Karen Ocamb

Remembering Lady Bird Johnson

Filed By Karen Ocamb | July 12, 2007 2:40 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: David Mixner, GLBT, Lady Bird Johnson, LGBT, politics, Ted Johnson

Those of us in the student and anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s loathed the Johnson Administration. One of our most passionate chants was “Hey, hey LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?”

It was the time of the draft and so many of my high school friends were fleeing to Canada, or inhaling black ink through the hollow of a pen to spot their lungs just before their physical or – gasp – even trying to figure out how to act like a homosexual – in order to be rejected by the draft board.

Others couldn’t escape and came back in wheelchairs or body-bags. Yet others joined the military out of some macho belief in the “domino-theory” - - that if we didn’t stop Communism in Vietnam, it would spread to all of Southeast Asia. Chipmunk signed up and came back so strung out on drugs and post-traumatic stress, he’d stand on top of a freeway overpass and jump into on-coming traffic just to see if he could land and dash to the side in time. Worse still – none of us knew how to talk to him anymore. We were trite compared to his war buddies.

What made the rage against LBJ even deeper was that he had turned his back on his greatest accomplishment – the Great Society, the war against poverty and racism in our own country. There just wasn’t enough money to fight on two fronts.

But we didn’t hate LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird, even though her strange Texas nickname was just too cutesy Southern for some of us.

In fact, Lady Bird was something of a subversive. With angry tears in our eyes, we’d sing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” –

“Ah, mercy, mercy me,
Ah, things ain't what they used to be, no, no.
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east….”

But Lady Bird actually DID something about the environment under the First Lady-like rubric of her “Beautification Project.”

On his blog, the veteran anti-war activist David Mixner (he was one of four who organized the famous Vietnam War Moratorium, where he befriended Bill Clinton), fondly remembers Lady Bird as an environmentalist who also hosted a gay fundraiser to help her son-in-law Chuck Robb.

Mixner writes:

“Driving from Austin to Johnson City, it dawned on me that I was soon to be at LBJ Ranch to be hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. The event was to raise funds for her son-in-law Senator Robb who was in a tight race for re-election against right wing Ollie North. It turned out the very last political fund raiser that she hosted at the ranch.

The roadside was covered with wildflowers which was testimony to Lady Bird Johnson being one of the first environmentalists…”

Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety , who blogs here, also sent me a note alerting me of Jack Valenti's remembrances (in his recently published memoir THIS TIME, THIS PLACE: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood ) of how Lady Bird stuck by a gay administration official who was busted at the YMCA.

Ted writes:

“On October of 1964, one of LBJ's aides, Walter Jenkins, was arrested in the men's room of the YMCA. He was arrested "for engaging in misconduct with a man."

All of LBJ's aides feared that the story would leak to the press, and when they found out that it probably would reach the papers, LBJ said, "I'll have to put out a statement. Say that I have accepted Walter's resignation."

Writes Valenti, "LBJ called Mrs. Johnson to inform her. She was devastated. When he told her that no one would be making any comments to the press except him, Mrs. Johnson demurred. 'No, Lyndon, we can't let Walter hang out there all alone. I intend to put out my own statement standing by him.'"

"Nothing the president could say swayed her. I wanted to hug this extraordinary woman, who loved Walter no more than the president did but would not allow the president's instinct to protect the White House, or anything else, to stay her voice in support of her friend."

Jenkins was a top LBJ aide and eventually was forced to resign. But the scandal was overshadowed pretty quickly by international news, including the topping of Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union.”

Ah, mercy, mercy me. We will miss the lady with such gentle passion and integrity.


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A. J. Lopp | July 12, 2007 11:42 PM

The Walter Jenkins story is a classic in gay history from The Sixties. Thanks, Karen, for reminding us of it, and for highlighting Lady Bird's spunk in defending her friend, years before Stonewall.

... by the way, "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" was not released until May 21, 1971, on Marvin Gaye's groundbreaking What's Going On album. "What's Going On" had been released as a single the previous January, and was an immediate Number One hit. "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" from the same album was later released as a single and it also reached the Number One slot. Finally, "Inner City Blues" became a single and it also made it to Number One.)

Lady Bird was out of the White House for several years by then. But the anachronism is slight, and Lady Bird deserves affectionate mention for her famous "Make America Beautiful" Campaign.

Hi A.J. -
Thanks for your note. I would have responded sooner but I've been tied up.

Yes, you're right about the Marvin Gaye song --- I was being more impressionistic than factual in my rembrance of Lady Bird. I was a Sunshine and weed queen at the time - I was even tripping during the civil disobedience protests in DC - thinking acid would make running from the police all that more vivid. Luckily, as of June 24, I'm 27 years clean and sober.
Thanks again -
KO