Friday, September 14, 2007

Eulogy for Lady Bird Johnson

1969 Whitehouse Portrait

Bill Moyers' eulogy for Lady Bird Johnson, She seemed to grow calmer as the world around her became more furious. Sunday, July 15, 2007

It is unthinkable to me that Lady Bird is gone.
She was so much a part of the landscape, so much a part of our lives and our times, so much a part of our country for so long that I began to imagine her with us always. Now, although the fields of purple, orange, and blue will long evoke her gifts to us, that vibrant presence has departed, and we are left to mourn our loss of her even as we celebrate her life.
Some people arriving earlier today were asked, "Are you sitting with the family?" I looked around at this throng and said to myself, "Everyone here is sitting with the family. That's how she would treat us." All of us.
When I arrived in Washington in 1954, to work in the LBJ mailroom between my sophomore and junior years, I didn't know a single person in town — not even the Johnsons, whom I only met that first week. She soon recognized the weekends were especially lonesome for me, and she called one day to ask me over for Sunday brunch.
I had never even heard of Sunday brunch, must less been to one; for all I knew, it was an Episcopalian sacrament. When I arrived at 30th Place the family was there — the little girls, Lady Bird and himself. But so were Richard Russell and Sam Rayburn and J. Edgar Hoover — didn't look like Episcopal priests to me. They were sitting around the smallish room reading the newspaper — except for LBJ, who was on the phone. If this is their idea of a sacrament, I thought, I'll just stay a Baptist. But Mrs. Johnson knew something about the bachelors she had invited there, including the kid fresh up from her native East Texas. On a Sunday morning they needed a family, and she had offered us communion at her table. In a way, it was a sacrament.
It was also very good politics. She told me something that summer that would make a difference in my life. She was shy, and in the presence of powerful men, she usually kept her counsel. Sensing that I was shy, too, and aware I had no experience to enforce any opinions, she said: Don't worry. If you are unsure of what to say, just ask questions, and I promise you that when they leave, they will think you were the smartest one on the room, just for listening to them. Word will get around, she said.
She knew the ways of the world, and how they could be made to work for you, even when you didn't fully understand what was going on. She told me once, years later, that she didn't even understand everything about the man she married — nor did she want to, she said, as long as he needed her.
Oh, he needed her, alright. You know the famous incident. Once, trying to locate her in a crowded room, he growled aloud: "Where's Lady Bird?" And she replied: "Right behind you, darling, where I've always been." "Whoever loves, believes the impossible," Elizabeth Browning wrote. Lady Bird truly loved this man she often found impossible. "I'm no more bewildered by Lyndon than he is bewildered by himself," she once told me.
Like everyone he loved, she often found herself in the path of his Vesuvian eruptions. During the campaign of 1960 I slept in the bed in their basement when we returned from the road for sessions of the Senate. She knew I was lonesome for Judith and our six-month-old son who were back in Texas. She would often come down the two flights of stairs to ask if I was doing alright. One night the Senator and I got home even later than usual. And he brought with him an unresolved dispute from the Senate cloakroom. At midnight I could still hear him upstairs, carrying on as if he were about to purge the Democratic caucus. Pretty soon I heard her footsteps on the stairs and I called out: "Mrs. Johnson, you don't need to check up on me. I'm alright." And she called back, "Well, I was coming down to tell you I'm alright, too."
She seemed to grow calmer as the world around her became more furious.
Thunderstorms struck in her life so often, you had to wonder why the Gods on Olympus kept testing her. She lost her mother in an accident when she was five. She was two cars behind JFK in Dallas. She was in the White House when Martin Luther King was shot and Washington burned. She grieved for the family of Robert Kennedy, and for the lives lost in Vietnam.
Early in the White House, a well-meaning editor up from Texas said, "You poor thing, having to follow Jackie Kennedy." Mrs. Johnson's mouth dropped open, in amazed disbelief. And she said, "Oh, no, don't pity for me. Weep for Mrs. Kennedy. She lost her husband. I still have my Lyndon."
She aimed for the consolation and comfort of others. It was not only her talent at negotiating the civil war waged in his nature. It was not just the way she remained unconscripted by the factions into which family, friends, and advisers inevitably divide around a powerful figure. She kept open all the roads to reconciliation.
Like her beloved flowers in the field, she was a woman of many hues. A strong manager, a canny investor, a shrewd judge of people, friend and foe — and she never confused the two. Deliberate in coming to judgment, she was sure in conclusion.
But let me speak especially of the one quality that most captured my admiration and affection, her courage.
It is the fall of 1960. We're in Dallas, where neither Kennedy nor Johnson are local heroes. We start across the street from the Adolphus to the Baker Hotel. The reactionary congressman from Dallas has organized a demonstration of women — pretty women, in costumes of red, white, and blue, waving little American flags above their cowboy hats. At first I take them to be cheerleaders having a good time. But suddenly they are an angry mob, snarling, salivating, spitting.
A roar — a primal terrifying roar swells around us — my first experience with collective hate roused to a fever pitch. I'm right behind the Johnsons. She's taken his arm and as she turns left and right, nodding to the mob, I can see she is smiling. And I see in the eyes of some of those women a confusion — what I take to be the realization that this is them at their most uncivil, confronting a woman who is the triumph of civility. So help me, her very demeanor creates a small zone of grace in the midst of that tumultuous throng. And they move back a little, and again a little, Mrs. Johnson continuing to nod and smile, until we're inside the Baker and upstairs in the suite.
Now LBJ is smiling — he knows that Texas was up for grabs until this moment, and the backlash will decide it for us. But Mrs. Johnson has pulled back the curtains and is looking down that street as the mob disperses. She has seen a dark and disturbing omen. Still holding the curtain back, as if she were peering into the future, she says, "Things will never be the same again."
Now it is 1964. The disinherited descendents of slavery, still denied their rights as citizens after a century of segregation, have resolved to claim for themselves the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. President Johnson has thrown the full power of his office to their side, and he has just signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 — the greatest single sword of justice raised for equality since the Emancipation Proclamation. A few weeks later, both Johnsons plunge into his campaign for election in his own right. He has more or less given up on the South, after that legislation, but she will not. These were her people, here were her roots. And she is not ready to sever them. So she sets out on a whistlestop journey of nearly seventeen hundred miles through the heart of her past. She is on her own now — campaigning independently — across the Mason-Dixon line down the buckle of the Bible Belt all the way down to New Orleans. I cannot all these years later do justice to what she faced: The boos, the jeers, the hecklers, the crude signs and cruder gestures, the insults and the threats. This is the land still ruled by Jim Crow and John Birch, who controls the law with the cross and club to enforce it. 1964, and bathroom signs still read: "White Ladies" and Colored Women."
In Richmond, she is greeted with signs that read: "Fly away, Lady Bird." In Charleston, "Blackbird Go Home." Children planted in front rows hold up signs: "Johnson is a Nigger Lover." In Savannah they curse her daughter. The air has become so menacing we run a separate engine fifteen minutes ahead of her in case of a bomb; she later said, "People were concerned for me, but the engineer in the train ahead of us was in far greater danger." Rumors spread of snipers, and in the Panhandle of Florida the threats are so ominous the FBI orders a yard-by-yard sweep of a seven-mile bridge that her train would cross.
She never flinches. Up to forty times a day from the platform of the caboose she will speak, sometimes raising a single white-gloved hand to punctuate her words — always the lady. When the insults grew so raucous in South Carolina, she tells the crowd the ugly words were coming "not from the good people of South Carolina but from the state of confusion." In Columbia she answers hecklers with what one observer called "a maternal bark." And she says, "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now is my turn to express mine."
An advance man called me back at the White House from the pay phone at a local train depot. He was choking back the tears. "As long as I live," he said, in a voice breaking with emotion, "I will thank God I was here today, so that I can tell my children the difference courage makes."
Yes, she planted flowers, and wanted and worked for highways and parks and vistas that opened us to the Technicolor splendors of our world. Walk this weekend among the paths and trails and flowers and see the beauty she loved. But as you do, remember — she also loved democracy, and saw a beauty in it — rough though the ground may be, hard and stony, as tangled and as threatened with blight as nature itself. And remember that this shy little girl from Karnack, Texas — with eyes as wistful as cypress and manners as soft as the whispering pine — grew up to show us how to cultivate the beauty in democracy: The voice raised against the mob . . . the courage to overcome fear with convictions as true as steel. Claudia Alta Taylor — Lady Bird Johnson — served the beauty in nature and the beauty in us — and right down to the end of her long and bountiful life, she inspired us to serve them, too.
I thought this was the most beautiful eulogy ever, I just had to find and share, Carla.