Lady Bird's Legacy

Here’s my Lady Bird Johnson story.

Our family was vacationing in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin. Sunday dawned. Being Episcopalians, we fetched up at St. Barnabas Church, Fredericksburg, for the main service. It was the ’80s. Our two boys were young and — dare I say it? — disputatious. During the service they became embroiled with each other. Mom and Dad sought to still them. It was … challenging.

Came time to pass "the peace of the Lord" to fellow communicants. We whirled round to find, passing the peace to us, Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson of the nearby Johnson Ranch: gracious, smiling, outwardly unruffled by any breach of the peace our generally angelic — but not right then — children might have committed.

We still talk about it. No scowl from Lady Bird, not so much as a pursed lip. No motions as if to move farther from the unruly Murchison tribe. Lady Bird was, as Rhett Butler said of Melanie Wilkes, a great lady, a very great lady. I wish we had a lot more such. That we don’t is a principal element in our present national difficulties.

Our unexpected encounter with Lady Bird in a small Episcopal church on a Sunday morning was entirely typical, from what I gather, of encounters in general with Lady Bird. She was forever charming, forever gracious, especially and deliberately, I will wager, to non-admirers of her husband.

We native Texans of a certain age know better than most what a difficult and contentious figure was Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was crafty, self-propelled, a man born to lead in everything and to follow in nothing. These various traits rendered him, shall we say, less than instantly lovable. Well, who ever said power and lovability go hand in hand?

The wonder was that, hitched to this force of nature, was a woman like Lady Bird. Whatever Lyndon wasn’t, in various particulars, she was. You had to scratch your head. How’d they ever get together? In my callow 20s I attempted a rude sally: "You have to wonder about anybody who would give Lyndon a second date." Apparently not. There was something there. She saw it. It drew her.

We read in the obituaries that she kept him in line, to the extent he stayed in line at all. She sanded down sharp edges, cheered and encouraged him, no doubt sometimes suggested alternative courses of action.

What amazes all these years later are the remembrances of Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s patience and dignity as her husband was assailed and set upon from every side. "Hey, hey, LBJ — how many kids did you kill today?" It was in the air. We heard it. She heard it.

How much pain she must have felt! How often she must have had to dam up the tears! She triumphed in the end — dignity and patience over anger and venom of a sort not experienced in America since the 1850s.

She takes her leave of us at a historical moment as steeped in anger and venom, not to mention poisonous accusations and frothing hatreds, as the 1960s: hardly an encouraging precedent. I know how Mrs. Johnson would have met such a moment as First Lady: the same way the present First Lady, Mrs. Bush, meets this moment.

It probably is not remarked often enough how alike are Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bush, Texans both, in their capacity for civility and graciousness. I hereby remark it — and go on to grieve at the present squalor of political life, when political opponents — and I don’t mean just practicing politicians — would more readily perform emergency appendectomies on each other, using rusty can openers, than acknowledge that we’re all Americans here. It was precisely the acknowledgement that Lady Bird Johnson seemed to render instinctively as she smiled graciously, shook hands, bestowing honor, and humanity, on friend and foe alike.

The peace of the Lord be always with her…