I met Lady Bird Johnson when I was a young journalist in the early 1990s. Reporting for the Orange County News, I was covering her visit to commemorate an exhibit at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.
Well into her 70s, she could still command an audience of eager listeners, as Roosevelt did with his fire-side chats. At the time, she was perhaps the most famous political or historic figure I'd ever met.
The wife of the president who signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act in 1964, I would later discover that this yellow rose of Texas was truly a magnolia of steel in the fight to win sympathy for blacks in the South. You see, Southern ladies of clout, conscience and conviction like Johnson were quietly and effectively talking up the virtues of equal rights in the language that "Old Dixie" might be able to hear.
These tales I would hear from a most reliable source over lunch at Commander's Palace in New Orleans some six years ago. Another grand dame, Ambassador Lindy Boggs, would tell me of her friendship with the now late Lady Byrd Johnson. Their husbands had been great friends and colleagues in Congress -- Lyndon Johnson as Majority Leader of the Senate, Hale Boggs as Majority Leader of the House.
At the time of the Voting Rights Act, President Johnson wielded his influence as a former senator to win over hesitant members of Congress. But in attempting to gain support from the masses the two men enlisted their wives.
The women, Lindy Boggs recounted, solidified their friendship on their car-stop campaign through the South to convince fellow Louisianans and Texans of the merits of equal rights. As Lindy explained, Lady Bird would tell it like it was: comparing the wants and desires of the then-"Negroes" to the audiences gathered around them.
They were met with blank stares at picnics and town halls, and some sneers. But mostly, astonished locals couldn't quite understand how these white gloved lily-white women could believe such things.
But their husbands' instincts were right on the money: as belles of the South, they still held the respect of the people.
But don't believe it didn't take bravery on their part. Ambassador Boggs said they were anxious. But Lady Bird's philosophy was to never let them see you sweat!
Their husbands took the brunt of the anger following the passage of the Civil Rights Act from Dixiecrats bent on keeping Jim Crow alive -- Lyndon Johnson as the president that pushed the legislation in the first place, and Hale Boggs for breaking rank as one of only a handful of Southerners to vote for it (Boggs even awoke to news of a cross burning on his front lawn at his home in New Orleans.)
Some years later, Boggs would die in a plane crash over the Alaskan tundra. Failing health would claim the life of President Johnson one year later.
Lindy Boggs would go on to become a congresswoman, and later Ambassador to the Vatican. Lady Bird Johnson would further commit herself to conservation and philanthropy. But the two women would always find time to vacation together when they could.
My heart goes out to Ambassador Boggs for the loss of her confidante and comrade. I am so grateful she shared her memories of her friendship with me.
So much has been said of Lady Bird's commitment to beautifying the country that both she and her husband served. But the stories contrasted a woman of privilege and power with one of compassion and integrity. And it's the latter that I shall hold dear.