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"When barraged with questions about Jackie, the wren protected the dove," a biographer writes of Bird in an upcoming book

By Sam Gillette
March 04, 2021 05:03 PM
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Ladybird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy
Lady Bird Johnson (left) and Jacqueline Kennedy
| Credit: Bettmann Archive

In the fall of the 1960 presidential campaign, soon-to-be First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was six months pregnant with son John F. Kennedy Jr. when she received some comforting advice from Lady Bird Johnson, who would become second lady.

Kennedy wanted to help her husband, John F. Kennedy, while he was running office — but, having experienced two pregnancy losses, she also wanted to ensure the safety of their baby.

Bird had the answer.

"Bird found [Jackie] unsettled by exactly how she might help Jack with the presidential campaign," writes Julia Sweig in her upcoming biography, Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, which was excerpted by Vanity Fair this week. "Surveying the Hyannis home filled with Cape Cod curios, images of sailboats, and fashionable floral drapes, Bird tried to comfort the very private Jackie, suggesting she help her husband's campaign by inviting journalists to see the house and talk about something that seldom interested Bird: home decor."

Sweig continues: "With this suggestion, Bird, now a seasoned campaigner, gave Jackie a way to manage her delicate pregnancy after two miscarriages and feel politically useful to her husband. She also gave her a platform and context for projecting her public image."

Jackie's style would only add to that image — before and after President Kennedy's death.

Bird wasn't alone in noting how Jackie worked to navigate her husband's presidential campaign while pregnant. (At the time, Jackie was also raising daughter Caroline, who was born in November 1957.)

In 1994, writer Gail Westcott wrote a tribute to Jackie in PEOPLE, recounting meeting her during the Democratic National Convention in 1960.

Jacqueline Kennedy; Lady Bird Johnson
Jacqueline Kennedy (left) and Lady Bird Johnson
| Credit: Bettmann Archive

"I first met Jacqueline Kennedy at her house in Hyannis Port the night her husband was being nominated for President ... in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away," Westcott wrote. "Jackie, who had miscarried after the 1956 Convention, was now pregnant with John and determined to stay put to make sure nothing went wrong. She was wearing a sleeveless summer shift and sandals, and her skin actually seemed to glow."

Surrounded by family, Jackie showed Westcott the painting she was making for her husband to celebrate his homecoming. The television was on so they could watch his nomination.

"She was drinking a glass of rose wine and smoking cigarettes, and she requested not to be photographed doing either. Everyone began shouting 'Jackie!' when it looked as if Kennedy would make it on the first ballot," Westcott recalled. "When Wyoming put him over the top, Jackie, ever the hostess, asked if everyone's glass was full, if anyone was hungry. She said, 'I'm still only 30 years old, and I've just lost my anonymity for good. It's a little scary.' "

Shortly thereafter, Jackie and her husband, now on track to becoming the first lady and president of the United States, welcomed the Johnsons to their home for the first time.

The anecdote from Jackie and Lady Bird's time together is one of the many in the upcoming biography that delves into the multi-layered relationship between the first ladies — Jackie, then 31, and Bird, almost 20 years her senior and a longtime political helpmate to her husband, Lyndon Johnson, who would become the 36th president of the United States after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.

(Jackie went on to marry the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in October 1968. She died of cancer in 1994.)

Lady Bird Johnson addresses rally during her campaign through the South
The former Second Lady
| Credit: Stan Wayman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

RELATED VIDEO: Remembering Jackie Kennedy's Intensely Private White House Trip with Her Kids After JFK's Assassination

When the Johnsons arrived at the Kennedys' Cape Cod home to plan for the campaign in 1960, they didn't know that their hosts had emptied their own bedroom and slept in a single bed in order to make them as comfortable as possible, according to the Vanity Fair excerpt. Bird was still reeling from disappointment because her husband hadn't secured the Democratic presidential nomination — and accepting the position of running mate to Kennedy felt "like trying to swallow a nettle: hurt, sticky, spiny," Sweig writes.

Bird's despondency didn't stop her from providing Jackie with advice. Which didn't mean the two always saw eye-to-eye: Jackie was a respectful listener, but she didn't love everything she observed in the older woman, according to the excerpt.

"Although Jackie came to speak admiringly about Lady Bird's capacity to stay plugged into Lyndon's conversations while sitting across the room from him—­even as she conducted her own with Jackie and Jack's sisters—­as a still ­grieving widow interviewed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., she offered far more unvarnished observations of that first Kennedy-Johnson campaign gathering," Sweig writes in her biography, according to Vanity Fair. "Whenever Lyndon spoke, Jackie told Schlesinger just months after the assassination, 'Lady Bird would get out a little notebook—­I've never seen a husband and a wife so—­sort of like a trained hunting dog.' "

Jackie may not have been a fan of Bird's method, but the latter's attention to detail and political savvy became incredibly helpful as she served as a surrogate for a pregnant Jackie during the campaign, Sweig writes.

Bird's press secretary's "strategy for Lady Bird, as with Lyndon, was to help introduce the Kennedys to the South," per the book excerpt.

Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson
| Credit: Stan Wayman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Bird did so with acclaim — making solo and joint appearances with the Kennedy clan's female members.

"Despite a cultural bias toward clothing, hair, and homemaking, the press focused on Lady Bird's tenacity in sticking to substance," Sweig writes, per the excerpt. "Indeed, Bird turned the tendency to trivialize women into a political plus. Bess Furman reported for The New York Times that when Bird held a press conference to announce a Texas tour with the Kennedy women, 'a male voice asked' her to opine on ­Jackie's hairdo. Lady Bird replied, 'I think it's more important what's inside the head than what's outside.' "

Bird was even unafraid to draw comparisons between herself and Jackie, known for being stylish, cosmopolitan and multilingual.

"At appearances in New York City, Baltimore, and Atlanta, when asked about her clothing, [Bird's press secretary] would later describe her embracing the contrast with Jackie, telling Frantz that Lady Bird described her own style as 'unremarkable,' 'No Paris, alas…,' adding, 'the sooner we quit talking about clothes[,] the better,' " Sweig writes, according to Vanity Fair.

"Patricia Jansen Doyle of The Kansas City Star noted that as 'a mother, political leader's wife, and shrewd businesswoman, [she] mixes a lighthearted wit with serious depth of thought.' "

These skills were crucial when Bird unexpectedly became Jackie's successor in 1963 and "a formidable politician in her own right."

As first lady, Bird, who died in 2007, championed education, civil rights and the preservation of nature.

"My special cause," she once said, "is to help pass on to generations the quiet joys and satisfactions I have known since my childhood."

But during the 1960 campaign, Bird was first and foremost a highly effective campaigner — and, as needed, Jackie's protector on the trail.