Lady Bird and Jackie

Good morning, it’s Monday, November 20, 2017. On this date in 1963, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a restless Texan with too much energy and too little to do in his professional life, spent the day making sure his ranch house was ready for a presidential visit.

It was a full-court press led by Lady Bird Johnson. Jacqueline Kennedy, who’d never been to the Southwest, was accompanying her husband on this trip, and Mrs. Johnson wanted to make sure the first lady enjoyed herself.

Texas Gov. John Connally was the one who suggested that the president bring his wife, and since the entire three-day trip was designed to unite the feuding factions of Texas’ Democratic Party, this request was honored.

And so, the special terry-cloth towels that Jackie liked after her bath were procured by the Johnsons, along with the Salem cigarettes she smoked and the French champagne she liked to sip. The president’s favorite Scotch, Ballantine’s, was also brought to the Johnson ranch, along with the Poland water JFK preferred as a mixer.

JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, informed the White House press corps about the upcoming Texas trip on November 7. The big news was that Jackie was going with her husband. As William Manchester noted in “The Death of a President,” not only had Jackie never been to Texas, she hadn’t been west of Middleburg, Virginia, since her family moved into the White House.

There is a sense now that the Kennedy brain trust didn’t fully appreciate what they had in Jackie, politically speaking, until it didn’t matter anymore. Crowds loved her, and strained to see the first lady and her dashing husband together. But one unofficial member of the Kennedy administration knew about Jackie’s star power. After Salinger made his announcement, Lady Bird penned Mrs. Kennedy a letter from her Texas ranch.

“The President’s on page five, Lyndon’s on the back page, but you’re on the front page,” she wrote delightedly.

There was more to this than Lady Bird’s astuteness and more, even, than sisterly solidarity. In August, the Kennedys had lost a son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, two days after his birth. Lady Bird was doting on the young woman because she felt tenderly toward her — and even for a president who often treated her husband with diffidence.

The death of that baby was the only time John F. Kennedy’s confidants had seen him cry, as he’d done in the hospital, again while informing his wife, and a third time at the home of Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing.

In his grief, JFK had wrapped his arms around the tiny coffin until the old prelate told him, “Jack, you’d better go along. Death isn’t the end of all, but the beginning.”

After the child’s funeral, Kennedy lingered at the gravesite, murmuring to Dave Powers, his closest personal aide, “It’s awful lonely here.” Then, as William Manchester noted in a haunting passage, “he returned to his wife, to comfort her after what had been the penultimate misfortune which can come to a woman.”

That “penultimate” reference was interesting, and telling. It was certainly Jackie’s own view as well. As Jack Kennedy had comforted his wife during her convalescence that autumn, she had told him, “There’s just one thing I couldn’t stand — if I ever lost you…”

And now it was time to go mend fences in the Lone Star State.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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