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Former First Lady Johnson Dies at 94

July 11, 2007 at 6:50 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, remembering Lady Bird Johnson. The former first lady died today of natural causes at her Austin home. Historian Michael Beschloss profiled Mrs. Johnson for a PBS documentary in 2001. This excerpt focuses on her White House role during the Vietnam War.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: The war was taking its toll on LBJ. He was moodier than ever, and he took it out on his staff.

Lady Bird patched up hurt feelings. Sometimes she confronted her husband. One friend observed that the only thing that could calm Lyndon Johnson was two words from Lady Bird, “Now, Lyndon.”

Lady Bird’s devotion to her husband became even more fierce as the country sank deeper into Vietnam.

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, Former President of the United States: I have today ordered to Vietnam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces, which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men.

NEWS REPORTER: Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War assembled in the nation’s capital for a mass protest…

Protests against President Johnson

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: By 1967, college students were burning the president in effigy. Even in the White House, the Johnsons couldn't escape the protests.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON, Daughter of LBJ: We heard in all the full agony the protests of the Vietnam War. I went to bed at night hearing protesters on the streets saying, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?"

TOM JOHNSON: I was in many, many nights when he would call the situation room to get the casualty count for the day. I never saw a person so anguished.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: My mother always tried to have one of us on Daddy duty. Either she was there to be around Daddy or Lyndon was there to be around Daddy or I was. There was a sense in the family that the women owed that much to him.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird felt the fury against the war firsthand. When she went to college campuses, there were protests. At a White House luncheon she gave, the actress Eartha Kitt stood up and denounced LBJ for sending children off to die in Vietnam. Lady Bird was shaken, but stayed calm.

Mostly she feared that the pressures of the war would cause LBJ another heart attack, but that this time it would be fatal. She kept a black dress in her closet in case she suddenly needed it.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, Former First Lady: You finally acquire a sense of fatalism. You're going to do everything you can to prevent it, and you know it may happen.

Pullout from the presidential race

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird insisted that LBJ take himself out of the 1968 presidential race. By then, both Luci and Lynda were married. She wanted LBJ to live to see their grandchildren grow, but Johnson wavered. Finally, on March 31, 1968, he promised his wife that he would pull out of the race at the end of a speech on the war. That morning, Lynda had seen her husband, Chuck Robb, off to Vietnam.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: I got back at 6:00 in the morning or so. And Daddy and mother met me in nightgown and robe, and he saw his little girl three months pregnant and 100 percent shattered. And you could see that there was the president there, but there was a daddy there.

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: Good evening, my fellow Americans.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: There's a part of me that wonders if that didn't cement the decision for that day.

Getting her husband through office

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That evening in the Oval Office, LBJ spoke the words his wife wanted to hear.

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird had inserted the phrase "and I will not accept" to make sure that LBJ did not leave himself an escape hatch. She felt wounded that he would never achieve his dreams as president: for the American people to love him and to end the war in Vietnam.

As they left the White House on January 20, 1969, she was certain that they had made the right decision. She and Lyndon had had five years in the center of action, and she had gotten her husband through the presidency alive.

JIM LEHRER: Lady Bird Johnson was 94 years old.