If you weren’t alive in the months that followed the Kennedy assassination, the death of Lady Bird Johnson probably held little meaning. She was the last of those few towering figures that moved through days of anguish with strength and grace.
The shadow that Lyndon Johnson cast over a political generation was so large that it transcended his death. No one could aspire to leadership without the counsel of his widow.
In the spring of 1981, I was a part of just such a mission. Walter Mondale had lost the Vice Presidency. He was traveling the country to prepare for a Presidential campaign in 1984 and I was his traveling aide.
A winding dirt road crossed some of most beautiful country that I had ever seen. Wild flowers littered the landscape and small streams wound through stands of gently swaying trees.
I had never been to the LBJ Ranch but like anyone of my generation I knew it very well. This was the backdrop for years of Presidential announcements. A war would be discussed before the media with these fields as a backdrop. Civil Rights leaders would venture here to make their case. World leaders would cross the globe for a moment of his time here.
Everything was familiar. When a small woman with a big smile opened the screen door to her kitchen it was as if I’d been visiting all my life.
Lady Bird ushered us into the house. It was small and cozy but filled with a lifetime of memories. Pictures hung on every wall. You could feel LBJ in the room. “Right this way” she summoned as she led me to a small bedroom. “How about a dip in the hot tub before dinner” she asked. “No,” I said,”I don’t have a swimsuit.”
Moments later she arrived with one of ‘Lyndon’s.” I wrapped it twice around my waist and headed for the tub. I was just beginning to rest when she announced that my help was needed. “Go turn on the lights for our dinner quests,” she announced. As I headed to the switch next to the front door her laughter stopped me in my tracks.
“Not those lights,” she said, as she reminded me that I wasn’t in Bergen County any longer. She flipped a large switch igniting the landing lights along a runway outside the house. Within minutes planes began to land and five jets pulled up to the diminutive little house. Each couple, bigger than life, strode into the room. They were, ‘Lyndon’s friends.” Hours of tall tales and Texas politics only ended when I was instructed to get “the car.”
I could scarcely believe my eyes when I entered the barn. It was LBJ’s big old four door Lincoln that entered my home through the evening news for so many years. He would drive heads of state and conduct news conferences from behind the wheel. Now I was told to deliver our guests to their waiting aircraft.
I never saw her again. She stood at that same door and waived goodbye as we headed down the winding road to Johnson City. I don’t know how many other aspiring politicians made that journey, but for me it was a weekend that I cherished. For just a few precious moments I entered onto the center stage of my youth. She was good to have me.