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Presidential Admirer: LBJ’s Love Letters to Lady Bird, His Bride to Be

February 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Seventy years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson took to snail mail to court Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor. The letters have now been released by the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. For more on the love letters, Judy Woodruff talks with historian Michael Beschloss, and Catherine Robb, granddaughter of LBJ and Lady Bird.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a 70-year-old love story told in letters from President Lyndon Johnson to the woman he wanted to marry released today by the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

The more than 90 letters showed the impatience of a man so taken by Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor that he proposed the day after they met in Sep. 1934.

And just weeks later, he wrote: “I want to always love only you. It is an important decision. It isn’t being made in one night — it probably never will be yours — but your lack of decision hasn’t tempered either my affection, devotion or ability to know what I want,” to which she replied: “Your letter yesterday sort of put me on the spot, didn’t it, dear? All I can say, in absolute honesty, is I love you. I don’t how everlastingly I love you, so I can’t answer you yet.”

In audio recorded in 1978, Lady Bird Johnson described her dilemma at the time.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, Former First Lady: I was perfectly willing to say let’s be almost sure we will get married in a year, but he would say, no, if you wait that long, if you don’t love me enough to marry me now, you won’t a year from now. And it will do nothing but keep me in a turmoil and make life unbearable for a long time, and then we will slip away somehow or another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Johnson’s persistence paid off. After a two-and-a-half month courtship, the couple wed in Nov. 1934. They remained married for 39 years, until his death in 1973.

For more on these letters as intimate portraits of a president and first lady, we turn to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson’s granddaughter, Catherine Robb, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Welcome to you both.

Catherine Robb, to you first.

You were just a toddler when your grandfather passed away, so you didn’t really know him, as I understand it, but what did you grow up knowing, hearing about the relationship between the two of them, their love story?

CATHERINE ROBB, Granddaughter of Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson: Well, you’re right. I was only two-and-a-half when he passed away, and so didn’t really know him.

But I fortunately got to know my grandmother very well and spent a lot of time with her, especially in the last eight or nine years of her life. And so I heard about their relationship from her. And, in fact, she and I went — she and I would go to dinner on Tuesday nights. We had sort of a standing Tuesday night dinner date.

And one week, we decided to go to the Driskill. They had just reopened — or they had opened a restaurant that was sort of on the same spot where my grandmother and grandfather had their first date. And so we thought it would be fun to go there for dinner and sort of reminisce.

And so we went to dinner. And I asked her to tell me about their first date and just about this young man that she met back in the ’30s and sort of the whole — the whirlwind relationship. And I have to tell you I was a little shocked when I — I think I knew, but when I sort of heard again two-and-a-half months, I thought, what in the world were you doing? You didn’t know him.

But, knowing enough about him, it sort of made sense. And then reading the letters, you really see that. He’s, you know, pushing her. He thinks it should have happened yesterday, and she’s more the calm, rational one, saying, you know, just sort of hold on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

CATHERINE ROBB: So, knowing all of that, I can see in the two-and-a-half months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. I was going to ask you, what was your reaction when you read these letters?

CATHERINE ROBB: Oh, they’re just wonderful.

They’re — I was talking to my mother about them, and she said, oh, they’re just so mushy …

CATHERINE ROBB: … which is just sort of a great word. That’s a very us word, but a great word for them.

But I love reading them, because I really see so much of both of them. And they’re a little surprising, because I didn’t know them at that age, and you never think of your grandparents as being as mushy, I guess.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No.

CATHERINE ROBB: But I think you could really see both of their personalities, in terms of my grandmother’s sort of adventurous spirit, but also her sort of calm influence and the slightly more rational one, and you can see my grandfather just wanting to have everything happen now.

And once he knew he wanted something to happen, he wanted it to happen yesterday. And so you see that. But you also see they’re very — sort of the really sweet relationship between them, which was — which I thought was just lovely and just made me smile.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, what do these letters tell us about the relationship they went on to have for more than 30 years?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, from the beginning, he’s basically giving her what was called the Johnson treatment, which is what he used to get allies and mentors like Richard Russell in the Senate and Sam Rayburn in the House and get people to sport bills of his.

I mean, 10 days after the beginning of this relationship, he writes her and says, you mean everything to me, someone he’s known for 10 days. Then 26 days after, I’m ready now for marriage. Are you?

And then the 8th of November — this is a 10-week courtship, he — the self-pity — he’s saying, I really hoped I could find a woman who is as affectionate as I am, using all the tricks in the book that he used in politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did she deal with that pressure? I mean, what do you see coming across from Lady Bird?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She was torn.

Here is this extremely elegant, deliberate woman who likes to do things in her own time, who is very stately. And this guy is rushing at her..

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even at the age of 21?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Even at the age of 21. And he’s rushing at her like a freight train, and she’s torn.

Finally, he says to her, we either get married now or we never will. The next day, they did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, what — how would you describe their relationship, their marriage?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lyndon Johnson, it would have been impossible for him to be president or really had that career in politics if it were not for Lady Bird.

From the very beginning, she was his partner. She was a hugely good judge of people. She also stabilized him. She once told me that he always had these ups and downs, so she felt that she had to pull him up when he was down and calm him down a little bit when he was too excited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Catherine Robb, when you were reading these letters, did you think, this is the kind of relationship you or somebody of generation or your children’s generation could have today?

CATHERINE ROBB: Well, certainly, I would hope, in terms of just sort of the affection they showed each other and the openness they had.

What I think we won’t have, unfortunately, are those beautiful six- and seven-page letters. And we will have texts or remembrances of phone conversations or something else.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.

CATHERINE ROBB: But, certainly, reading them, I thought, gosh, those were the kind of letters, other than maybe them being a little too pushy in terms of the why haven’t you agreed to marry me yet, but other than that, reading them, I thought, these are beautiful. These are wonderful. That’s exactly the sort of thing I think we all would like to receive, sort of something very sweet, just laying it out there and confessing your love.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes.

CATHERINE ROBB: And also just sort of sharing those experiences.

You really — you get to see so much of them through these letters. And that was probably a really important of their — the growth of their relationship as well. So I would absolutely want everyone I know to get something like that.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that’s right.

And Catherine also mentioned something very important. And that is think what we historians missed by the fact that we’re going to have to write about the period that we’re living in now without these kind of letters. If you knew nothing about the relationship between LBJ and Lady Bird, and only — the only thing you read was these letters, you would have an enormously good sense of what happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Letters — just quickly, Michael Beschloss, letters after they were married?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Letters after they were married, we see them, but LBJ was a lot more busy.

Some of the most revealing things actually are some of the — he taped Lady Bird without her knowledge sometimes during the presidency on the telephone, which I wouldn’t recommend for any marriage.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But she took it with good humor.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But they had this marvelously layered relationship. She was, through all this, a very strong woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are so delighted to have both of you with us on this Valentine’s Day.

Michael Beschloss and Catherine Robb, the granddaughter of President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, thank you both.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Judy.

CATHERINE ROBB: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in keeping with the romantic holiday theme, we look at online dating sites. Can the perfect algorithm lead to love? NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni asks our Daily Download team. That’s on our home page.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cannot top that.