As 1967 edged towards Christmas and the arrival of a New Year, the Vietnam War continued to rage on while President Lyndon Baines Johnson and a full contingent of staffers and press climbed aboard Air Force One to attend the funeral of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had drowned off the coast of Victoria, Australia. Following the funeral (and despite the rapidly approaching holidays), LBJ decided to extend his journey — several times. From Australia, the President touched down in Thailand and Vietnam to visit U.S. troops, followed by a short visit with Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan.
LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who remained back home at the White House, called the whirlwind world tour, “the fastest, longest, hardest trip any President of the United States had ever taken.” The exhausted press contingent which had accompanied LBJ agreed. They had circled the globe, covered a state funeral, tagged along during a Presidential visit to an active war zone, stopped off in six different countries, and topped everything off with an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican.
The real goal for the trip’s ever-evolving extension from a quick appearance in Australia to honor the President’s friend, Prime Minister Holt, to a 28,294-mile circumnavigation of the Earth became apparent on December 23, 1967. After a short visit with Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and Prime Minister Aldo Moro, President Johnson was received in Vatican City by Pope Paul. With nothing else working, Johnson hoped that the Pope might be able to help broker peace in Vietnam. Despite the President’s efforts, however, Pope Paul VI only promised to study the matter.
Thousands of anti-war demonstrators had greeted LBJ as his plane touched down in Rome, but the President was able to rise above it — literally — as he flew to the Vatican via helicopter. The Presidential helicopter landed in the Vatican Gardens — a first — a technological achievement that traditionalists, including the Pope, grumbled about when they witnessed it. How dare this American land a helicopter in the Vatican Gardens rather than fight his way through Roman traffic like everyone else? After the President’s visit, however, that grumbling gave way to acceptance and the advantages of modernity as the Pope himself began to use a helicopter for short flights out of the Vatican, particularly to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat perched on the hills of Lake Albano, approximately 15 miles outside of Rome.
Up to that point in American history, the relationship between LBJ and Pope Paul was probably the closest between any President and Supreme Pontiff (but still a far cry from the relationships between more recent Presidents and Popes) . With the war in Vietnam stagnant and increasingly bloody, President Johnson had been hoping to find a way for Pope Paul VI to act as a peacemaker, bring the belligerent parties together, and broker a deal to end the conflict. While that never happened under Pope Paul’s guidance or mediation, LBJ had tremendous respect for the Pope and believed that a face-to-face meeting with Paul VI — something which might give LBJ an opportunity to use his famously effective Johnson Treatment — would make a difference in enlisting the Pontiff’s assistance. What happened in the private meeting between Johnson and Paul VI remained known only by those two leaders. According to LBJ’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President told him, “The Pope is a very great man,” and suggested that Paul VI was sympathetic to American struggles in Vietnam. However, other sources reported that the President and Pope had a tense meeting about the worsening state of the war in Southeast Asia and escalation of the conflict due to American policies. LBJ didn’t go into details about what did or did not happen in his meeting with Pope Paul, but in describing his private audience to his brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President claimed, “Incidentally, the Pope said I was one of the great leaders of our time. What do you think of that, Sam Houston?”
What does stand out about the meeting between President Johnson and Pope Paul VI was the gifts that they gave one another. Although Christmas was just a couple of days away, the gifts were not Christmas presents but part of the diplomatic niceties observed by world leaders who frequently exchange gifts during their meetings. Technically, any gifts given to the President by other leaders during his term actually belong to the American people rather than the President himself, but in many cases, the gifts a President receives can be found on display in their Presidential libraries.
Since LBJ arrived at the Vatican on the day before Christmas Eve, Pope Paul’s gift to President Johnson did, in fact, reflect the holiday season. The Pope gave the President a stunning oil painting from the 15th Century — a Nativity scene featuring the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus being watched over by angels.
President Johnson, of course, had a gift for the Pope. To the amusement of the Pontiff and many others within the Vatican, LBJ gave Paul VI a bronze bust of an American President. Was it a likeness of George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? No. Was it a sculpture of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first-and-only Catholic President, who had been assassinated just months in Paul VI’s pontificate?
No. Lyndon Johnson gave Pope Paul VI a bronze bust of…Lyndon Johnson. In a photograph capturing the exchange of gifts between the two leaders, the bemused expression on the Pope’s face pretty much says all that one needs to know about the gift bestowed upon him by LBJ.
According to the State Department’s Chief of Protocol, James Symington, this wasn’t a unique gift:
"You can’t fault a man for wanting to give mementos and gestures of his friendship. But what [LBJ] wanted to take with him was, I don’t remember the exact figure, something like two hundred busts of himself. Some of them were white marblish in appearance and others were bronze-looking. It is, I think, unusual for a man to give a bust of himself in his lifetime, although it’s difficult to give it any other time. But to make a mass-production gesture really boggles the mind…
Today, there are heads of state all over Asia who are trying to decide what to do with the President’s bust. But not just heads of state, because that would have been only a dozen or less [of the busts]. As I say, we had hundreds of them, so many, many people — cabinet ministers and all kinds of functionaries — received one. The President would say, “I want a white one.” “I want a bronze one.” And you never had the one he wanted and you had to go back to get it. [LBJ would exclaim] “Damn it! Can’t anyone do anything right?”
It’s not known what Pope Paul VI did with his bust of Lyndon Johnson, but one thing is certain — the gift definitely wasn’t some sort of limited edition, one-of-a-kind, priceless national heirloom. In fact, over 40 years after LBJ’s death, the gift shop located in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin remains stocked with the same type of busts that the 36th President of the United States once presented to Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Queens, and, on the night before the night before Christmas in 1967, an altogether bewildered Pope.
The Blue Room of the White House annually features the official indoor Christmas tree of the President and his family. The Blue Room Christmas Tree normally stands between 18-20 feet tall (the tree is so tall that the Blue Room’s chandelier is removed during the holidays) and is donated by the National Christmas Tree Association which chooses a tree from a grower determined in a NCTA contest each year. More Blue Room Christmas Trees have come from North Carolina than any other state in the nation.
The first Christmas tree installed in the White House wasn’t until the Presidency of Franklin Pierce in the 1850’s and the history of White House Christmas trees is incomplete with no mention of another tree in the President’s house until the term of Benjamin Harrison, three decades after Pierce. After Harrison, White House Christmas trees were more common, yet still not a tradition. During his term, Theodore Roosevelt frequently did not have a tree in the White House — one year it was due to the fact that TR didn’t order one quickly enough for delivery by Christmas.
It is believed that every President since Hoover in 1929 has had an indoor Christmas tree in the White House and the indoor trees are usually decorated or dedicated by the First Lady. Since Jacqueline Kennedy started the tradition in 1961, First Ladies have chosen an annual theme for the Blue Room tree’s decorations. The 1961 theme that Jackie Kennedy picked was based on the Nutcracker Suite while the theme chosen by Michelle Obama is “Shine, Give, Share”.
Of course, the Blue Room Christmas tree isn’t the only Christmas tree in the White House. There are often smaller trees decorated in various parts of the Executive Mansion, including a private tree decorated by the President’s family in the White House Residence. While White House Christmas trees were infrequent or intermittent in the 19th Century, a visitor to the White House in the 21st Century might find up to 40 Christmas trees inside the Executive Mansion as well as decorated trees on the grounds of the White House.
The President and his family are also responsible for dedicating and lighting the National Christmas tree which is located on the Ellipse directly to the south of the White House gates. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge was the first President to light the National Christmas tree and until 1978 the National tree was a cut tree that had been transported to Washington and placed near the White House for decoration.
In 1978, during the Carter Administration, the National Park Service planted a live tree that they found in Pennsylvania and determined would thrive in Washington year-round. Thus, the National Christmas Tree is now a living tree (47 years old) that stands 42 feet tall near the White House in all seasons but is decorated for holiday display each Christmas.