lady Bird, a notoriously shy campaigner, hit the trail delivering stump speeches throughout the state. It would be another incredibly tight election, but this time Lyndon would win, by a whopping 87 votes. From that election on, the Texas Senator would be known as "Landslide Lyndon."

Once in the Senate, the gregarious Lyndon rose quickly, becoming Senate Majority Whip in just two years. By 1953, he was the Minority Leader of the Democrats. When the Democrats won control of the Senate in 1954, Johnson became the Senate Majority Leader. At 46 he was the youngest man ever to hold the position and when Adalai Stevenson lost his presidential bid in 1956, Lyndon Johnson became the nation's most powerful Democrat.

But Lyndon almost didn't live to see it. In July 1955, just months after becoming Senate Majority Leader, Johnson suffered a major heart attack. Lyndon was rushed to a Washington area hospital where he spent a month recuperating. During this time Lady Bird literally did not leave his bedside, staying in the next hospital room to be there when he woke. She also ran much of the day-to-day operations of the new Senate Majority Leader's office. When Lyndon was healthy enough to travel, doctors order he spend another three months taking it easy at his Texas ranch. Lady Bird traveled with him, monitoring his health and soothing his nerves. But Lady Bird never felt at ease about her husband, and constantly worried that his ambitions, his diet and his drinking would kill him. It was a fear that got worse once in the White House.

As the 1960 presidential campaign heated up, Democrats had two viable candidates -- Lyndon, recovered from his heart attack, and Massachusetts' Junior Senator John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson did not officially launch his campaign until two weeks before the convention. His slow, indecisive start hurt his chances, as the highly organized Kennedy garnered two-thirds of delegates. The entire family was crushed by the loss. Luci Baines, 13 at the time, rushed back to the hotel, dressed entirely in black and told everyone she was in mourning.

But the day after the loss, Johnson joined the ticket and ran as Kennedy's number two. Lady Bird, too, joined the campaign. She traveled more than 35,000 miles, stumping for her husband's ticket and other Democratic candidates. In one of her key moves, she organized a trip with two Kennedy women, Ethel and Eunice, to Texas. Many in the state were troubled at the thought of a Catholic president, but Lady Bird and her self-proclaimed "Flying Tea Parties" introduced the Kennedy family to the region and assuaged many fears.

The Kennedy/Johnson ticket went on to win Texas in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history. Johnson was now officially the vice president and Lady Bird would have to help Lyndon through another deep depression as he came to loathe the job. As Lyndon said of his new job, "I detest every minute of it…"

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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