The Life That Lady Bird Has Made Without Lyndon at Her Side

Widowed in 1973 by the death of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, 61, has not meekly retired to the shadows. Instead, she has proved to be an independent, resourceful woman. She now spends much other time in Austin, Tex., site of the LBJ Library, close to her younger daughter Luci Nugent and Luci’s family. There she manages the Johnson estate, looks after the operations of an Austin cable TV company and a radio station (KTBC), and remains active in numerous personal projects. She is a member of the board of regents of the University of Texas and serves on the National Park Service Advisory Board. On many other weekends, she likes to slip away to the nearby LBJ Ranch.

Recently she visited Washington, where she dedicated the official memorial to President Johnson, the LBJ Grove. Later she attended the official opening of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which she had been instrumental in bringing to the nation’s capital. While in Washington, she talked about her life and future with Clare Crawford, an assistant editor of PEOPLE.

Have you been lonely in the year and a half since President Johnson died?

Certainly there’s a great emptiness that I don’t expect ever to be filled. But Lyndon just goes right on living in my life, and every now and then the children and I, or our good friends, will just break out laughing at what his reaction would have been to some situation that we find ourselves in.

Do you ever wish he’d chosen to run again in 1968?

No, I do not. However, I must say that for many reasons his decision not to run did not reap all the good effects for the country that we had expected. Just by taking himself out of it, he had hoped to remove a lot of the controversy, the anger, the tension. Well, they were bigger than us; far bigger than us.

How do you think the Johnson administration will ultimately be evaluated by history?

I think it’s going to take a good deal longer to honestly assess it. Probably not sooner than 25 years from the time he left office.

Recently you dedicated the LBJ Memorial Grove. Why did you decide on a memorial in that form?

Laurance Rockefeller and Mary Lasker had the idea when they came down to Texas for Lyndon’s funeral. They felt Washington had been his town for a long time, and that since land and serving people were two of his loves, this would be a good way to combine them. It’s low-key and I think it suits the time and the man. Much as I love the great memorials here in Washington—for Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson—perhaps the time for that sort of thing is past.

How are you feeling?

Just fine. I haven’t always. I noticed in the first six months after Lyndon died I had some little troubles that I never had before, but I think maybe it was just nature sending in its bill for stress and fatigue. I have a little arthritis here and there, but no loss of desire to see the world and do things.

Do you have any advice for women of your age who are widowed?

I really wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to give advice, but I know there are several things I’d better do. One is to keep busy, which is no problem at all. Two is to keep physically active, because I find to my dismay that if I don’t walk or swim or take a few morning sit-up exercises, I lose that good buoyant feeling, and I don’t want to.

Do you think we could take some pictures of you doing your exercises?

(Laughing) No, you sure can’t. When you’re at home wearing leotards, it’s a better sight at age 16 than at 61.

Do you have enough to keep you busy?

As a matter of fact, I’ve got too many things. I had to open an office of my own, because, although Lyndon’s office closed last spring, somehow people don’t seem to know that. I got frantic when I realized his staff would disperse and there would be no telephone—nothing—so I hired myself a small staff of two or three young women and I have an office in the LBJ Library. I’m there at least two days a week.

Do you foresee running for office yourself some day?

No, I don’t. I’ll always care about politics, but as far as running or being tremendously active politically, no.

What would you like to change about your life as you’re living it now?

I’m still too bound up with obligations. I really am looking forward to some unstructured time of my own. I like to travel and I like to find myself at the ranch on Friday night with Saturday and Sunday before me and no dates or duties so I can just fill up the days with things I enjoy. Recently I went for a good long walk and counted the redwood trees that the local beautification ladies had planted. I checked on whether everything was living and growing right. We’ve been having almost a drought, and it makes you very sad if you have the instincts of a farmer or a rancher. I no longer depend on that for my livelihood, but I keep on thinking that way. Lyndon was ranching vigorously right up until his last day.

What was the public reaction to your book, A White House Diary?

I still get a few beautiful letters. One was from an old lady of 85 who said: “I’m fairly feeble now and your book is quite heavy. But my daughter gave it to me and I love it. So I just take my scissors and cut out 20 pages and sit back in my wheelchair and read. When I finish that, I go back and cut out some more.” I thought that was one of the nicest compliments.

Do you expect to do any more writing?

Yes, I might. It’s the most difficult job for me, and at the same time the most satisfying. If something turns out right, and I’ve said it the way I feel it, it is very satisfying. But it usually seems just awful, awful, awful! Then maybe, if I let it sit for awhile and go back to it, it isn’t quite that awful.

Do your daughters, Luci Nugent and Lynda Robb, manage to keep as active as you do?

My daughters are both good citizens, I think. Lynda was living in Richmond, Va. and working with RIF—Reading Is Fundamental—which is a project aimed at expanding children’s lives through reading. Luci lives in Austin and does too much civic work if anything, but she does it with such a happy heart and with such interest that I can only be proud of her, although I do want to restrain her sometimes.

You’re really pleased with your children, then?

Yes, and I think if I counted up the hours, I’d find I spent more time with my children and my grandchildren in the last year and a half than I have in…well, I must say there was always some guilt and a good deal of pull when I couldn’t spend time with Lynda and Luci when they were young. That was Lyndon’s life and we were always dragging them back and forth between Washington and Texas. Finally the teachers said you’ve got to take your choice—a good education or back-and-forth, which do you want? Now Luci and Lynda both take such pleasure in their children that it’s just fun to be around and watch it. Every now and then I find them passing on to their children phrases that we used all our lives. For instance, whenever I’d say goodbye to them I’d say “Goodbye, and know that you are loved.” Now I see that whenever they leave the house for a two-or three-day trip, that’s exactly what they say to their own children.

Do you find it easier being a grandmother than a mother?

Of course. But I’m a little frustrated because I haven’t really spent enough just-you-and-me time with my grandchildren. That’s why I really plan on doing it in the next few years. A good friend of mine said once that the only time you can really spend with your 8-year-old daughter is when she’s 8 years old. I’ve got a second chance now, and I’d better take advantage of it with my grandchildren.

What’s new with the President’s first grandchild, Lyndon Johnson Nugent?

Lyndon is 7 and does well in school in the things that he’s interested in. He’s terribly interested in aviation, and when he found out that I actually knew Lindbergh I went way up in his estimation. One of the things I want most to do is take him on a trip, just the two of us. I think it should be a short one, but I surely would like to take him to some of the great places that I’ve seen in this country. I’d like to take him out West to see the redwoods.

What do you envision for yourself over the next few years?

A much more personal future. It would be divided between work—because I’m just not a creature who can get along without some work—and a lot of just self-indulgent things. And I don’t feel very apologetic about that.

You met with the present First Lady, Betty Ford, on the day before she entered the hospital for her operation. Did you have any inkling what was about to happen?

Mrs. Ford couldn’t have been more gracious and warm. She took Luci and Lynda to see the rooms they once occupied, and never said a word about her problem. She’s terribly brave and should have canceled. I salute her courage and her character.

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