Last year when Nellie Connally died, it occurred to me that she was the last remaining survivor of the motorcade; the motorcade that carried John Kennedy to his death and Governor John Connally to a long recovery from serious gunshot wounds. This past December when President Ford passed away I was reminded that he was the last living member of the Warren Commission, a group commissioned by President Johnson to investigate Kennedy's death.
Today when I learned that Lady Bird Johnson had passed away, it suddenly hit me that something I've studied for so long and with so much interest is becoming like so many other events historians study--too long past to investigate, yet still too present to grasp in terms of the implications of an event.
This comment has less to do with the Kennedy assassination itself because I think time has taught us the lessons of the Kennedy assassination. We all know the facts or at least historians claim to know them and we all understand how disheartening the assassination was not only to Americans, but to all citizens of the free world (as Kennedy would have said, all free citizens of the world or citizens of Berlin). This comment has more to do with the entire Kennedy/Johnson era. There are things we know and things we may never know.
Today with the passing of Lady Bird I have been reminded that there aren't many left of the Kennedy White House. Both LBJ and Lady Bird are gone, Jackie and John, Jr., many of his advisors including Salinger, O'Donnell, and others are gone. The generals, LeMay and Taylor, both gone. Rusk, Dillon, Hodges, Goldberg, Ribicoff, and the other assassinated Kennedy--Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
In fact the only former cabinet members that come readily to mind that are still living are Stewart Udall (Interior), Wirtz (Labor, I think), and of course Robert S. McNamara (Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson) the key architect of the failed war in Vietnam. And there is of course Teddy Sorenson, the speech writer and the man whose hand made Profiles in Courage the masterpiece we know it as today. Much more distant to this intimate group is Ted Kennedy, still a master of the Senate and a much respected Democrat. And there will always be Caroline.
The time is now gone for historians to conduct interviews of the key people, those remaining may have lost what remained of their memories of the darkest days of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
There is certainly a wealth of information out there about this period and I am not saying there isn't, but knowing how I feel today about Lady Bird's passing, I am sure there must be serious historians out there who feel each of these losses and realize that the events of these administrations are passing into a new realm, a realm where they are no longer studied as recent history. Oh, the complexity of the historian's timetable and grasp of time.
In marking the passing of Claudia Taylor Johnson, I won't claim to be a fan of her husband, her claim to fame as it was. Johnson is not a man I've ever admired and I don't anticipate that changing, but on the contrary, I have loved Lady Bird. There was something so inviting, so motherly about Lady Bird. Perhaps a warmth Jackie never possessed. Perhaps an understanding in her eyes that seemed to say that it is okay to be afraid of that big bad world, but pick yourself up and dust yourself as soon as you fall.
A quote from Lady Bird has come to me from time to time as I've faced insurmountable obstacles or as I've approached new and often scary circumstances: "Become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid." Looking back at the Johnson administration I can't help but wonder if this is exactly what she was doing as she mothered the nation in a way her predecessor hadn't and as she supported her husband through unbelievably difficult times. She may have been afraid of where our country was headed. She may have been afraid of the protesters outside on the Mall. She may have been afraid of the decisions her husband was making in the Oval Office. She may have been afraid of a life without him when he passed in '73 before the war had come to an end. She may have been terrified, but she never showed it.
Tradition will surely recognize Mrs. Johnson's passing with the lowering of the flag and she will be honored as all former First Ladies ought to be honored.
My words will not do justice to this remarkable woman, so I leave you with the words of a man who knows far more than I will ever know about Washington and members of the Senate, Senator Robert Byrd: "While her husband, Lyndon, could be brash, she was benevolent. While he could be tough and hard-charging, she epitomized style and grace. Together, they were a formidable pair."
Claudia Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson
1912 - 2007