I wrote this article, “The Wildflowers of Lady Bird,” for the radio. I didn’t get this from a history book. This story was told to me by Liz Carpenter.
You can read about Liz Carpenter in this New York Times article or read one of her books: Ruffles and Flourishes (1970), Getting Better all the Time (1987), Unplanned Parenthood: The Confessions of a Seventysomething Surrogate Mother (1994), or Presidential Humor (2006).
Liz Carpenter was a pioneer feminist and a groundbreaking journalist in the 1950’s. She was press secretary to LBJ when he was vice-president and press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson when she was First Lady. Liz Carpenter was a seriously tough lady and was very funny.
I met her at a luncheon when I was student body president of Texas State University. It was called Southwest Texas back then. Carpenter had been invited to speak at the LBJ Distinguished Lecture Series (I had to look that up on the internet, because I forgot why she was there and the year). I was invited to a small luncheon in her honor the day of her speech.
There were seven of us at this lunch. Dr. Jerry Supple, the president of the university, sat at the head of a large, beautiful table in an upstairs room of the library. I sat to his left and Liz Carpenter sat next to me. A guy named Larry L. King was seated next to her. He was the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Liz Carpenter did not like him.
On the other side of the table were three high level college administrators. I can’t remember who they were. They were unmemorable in the first place and I don’t think a single one of them said a word throughout the lunch. Liz Carpenter and I were the only ones at the table who talked. We chatted with each other the entire time. I will never forget it.
I have to tell you this: I was “briefed” before the lunch. The woman who briefed me was from the administration, I think the assistant to the president or one of the VP’s. The only thing I remember her telling me about Liz Carpenter (who I didn’t know a thing about) was that she was best friends with Lady Bird Johnson, who lived in Austin and was one of the richest and most powerful women in Texas.
The important thing for me to know, she said, was that Larry L. King was there and Liz did not like Larry L. King.
Who is Larry L. King? I said.
He’s the guy who wrote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she said.
You mean the movie with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton? I said.
She said, Well, yes, but before that it was a play, and he wrote it.
Well, I said, I didn’t like the movie. So why doesn’t Liz Carpenter like Larry L. King?
The woman from the administration told me that Larry L. King had been a speechwriter for LBJ on his rise to the presidency and in the White House. He was one of the insiders. Then, at the height of the Vietnam War, Larry L. King turned on LBJ and wrote scathing anti-war articles attacking and disparaging the president. (I read some of these articles later in life, when I became more erudite. They were vicious.)
LBJ’s critics amplified King’s voice because he had been such a close confidante to the president. Liz Carpenter had never forgiven Larry L. King.
Back to the lunch, the woman from the administration told me it was very important that Liz and Larry get along. Larry wanted to pitch an idea for a project to Liz (I can’t remember anything about it because I didn’t care) and this project would be very good for the university. This lunch had been set up in part to facilitate that pitch. That was the end of my briefing.
Dr. Supple opened the lunch with some diplomatic words directed toward Liz. But Liz Carpenter was not a person to drone through boring discourse at some interminable bureaucratic luncheon. She said a few things, I don’t remember what, but it was very good and I realized there was more fire in this gray-haired little woman than the rest of the room combined.
I remember my first words to her: “They tell me, Ms. Carpenter, that you know a little bit about Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
“I know a little bit,” she said, turning slowly toward me with quite an amused expression on her face.
I told her that I was writing my honors thesis on LBJ. I told her how I had read more than a dozen books about his life and read countless interviews from his old college classmates and how endlessly fascinated I was with LBJ.
I remember that she lit up when she heard this. I remember this so well because she was one of the first great persons I had ever met. A great man or a great woman has a way of filling the space in the room. This was a huge room at the top of the Alkek library, but she filled the space with her presence. This is charisma, but also something more. She was a light and filled the room with her light.
Something else I remember: she was mischievous; I could see it in her eyes and read it in the subtext. No, not mischievous: irreverent. She said whatever she wanted to whoever she wanted. I was young and learning how I wanted to be and this woman was showing me.
I told her and the table, as a sort of pronouncement, that I had been elected the student body president with the highest GPA in the history of the university. (I don’t care if you know that I was a little bit arrogant back then.) Then I reminded her that LBJ had been student body president. So, I had beaten LBJ. You can’t imagine the kick Liz Carpenter got out this and how she laughed.
“You can ask Dr. Supple if you don’t believe me,” I said and looked at him.
“Well, I, er, um, I can’t really remember,” or whatever he said. He had no idea nor did he care. It was the dean of students who told me and made such a big deal out of it. I just thought it was funny to put him on the spot.
Then I asked if she knew about the Black Star fraternity that was formed by the athletes and cool kids at Southwest Texas State in the 1920’s. But they wouldn’t accept LBJ and his friends. And how LBJ formed a rival fraternity called the White Stars. And how LBJ filled this fraternity with the smartest and most capable students and then took over the campus.
I told her that when I started college, I was so intimidated and scared of flunking out that I didn’t say a single word my entire first semester. My nickname was Thumbs Up, because I couldn’t even say hello to anyone, I just gave them a thumbs up if they said hi to me.
But, in that first semester, I read those books about LBJ and how he formed the White Stars for the nerds. From this example, I founded (or rather reestablished, it had gone defunct) the Alpha Lambda Delta Freshman Honor Fraternity. I recruited and filled the fraternity with the smartest and most talented young students on campus and made it a powerhouse.
Now, two years later, I am student body president. And we are filling the student government and other positions across campus with nerds like myself. We are taking over the campus.
Liz Carpenter got such a kick out of this. She started really talking with me and the conversation went back and forth and into different places. I did not eat a single thing. I was turned to my left the entire time talking with her.
Then she told me about Lady Bird and the wildflowers. She told me about Lady Bird being so shy she could not even speak, which I would understand very well, she said, and Lady Bird sitting down with these ladies and so painfully shy that she could hardly utter a word, and then driving down the road throwing wildflower seeds out the window and then on to the next town.
But she wasn’t just telling me about flowers. Here is the most fascinating part. The idea of this type of campaign—a softer, more gentle, more humble campaign—informed the work that Lady Bird Johnson did to advance the candidacy of John F. Kennedy for president.
In the presidential race of 1960, Liz Carpenter led a campaign initiative through the Deep South that included Lady Bird and Jaquelyn Kennedy plus numerous other Kennedy ladies. Lady Bird and Jackie did not do the traditional barnstorming that their husbands were waging against Richard Nixon on the other side.
Instead, they visited Protestant churches. As hard as it is to believe today, the Catholicism of JFK and Jackie was a huge problem in the South. There had never been a Catholic president. The Baptists and other southern denominations believed that JFK, if elected, would take his orders from the Pope. Today, everyone thinks of JFK and “Jackie O” as so elegant and refined, but before that election, most people in the South thought they were just funny-talking little Yankee weirdos.
The mission of Lady Bird and Liz Carpenter was to introduce Jackie to the ladies of the South. They visited churches with Jackie so people could see her and meet her and pray with her and get to know her.
Lady Bird had clearly grown out of her shyness by this point. She was so smart, so eloquent, and so nice. She was a master at delivering speeches. People loved her. After going through a town with Lady Bird, Jackie became much more credible. She became accepted, even liked. Only Lady Bird Johnson, of all the people in the Kennedy/Johnson campaign, could have pulled this off. And Liz Carpenter put the whole thing together.
During the lunch, Liz Carpenter was talking about these things, this wonderful history that this woman had not just lived but had led, and finally Larry L. King interrupted her.
Liz paused for a moment in her story, and Larry L. King jumped in with something like, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of the time…” something or other. Then, without pause, he started giving his pitch for whatever this thing was they were trying to do. I am not joking. Even as green as I was, I knew he had not come close to setting the trap, and here he was trying to spring it.
I watched her closely. As he started speaking, she slowly turned her head till she was partly but not fully facing him. She said, “Mmm-mmm” and then when he stopped she said, “Uh huh!” The sounds were aggressive. Then she went right back into her story.
After the lunch was over, we were walking to the next area and it was the two of us walking. I leaned down and said, “You are not going to give that guy the thing he is asking for, are you?”
Man, she laughed at that one. She grabbed my arm and told me something, I can’t remember what, but I know it was good.
Of course not. I didn’t blame her. He was disloyal. Even then I knew that disloyalty was a cardinal sin.
I will stop here. This is more than you wanted to know, I am sure. I thought you would find this story more interesting than the piece about wildflowers for the radio.
One last thing: Following that lunch, Liz Carpenter invited me to a reunion in San Marcos later that year of LBJ’s inner circle, all the highest-ranking people still alive, the big names. It was some sort of anniversary celebration. She told me not to miss it, that some White Stars from LBJ’s time in college would be there and I would want to talk with them.
I did attend. I was the only student there and the youngest person by maybe 30 years. It definitely changed my mind about going into politics.
I will tell you about this another time.