November 17, 1999
DAVID GERGEN: Jan, this book is really a biography of a marriage, a
marriage between Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson. And the beginning
of the relationship and the day they got married seemed to capture so
much for you.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: It did. It is a biography of a marriage, because
that's when Mrs. Johnson becomes a public person. That's why I started
it there. And I also think their wedding day tells so much about their
relationship. They had only known each other ten weeks, and Lyndon Johnson
essentially gave her the Johnson treatment and said, "Either marry
me today or forget it." And she was afraid that he meant it, and
so she said, "Okay." And they were at Karnack, at her hometown,
and they decided they would drive to San Antonio to be married, a distance
of about 425 miles. So Johnson called up an old courthouse crony of
his and said, "Fix this up, because we're going to be in San Antonio
tonight to get married." So they drove that long distance across
the bare and muddy roads of Texas, and they arrived in San Antonio and
got to the church. And they had the marriage license, they had everything,
the preacher, they had everything there, except they realized that they
did not have a wedding ring. And so President Johnson barks at this
guy, "Go across the street to the Sears and Roebuck and buy Bird
a wedding ring." The guy was flabbergasted. He said, "You
mean to tell me that you've driven all across Texas today and you didn't
think to buy this woman a wedding ring?" And Johnson said, "No."
So the guy goes across the street, he brings back a stack of wedding
rings, and Mrs. Johnson carefully tries each one on. And finally she
finds one that fits, and Johnson pays $2.58. And that's Mrs. Johnson's
wedding ring. But the point is that from the beginning, the focus was
always on him. There she was on her wedding day with no music, no invitations,
no flowers, no family.
DAVID GERGEN: And a ring straight from Sears and Roebuck.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: And a ring straight from Sears and Roebuck that
she did not have one thing to say about. And I really think it sets
the stage for this marriage. And from the beginning, the focus was on
Lyndon Johnson, and it stays on Lyndon Johnson even to this day.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm. They were married in 1934.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: He was not yet in Congress.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: No.
DAVID GERGEN: She was... they were both still young at that point.
He was getting ready to run.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: He was a congressional secretary for Richard Clayburg,
but soon afterwards... she said... in one of her love letters, she said,
"Oh, Lyndon, tell me what the deal is. Please don't let it be politics."
And then as history knows, it was politics. And three years after they
were married, he ran for Congress, and Mrs. Johnson financed that campaign
with $10,000 from her mother's inheritance. And so from the beginning,
the pattern of the marriage was there. She was going to be his financial
support, she was going to be his emotional support, and she was going
to get behind him and push for his sake, not for her sake. Even though
she was... was and is a very smart woman, graduated from the University
of Texas with not one, but two degrees, highest honors that there were
a very smart woman, but her ambition was for her husband. And
I think that's different than some of the other First Ladies that we've
looked at in history.
DAVID GERGEN: When you interviewed Katherine Graham from the "Washington
Post" about Mrs. Johnson, she told you, "It was very clear
to me what kind of team they were. He could not have been Lyndon Johnson
without Lady Bird." Do you agree with that?
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: I completely agree with it. I think that what Ms.
Graham was trying to get was he would never have even lasted in politics.
At every important political campaign, there came a moment where he
wanted to give up. It happened in '60, it happened in '48, and each
time Mrs. Johnson would go to him and essentially say, "Buck up.
Do your job. A lot of people are depending on you. You can be a great
man." But she did...she held him together emotionally so that he
could run. As many of Johnson's biographers have written, and as you
probably know, he was a man of extreme emotion, really highs and really
lows. Mrs. Johnson told me that there were times he was so depressed,
you know, he would stare at the ceiling. And she became that emotional
center for him and held him together. Also, she held the staff together,
she held the family together, she built the business that helped support
them all. So she really is their...a team, a part of this team. But
the focus was on him.
DAVID GERGEN: Sometimes she had to put up with a lot.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: She had to put up with a lot. The most difficult
parts of this book were in fact trying to get down on page how President
Johnson would, in her own words, bully her, ridicule her, push her to
be more than she thought she could be. She said to me in our first interview,
"Lyndon loved to play the Pygmalion. And one of the things I had
to cope with was the darker aspects of that because, on one hand, it's
great to be dressed and taken care of, on the other hand, you lose your
identity in that." Then also there was the infidelity, that it
wasn't once, it wasn't twice, it was a continual pattern in the marriage,
often with women that Mrs. Johnson knew. And the way she dealt with
it, as John Connolly said, was to pretend that there was nothing to
DAVID GERGEN: I know there are elements of this book which have caused
pain to her.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: There are.
DAVID GERGEN: And yet there is also here a profile of a woman of enormous
personal courage and who really helped him on issues such as civil rights.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: Right. In 1964, after President Johnson forced
through the Civil Rights Act, Mrs. Johnson was talking to people, and
they were really giving up on the Democratic Party in the South. And
she turned to the group of advisors and said, "we can't give up
on the South. And I want to go and give this message." At the time
that she said that, it was too dangerous for Johnson to go into some
of these areas to campaign, it was Goldwater and Johnson. And so she
went, the very first, first lady to campaign on her own without her
husband. Not even Eleanor Roosevelt had done that.
DAVID GERGEN: A whistle stop?
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: A whistle stop. For four days in 1964, she made
47 speeches. She went straight to white southerners and said, "either
the whites-only signs go down, or the South goes down, because economically,
if we keep this up, we're segregating ourselves from the modern world."
Her message was very practical. She said, "I love the South, I
love its ways. The Democratic Party has been good to the South, and
now it's time for the South to be good to the Democratic Party."
And there were bomb threats. The FBI had to send a train in front of
hers to sweep the tracks, and there were placards that said, "Black
Bird, Go Home." And George Wallace wouldn't meet her train. On
and on it went. But she stood firm, and she stood firm on behalf of
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you a final question-because we could go on
a long time-- I know she comes... it almost sounds like another age
when we talk about some of this, but are there lessons here for women
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: Well, I think she is from another era, but I think
she's a reminder of the fact that, you know, not all of us do have to
achieve our ambition on our own, and there... and marriage itself can
be fulfilling. And I think one reason that she's such a well-loved First
Lady is that she stands for the pleasures of the soil and for natural
things and for sort of not... maybe she's not the most beautiful woman
in the world, but she's honest and down to earth. And she was faithful,
not only to her husband, but to her country at a very difficult time.
And I don't think that's such a bad prescription for life.
DAVID GERGEN: Jan Jarboe Russell, thank you.
JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: Thank you.