Liz Carpenter Reflects on 34 Years in Washington, Then Heads Home for Texas

“When I first got to Washington in 1942,” recalls Liz Carpenter, “I walked through the National Press Building looking for a job with my scrapbook full of clippings from the Daily Texan, our college newspaper. “Eventually, Carpenter went to work as “half secretary, half reporter” for a chain of papers in Michigan—at $25 a week. Since then she has been a fixture on the Washington scene. For 16 years she ran a national news bureau with her husband, Leslie (who died in 1974). She served as Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, and Ruffles and Flourishes, her account of those years in the White House, was a best-seller in 1970. A year later she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Now Carpenter, 56, a mother of two grown children, is heading for her hometown of Austin, Texas. As she packed she reminisced with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE about her life in the nation’s capital.

Why are you leaving Washington?

Well, there’s a time to come and a time to go. I think I’m used up, as far as Washington is concerned. I’ve had a crash course in everything from FDR to Elizabeth Ray. Now I want to think more and laugh a lot more. I think I can do that by living a little slower and more thoughtfully, which has gotten to be impossible in this town. The longer you’re here, the more you’re consumed by junk mail and causes.

Have you considered working for the incoming administration?

Everybody I’ve ever known, even the grandchildren of people I’ve known, all want to go to work for Jimmy Carter. My phone has been ringing off the hook. I don’t have that much interest. There is one job I wouldn’t mind having. I’d like to be ambassador to a country where there’s not too much to lose if I blew it, some safe country like Malta.

What will you do?

Writing is important to me now because of Carter and the new play Texas Trilogy by Preston Jones. Those two factors have really put the South on the map. I know that part of the country very well. I’ve had a lot of nice assignments from magazines to work on pieces, and it is really where I want to be—in front of a typewriter.

You came to Washington 34 years and seven Presidents ago. What was it like then?

My first presidential press conference—now remember this was World War II—was in the Oval Office. FDR was sitting behind his desk. About 75 reporters crowded in and the new ones stood in the very back. That was about it for security. I’m only 5’1″, so I just kept on tippytoes until finally I could see the top of the cigarette holder and that wonderful jaunty head and smile. Then, when the questions were over, the reporters crowded around the desk and asked us newcomers to come up and shake hands with FDR. I remember how full of gadgets that desk was and his strong handshake. I was very scared and self-conscious.

What about Eleanor Roosevelt?

When Mrs. Roosevelt had a press conference, 20 or 30 reporters would sit around the tea table in the West Hall. She was always pulling some other woman forward—someone working in the New Deal or for social reform. She wanted them to tell their story. Then someone would ask what she was going to wear to such and such a dinner, and she would turn to her secretary and say, “Dear me, Tommy, what should I wear, the blue or the black?” Clothes were not important to her. She was trying to put the social needs of the country on the map. This is what First Ladies can do. It’s what we saw Lady Bird Johnson do with beautification and Betty Ford with equal rights.

What about the Trumans?

He was not particularly well liked by the press because they kept comparing him to Roosevelt. At press conferences he used to say, “No comment.” I don’t think anybody in that room would have guessed then that he would go into history as one of our strongest Presidents.

And what about Ike?

Eisenhower’s way of handling the press was to drown you in words. We used to yearn for a good old-fashioned “No comment.”

What about Congress?

Of course, Sam Rayburn was the power. Lyndon Johnson was already there and, during the early Truman days, another young congressman came to town named Gerald Ford. He was a very handsome football player and war hero. I covered his swearing-in for the Grand Rapids Herald, his hometown paper.

How did John Kennedy change things?

Eisenhower had a slow-moving administration, a breathing time. Then Jack Kennedy came onstage just rarin’ to go. He had a great rapport with the press. Humor is a saving grace for any President. If you take yourself seriously, the press is the first to punch your balloon.

What about your six years as Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary?

They were a crash course in everything. You regretted any moment you slept and any invitation you turned down. Mrs. Johnson was LBJ’s best translator. We took 47 trips across this country explaining the poverty program. My feeling is that the most untold story of the Johnson administration is that more than 11 million people were lifted out of poverty. It can only be told in the lives of those people.

As a lifelong Democrat, what do you see as the major differences between the two parties ?

Democrats think of government as an art form. They practice it, relish it; they’re schooled in it. For them, it’s a life’s work. The Republicans think of government as a charity. They have a Junior League attitude: “I will give four years of my time.” You never feel they enjoy it.

How do you assess President Ford?

In many ways the Lord provides us with the right personality for the job of President. I think Ford did exactly what history decided he would do. He walked onstage when the country was really at the lowest ebb. He and his family were buoyant and happy-hearted. I do think that he was both a victim and a hero of the period that followed. He lifted and restored our faith. I believe he’ll end up being a hero.

Do you look forward to Jimmy Carter?

I think it’s good for the country, and, God knows, it’s good for the South. It’s almost like the Civil War has ended. His language is not stylized laundry list; it hasn’t been Washingtonesed. It’s refreshing, and I think that it is the reason he won. Carter and Rosalynn are going to be a very strong team.

What advice would you give Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell?

Stay out of Plains. It’s already been overcovered.

Having lived with Luci and Lynda Johnson, what advice would you give the Carters about Amy?

Love her. And don’t let the press secretary shove her forward all the time. You won’t keep that little girl from climbing trees and romping with dogs. She’s going to be the Princess Alice of 2050.

How do you rate the press corps?

Every journalism student wants to nail a President or a governor or a county judge. I think we’re going to get a lot of poor Xeroxes of Woodward and Bernstein. However worthy this watchdog attitude might be, it’s not the whole story.

What’s good about Washington?

It’s the most democratic of all cities. Your worth isn’t dependent on family or money. You can pick your teeth and still be a Supreme Court justice.

What’s wrong with Washington?

It is a one-company town. It is also very self-important and incestuous. Washingtonians forget that those people out there are not just stupid peasants.

Who are the most extraordinary people in Washington?

Excepting the two I worked for—President and Mrs. Johnson—I would put John Gardner at the head of the list. He thought there ought to be a people’s lobby, and with Common Cause he set about creating it. I think Bella Abzug would have been a great senator. The Senate needs somebody to goose them. She would have made life miserable for the bigots. Certainly Alice Roosevelt Longworth is like the Washington Monument. And I know every woman in this country stands taller because of Betty Ford. She put the Equal Rights Amendment on the political agenda. It’s there to stay because of her.

How do you feel to be leaving?

I’m not a bit sad. There’s a lot going on at the grass roots. Sure, I’ll miss my friends. The other day I was having lunch in the White House mess and President Ford asked me to come up to the Oval Office and say goodbye. Come to think of it, I don’t know who was saying goodbye to whom.

Related Articles