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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


July 13, 2007

Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson

Roy Meachum

She was never Lady Bird to me. We were Mrs. and Mister to each other each time we met. And during her husband's presidential years, I was in and out of the White House frequently. Bess Clements Abell brought me there.

About two months after the assassination that handed the Oval Office to Lyndon Baines Johnson, my secretary excitingly announced the White House was on the phone. I was an executive of the Washington Post broadcast division at the time, also hosting (WTOP) a Sunday evening program on the arts. The call was not totally unexpected.

During John F. Kennedy's brief tenure, I had been consulted, albeit infrequently, when Tish Baldridge wanted to know details about the ballet world. Before returning to broadcasting, I spent time as administrator of the Washington National Ballet Foundation. Mrs. Kennedy brought a very young Caroline to classes at the school.

Bess Abell occupied Ms. Baldridge's East Wing social secretary office; but it would be a mistake to confine either woman to that label. Each exercised considerable powers of discretion and influence. They informed the nation on their bosses' cultural tastes, which not surprisingly reflected their own. They operated behind a screen that featured their First Ladies.

Mrs. Johnson has been celebrated, especially in recent days, for forming and leading Americans' sense of beauty, especially outdoors. She made many of the country's byways substantially more pleasant to the eye. As for the arts, she left the matter for the most part to Bess.

The National Symphony Orchestra concert saluting President Johnson's 1965 inauguration was held in Constitution Hall; the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was still on the drawing board. In that cultural precinct, made very familiar during my work with the orchestra, during the intermission, Bess tossed off the idea of staging a White House Festival of the Arts. It was to be Claudia Taylor Johnson's arrival on the big-time cultural scene that was dominated by her predecessor, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Unfortunately for Bess's ambitions for Mrs. Johnson, the concept was subsumed by the West Wing. The president's men could not leave such an important event to the care of mere women. They tossed the idea into the lap of Princeton University's Eric Goldman, who was ensconced in a consultant's basement office, close to the White House's magnificent staircase. There was virtually nothing the First Lady, nor could any one in the East Wing, do at the time.

When Professor Goldman retreated before the avalanche of academic and literary protests against the war in Vietnam, the Festival was entrusted to presidential chief of staff and fellow Texan, Marvin Watson, who made things worse, not better.

Playing a murky role in the mess was Eric Goldman's personal assistant, Barbara Diamondstein. She and I did not meet. She never appeared at planning sessions to plot details for the big event. Nor did he.

It worked. By substance and style, the 1965 White House Festival of the Arts left far behind any and all cultural events that proceeded that June 14. Bess scheduled it for Monday when Broadway was dark. And down from New York came a procession of America's biggest stars: Helen Hayes, Marian Anderson, Martin Sheen, Jack Albertson, Duke Ellington's orchestra and Bob Joffrey's Ballet - to name a few.

The smashing triumph was spoiled, however, by the pre-Festival comment of Robert Lowell. In refusing Professor Goldman's invitation, the poet said he did not want his presence to be taken as supporting the war. Notable among those who attended was Esquire's Dwight McDonald, who spent the evening hustling up signatures protesting Mr. Johnson's handling of Vietnam. Among the 400 guests on the South Lawn, at the end Mr. McDonald had collected only seven names, according to Time Magazine.

It didn't make no never mind, to borrow a phrase from my native Louisiana. Seizing on the protests as the story that sell newspapers and boost broadcast and TV ratings, the media ignored the cultural landmark for the White House in favor of the noisy and rambunctious few. As the man who wrote the narrations and some speeches - can you imagine my thrill in hearing Ms. Hayes and Ms. Anderson's distinctive voices read my words - I was simply in no position to protest, even within my own Washington Post family.

It took considerable persuading by his wife for Lyndon Johnson to mumble a few routine phrases at the day's ending. Then he retreated to the Oval Office again, never to return. The men of the West Wing played I-told-you-so as hard as they were able.

The demonstrations mounted, culminating with the president having a heart attack, in 1965, which still did not turn sympathy his way. But at least, according to this week's papers, it took much of the wind out of Mr. Johnson's sails, to the point that he depended more and more on the woman he had married when he was 26 and she was just shy of her 21st birthday. I have never doubted the president with the biggest macho going-in went to his wife for comforting agreement before he bravely told the world he would not seek re-election. Her opinion had become that important.

What role stresses from the June festival played in his angina later that same year will never be known; his coronary history dated from 10 years before. Certainly his health was more adversely impacted by reaction to his decision to increase dramatically American combat forces in Southeast Asia, which overshadowed his historic achievements in creating genuine opportunities for minorities and the sick: the Voting Rights Act and Medicare came from his administration.

Much more likely was the probability that Mrs. Johnson reacted strongly to West Wing interference; the president's men bollixed what would have been her claim to succeed Mrs. Kennedy as the nation's premiere patron of the arts. In no way denigrating any other First Lady, Claudia Taylor Johnson meant to demonstrate her own deep commitment to arts. She did; I was there.

On a truly personal basis, contacts with the East Texas native left me feeling warmed and slightly flustered, although we were both born in the Bible Belt. The fleeting encounters with Jackie Kennedy never had. Mrs. Johnson had the talent for concentrating entirely on whatever human being she was talking to. Her predecessor left the impression her attention was focused on some body or place not yet in sight. Mrs. Kennedy came across as slightly flirtatious. Lady Bird never did.

By the way, while naturally I addressed her as Mrs. Johnson, even in my mind she was never Lady Bird, which seemed to me a "slave" name given by her lord and master. While she accepted his "brand" the very strong woman who passed over in Austin this Wednesday could not be subservient to anyone, least of all the man she married nearly 75 years before.

After all, without her support and input Lyndon Baines Johnson would never have been elected to his first congressional race; the closeness of the vote earned him the nickname, Landslide, because he was not. His walloping 1964 victory (61 percent) over Republican Barry Goldwater set a high-mark in presidential races. But by then Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson knew what she was doing, beside a man who frequently doubted himself.

When I was in Austin last February, Bess Abell wanted me to see her former colleague Liz Carpenter who held rollicking court on a mountain top overlooking the town. When I asked about Mrs. Johnson, Bess very sadly shook her head. It's too late, she signed. Stories this week told me how right she was.

Still, I miss seeing for the very last time the only real First Lady in my life.



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