Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of those few Presidents or political leaders who is instantly identifiable by his initials — “LBJ” — an exclusive club also populated by TR, FDR, and JFK but few others. Richard Nixon spent years and tons of energy working to become a member of that group, going as far as naming his autobiography RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. But LBJ’s initials became a recognizable brand long before he became President; he also had the added advantage of being able to monogram everything in his home with his initials since they were also shared by his wife (Lady Bird Johnson), his two daughters (Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson), and even one of his dogs (“Little Beagle Johnson” — which wasn’t one of the dogs President Johnson was famously photographed picking up by their ears, those beagles were named “Him” and “Her”).
But where did the name “Lyndon” come from? LBJ’s middle name — “Baines” — was his mother’s maiden name, but “Lyndon” wasn’t a family name. In fact, LBJ didn’t have a name for the first three months of his life. The man who would one day become the 36th President of the United States spent the first three months of his life just being called “Baby”. Of course, he couldn’t spend the rest of his life with the name “Baby”, so LBJ’s parents, Sam Ealy Johnson and Rebekah Baines Johnson, finally came to an agreement on what he would be called. Since LBJ was a far better storyteller than I will ever be, I’ll let him explain, courtesy of the LBJ Library’s always-incredible Oral History Project, as well as LBJ Library Director Mark K. Updegrove’s awesome book, Indomitable Will: LBJ In The Presidency (BOOK | KINDLE).
According to LBJ:
"I was three months old when I was named. My father and mother couldn’t agree on a name. The people my father liked were heavy drinkers — pretty rough for a city girl. She didn’t want me named after any of them.
Finally, there was a criminal lawyer — a country lawyer — named W.C. Linden. He would go on a drunk for a week after every case. My father liked him and he wanted to name me after him. My mother didn’t care for the idea but she said finally that it was alright, she would go along with it if she could spell the name the way she wanted to. So that is what happened.
[Later] I was campaigning for Congress. An old man with a white carnation in his lapel came up and said, ‘That was a very good speech. I want to vote for you like I always have. The only thing I don’t like about you is the way you spell your name.’
He then identified himself…as W.C. Linden.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia
"Watch their hands, watch their eyes. Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes. The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say." — Lyndon B. Johnson
Yo, hold up there a second…did you just say, “I know you’re a big Johnson fan”? Listen, I was told that those cameras were just security decoys and even if they weren’t, I was just pretending to be a big Johnson fan. I’m just saying that it wasn’t what it looked like. And even if it was, none of it was admissible in court.
Wait…what were we talking about again…oh yeah, your question! Lady Bird played a huge role in LBJ’s Administration in public and behind-the-scenes. I wrote an entire essay about her connection to LBJ and her importance to his life and career. Here’s part of what I wrote about Lady Bird in my essay, Brújula:
Exceedingly capable, Lady Bird expanded the role of First Lady and marshaled all of her intelligence, ability, and beliefs in order to become a transformational activist in American life. Every First Lady since Lady Bird has played an influential role in the lives of Americans, and that’s not solely because of Lady Bird but mostly so. Whether it was her campaigns for environmental protection and conservation, beautification, her support for civil rights, or her advocacy for those suffering from poverty or social injustice, Lady Bird was a force for positive change.
It is her most important role, however, which is often overlooked. Lyndon Johnson was not easy to live with. His larger-than-life personality and overflowing ego was constantly engaged in a see-saw battle with insecurity, a lack of confidence, and an overpowering fear of failure. In every election that Johnson ever contested, there came a point where he was dominated by the thought that he would lose and all but decide to quit the race before Election Day. In almost every one of those elections (and he only lost one election in his long political career), LBJ fell seriously ill shortly before Election Day. Whether it was due to Johnson’s tendency to work himself to exhaustion or partly due to a psychosomatic condition is not completely clear, but Doris Kearns Goodwin would later write that “Personal rejection was so unbearable to Johnson, so mortally threatening, that withdrawal was necessary…Episodes of rejection, actual or apprehended, seem[ed] to cripple Johnson’s faculties and even, at times, interrupt his normal state of physical health and vitality.”
It was Lady Bird who could calm him in troubled times. While Lyndon Johnson is remembered as a political maestro, particularly in legislative politics, Lady Bird had great political intuition and knew how to handle Lyndon himself. LBJ could be cruel and coarse — not just to his colleagues and staff, but to Lady Bird. In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, Lady Bird admitted as much. “Our was a compelling love,” she said. “Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment.”
That humility was not false humility; it was Lady Bird’s characteristically earnest belief. Yet, she arguably offered him more than he offered her. When he was sick, she helped care for him. When he was depressed, she helped make his life as easy as possible. She motivated him in a way that nothing else could — not even his intense drive to prove himself or ceaseless ambition for the power to help change things. If Lyndon Johnson was a hurricane — a force to be reckoned with, Lady Bird Johnson was the quiet breeze and warm sunshine which helped settle everything in the storm’s wake. I’m not sure Lyndon Johnson made Lady Bird more than she could have been, but I’m positive that Lady Bird helped LBJ become who he was.
In many of the books and interviews that I’ve read about the lives and times, accomplishments and failures of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, I have frequently come across the word “anchor” to describe her influence on the 36th President of the United States. The intent of that description is to demonstrate how she helped LBJ remain grounded. It’s a positive label, but it’s not the word that comes to my mind when I think about their unique relationship.
Instead, the word that comes to my mind is a word that Lyndon Johnson probably heard many times when he was just out of college and teaching at a small school for impoverished Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas. The word is “brújula" and it is the Spanish word for "compass". Lady Bird wasn’t Lyndon’s anchor. She was his "brújula" — the compass which helped him find his way.
Lyndon Baines Johnson could never stay in one place, so an anchor wasn’t what he needed. LBJ was always on the move, always going somewhere. Perhaps that’s why he knew he needed Lady Bird before she realized how she felt about him. He recognized what she could be for him, and he couldn’t let her get away. For Lyndon, in a life full of historic accomplishments, it might have been his best decision. Until the day Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973, whenever he was lost, whenever he was disoriented, whenever he found himself wondering where he was, where he was going, and if he could go on, there was Lady Bird — his brújula — to guide him on his way.
I’ve only made it to three Presidential Libraries so far — the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California (which also features Nixon’s birthplace), and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. All three of them are well worth the visit and great for different reasons, but the LBJ Library is my favorite by far, partly because I’m such an LBJ aficionado, but mainly because the exhibits are so well-done.
You can’t go wrong with any of them, though…
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.
George W. Bush, at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, April 10, 2014
Man, I have to admit that I sure am enjoying George W. Bush more-and-more as a former President — and not just because he is no longer President.
To be honest, I don’t follow a whole lot of history blogs. Maybe that’s why Tumblr won’t put me in the History Directory after six years of posts, well over a million words of original writing, thousands of followers, and one book that largely sold on the strength of my Dead Presidents site. (I’m not bitter about that. Nope. Not. At. All.)
I’m looking at my phone really quick to see which History blogs I follow so I (hopefully) don’t leave anybody out:
•Our Presidents (Great aggregator of posts from the various Tumblrs of Presidential Libraries)
•LBJ Time Machine (The LBJ Library’s Tumblr — my favorite Presidential Library and favorite President)
•Historical Indulgences and Frowzy Indulgences and Heck Yes, Americana (Blogs from the wonderful and lovely Tuesday Johnson)
•All Things Lincoln
•PBS’s American Experience
•AOTUS (The official Tumblr of the Archivist of the United States)
•The American Scholar
•Today’s Document (via the National Archives)
Our enemies have always made the same mistake. In my lifetime — in depression and in war — they have awaited our defeat. Each time, from the secret places of the American heart, came forth the faith they could not see or that they could not even imagine. It brought us victory. And it will again. For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965
I now know the difference between a cactus and a caucus — in a cactus, all the pricks are on the outside.
Lyndon B. Johnson, to reporters, after meeting with the Senate’s Democratic Caucus following LBJ’s election as Vice President, January 1961
As a Southerner, I am happy to know that a fellow Southerner is in the White House who is concerned about civil rights…LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that LBJ seemed far more willing to fight for civil rights than JFK ever had, following a one-on-one meeting with President Johnson less than two weeks after the Kennedy Assassination
One of the things about the White House is that you know from the moment you walk in there that this has a time limitation. You don’t know exactly what it is; it may be the four years you were elected for, or death, but you know it’s got a time limitation. And that’s one reason why you do as much as you can do, because you know that this will never happen again, and you can form up the energy from somewhere within you to go more, do more, for this limited time.
Lady Bird Johnson