(CNN)Lady Bird Johnson moved into a White House in mourning after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Black cloth hung over chandeliers, windows and doorways, and Kennedy staffers sobbed in the mansion’s hallways.
This was obviously not how Lady Bird wanted to become first lady. Yet over the five years of her husband Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, she would defy all expectations. Lady Bird Johnson in 1963.As first lady, Lady Bird helped create Head Start for preschool-aged children from low-income families, and she famously “beautified” America’s roadways as the guiding force behind 1965’s Highway Beautification Act. But it was her determination to always speak up for what was right, even if it put her own life at risk, that has made her one of the most effective first ladies in American history. Lady Bird was born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912. She grew up wealthy in a small East Texas town in a country mansion that was built by slaves. From the moment she met and married Lyndon Baines Johnson, a young congressional aide, in 1934, it was clear which roles each would play in their political partnership. She was steady where he was unpredictable, and she was as steadfast in the face of his turbulent moods as she was in her own convictions. President Johnson sits on a porch swing with First Lady Lady Bird following his landslide election win. When Lady Bird traveled through the South, she would refuse to stay in hotels that wouldn’t accept the family’s African American cook because of the color of her skin. And when LBJ ran for president in 1964, facing deep resentment from Southern Democrats for enacting that year’s Civil Rights Act, Lady Bird traveled nearly 2,000 miles across eight states urging Southerners to accept the end of Jim Crow. Read MoreLady Bird was one of the major reasons for her husband’s victory that year, and she understood the complexities of her role. She said that a first lady needs to be a “showman and a salesman; a clotheshorse and a publicity sounding board with a good heart and a real interest in the folks” from all over the country, rich and poor. Lady Bird was that, and so much more. Below, join us for a “First Ladies” viewing party as we break down seven of our favorite moments and key takeaways from this episode. 1. ‘All the stars out of the skies’ Kate Andersen Brower: I love that we see both of the Johnson daughters in this episode. I’ve interviewed them and so enjoyed talking to them. They were young women when their father became president — Lynda was 19, and Luci was 16 — so they can shed light on his presidency in a very real way.Kate Bennett: And they probably know everything! Lady Bird is again one of those first ladies who really had a lot on her plate during her tenure; the country was going through massive change. Brower: Absolutely. LBJ would never have been president without her grit, determination and emotional support.Can you imagine what she went through being thrust into the role of first lady because of a national tragedy? Lady Bird was in the Dallas motorcade with the Kennedys; she saw the assassination unfold and realized the impossible position her family was suddenly pushed into. Lyndon Johnson takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One on November 22, 1963.And to think of Jackie Kennedy seeming so small and alone on that plane from Texas back to Washington. In her diary, Lady Bird wrote, “If Lyndon could pull all the stars out of the skies and make a necklace for Jackie Kennedy, he would do it.”Bennett: The shock of it all! So interesting to think about how this administration came about in the midst of nationwide grief. Brower: Lady Bird’s social secretary, Bess Abell, passed away recently but I got to know her years ago and she was a truly incredible woman. She told me what it was like to come into the White House in mourning: It was a moment they had always dreamed of, but it had this nightmarish quality to it.Bennett: On top of that, they were both mocked for being Texan. That’s awful. Brower: Kennedy aides called them “Uncle corn pone and his little mutton chop” when Johnson was VP. Of course, many of them left after Kennedy’s assassination, but Lady Bird didn’t give up. She knew how important their support was. Lady Bird Johnson rides a horse on the Johnson family ranch in Texas in 1963.She asked the Johnsons’ family cook, Zephyr Wright, to bake dozens of loaves of bread, and Lady Bird marched up and down the halls of the White House pushing a grocery cart full of warm, homemade bread wrapped in aluminum foil, each loaf tied with a tidy ribbon. She went into every single office and thanked aides for supporting the President and Mrs. Kennedy and asked that they continue their support for her husband. She was so politically intelligent. Bennett: “People were looking at the living and wishing for the dead.” Wow. What a quote to describe what their transition was like. Brower: That was Lady Bird’s quote. I’m telling you, her diary is incredible — anyone who wants more should read “A White House Diary.” It’s a fascinating book. She vividly describes each day, and she is a descriptive and thoughtful writer. She could have had a second career as a novelist!2. ‘A good B+’Bennett: Lady Bird’s description of being first lady: “Balm, sustainer and sometime critic for my husband.”Brower: Ha! I love that she gave LBJ “critiques,” like if she thought he did “too much looking down” during a speech or sounded breathless. And she would give him literal letter grades. Bennett: Hahaha! She GRADED HIM.Brower: She gave one speech “a good B+.” Now, that’s a team. President Lyndon Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird in 1963.Bennett: So many times it’s the FLOTUS who can be that honest. Brower: Exactly. Joseph Califano, a close Johnson adviser, said it well: “She was more important to what he did in the White House than any staffer.”Bennett: And yet he was mean to her! I had no idea he would embarrass her in public. Whoa.Brower: It was pretty awful; she put up with too much, in my opinion. As her daughter Lynda says, “She didn’t need him as much as he needed her.”3. One part love, one part ego-stroke Bennett: Yeah. These letters they exchanged before they married are fascinating. You could see signs of his mental health unfolding; one week he was up, the next he’d be down. Brower: Exactly; LBJ was essentially a manic depressive. Lady Bird had to convince him to go to the 1964 DNC because he was so insecure about his ability to lead and unite a nation in turmoil — especially when there were Democrat options like Bobby Kennedy. That feud, by the way, is fascinating; Bobby Kennedy hated LBJ.Bennett: So his nomination is on the line, and LBJ wouldn’t even get out of bed?Brower: Yes! Wonder if that’s happening now in the White House after President Trump’s defeat.Bennett: Seriously. Brower: Lady Bird’s letter to LBJ encouraging him to go to the convention is epic. She told him, “I know you are as brave as any of the 35” — referring to the presidents before him — and that if he didn’t attend, she could see “nothing but a lonely wasteland” for his future. Lady Bird Johnson sits at a White House table in 1964.Bennett: So many of these FLOTUS’s are the true backbone of these self-doubting men!Brower: She did so much ego massaging. It must have been exhausting.Bennett: I feel like it was equal parts love and ego-stroking. But whatever, it worked!Brower: I know we say you can never see inside a marriage, but this episode is as close as you can get. 4. The Lady Bird SpecialBennett: It’s hard to overstate how necessary Lady Bird was to everything Johnson accomplished as president; during his 1964 campaign, she traveled to the states his advisers thought he’d lose. Their daughter Luci says Lady Bird “couldn’t bear to give the South away without a try.”Brower: The “Lady Bird Special” is unprecedented. She traveled 1,628 miles across eight Southern states on a whistle-stop train tour, becoming the first first lady to go on the campaign trail without the president.All this work and travel was crucial to the campaign. Johnson was in trouble in the South because he had pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which overturned the “Jim Crow” segregation laws. Some Southerners felt that their way of life was being threatened.But Lady Bird had seen the impact of segregation up close. When LBJ was a Congressman, she would drive from Texas to Washington, DC, with the family’s cook, Zephyr Wright, who was African American. After a long day of driving, Lady Bird refused to stay at any hotel that wouldn’t also admit Wright because of her skin color. Both women were instrumental in making LBJ see the human toll of these racist policies, and when Johnson ran for president Lady Bird went on her “Lady Bird Special” tour.Lady Bird Johnson greets supporters during the “Lady Bird Special” tour.She made 47 speeches to half a million people, urging them to accept desegregation or watch their economy crumble, while also calling out the ugliness of segregation.Bennett: Lynda recalls how dangerous it was; there were death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and threats to blow up the train. Brower: She refused to call off the trip even when Secret Service agents told her that it would be necessary to sweep the railroad tracks for bombs. An extra engine traveled fifteen minutes ahead of her train for this very reason.Bennett: And she’s so calm facing these crowds. Look at her go! Brower: People shouted, “Black Bird go home!” But after the heckling was done she said: “My friends, in this country we are entitled to many viewpoints. You are entitled to yours. But right now, I’m entitled to mine.” God she’s amazing! She was one of the major reasons for Johnson’s victory in 1964.5. Walter JenkinsBennett: Oh my. I didn’t know about the Walter Jenkins story. Brower: The way Lady Bird defended him is incredible. Jenkins was one of Johnson’s top advisers and close friends. But when he was arrested on what was then called a homosexual morals charge in a YMCA men’s room a few blocks from the White House, LBJ wanted to cut him loose. Lady Bird refused. She was disappointed that he wouldn’t stand by his friend; she even tried to convince him by pointing to the election. “If we don’t express some support to him,” she said in a phone call, “I think that we will lose the entire love and devotion of all the people who have been with us.” Bennett: She said, “My love, I pray for you along with Walter.” She was determined!Brower: She’s basically saying, “I’m doing what I want.” And then she put out her own statement of support for Jenkins. Bennett: It’s so compelling because she comes off as this Southern throwback in a way, but she was really incredibly strong and opinionated. I have to say I wasn’t as aware as I perhaps should be about her. Brower: Exactly! I think she’s too often overlooked because of Jackie. She was LBJ’s moral compass.Bennett: And LBJ passed so many bills.Brower: The Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid. Lady Bird worked on Head Start giving children born into low-income families preschool education. Amazing energy and determination. And empathy.6. Lady Bird faces her criticsBennett: For LBJ to have his two sons-in-law go to Vietnam makes navigating that crisis as president even more complicated. Brower: Can you imagine? And they could hear the chants in Lafayette Square: “Hey, hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”Bennett: Such a heavy, heavy weight. Unimaginable. Brower: When Eartha Kitt was invited to the White House, she confronted Lady Bird about the war: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. … They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”Bennett: Eartha Kitt was one of a kind.Brower: I think it was tremendous that there was that kind of interaction. Today the White House is so closed off to people. Especially to critics. And I think that’s true for Republicans and Democrats.Bennett: Exactly. His own daughter expressed to his face what so many military wives likely wanted to as their husbands went off to Vietnam; Lynda said, “If he gets killed, I will never forgive you.”Brower: Now we’re talking about beautification. Lady Bird was ahead of her time on the environment too! She thought that natural beauty could help calm tensions arising from Vietnam and she took on the powerful billboard industry that she thought was spoiling America’s highways. When the act looked like it wasn’t going to pass, LBJ told his staff, “You know I love that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act, by God we’re going to get it for her.” Bennett: Look at her go with the highway beautification act! Brower: LBJ was her biggest supporter with that effort; it was a true political partnership. 7. A humble exitBrower: LBJ always said the men in his family died young; I think that was part of his decision not to run again. I also wonder how much of his decision was because of Vietnam. But no one knew that LBJ wasn’t going to run again in 1968. Not even his own advisers.Bennett: Wow! Really?Brower: There was a surprising amount of humility here, that he wouldn’t seek the nomination. You would think, given his enormous ego, that he would not be able to bring himself to walk away.Bennett: He really felt the duality of trying to campaign while the country is living the nightmare; it’s a real moment of self-awareness. Brower: Exactly; so much had happened in 1968. Lady Bird’s diary entry on the murders of MLK and Bobby Kennedy is incredibly moving. I’m so grateful she kept a diary.“I have loved almost every day of these five years.” What a woman.Bennett: I’ve learned so much — you are so informative! It sounds cheesy but it’s true, which is a wonderful thing.Brower: I loved it, but I’m biased since I worked on the series! I’ve had so much fun doing these with you.Bennett: Me too!
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