By all accounts, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a complex, fiercely competitive man. Lady Bird always said, “Lyndon was in such a hurry, he relished being at the pinnacle of power—a master manipulator who practiced his political instincts to achieve what he wanted.” Lyndon Johnson, the consummate politician, learned his profession from none other than a fellow Texan, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. LBJ could be the great benefactor or he could be one of the most ruthless and deceptive individuals ever to take over the watch at the White House.
President Johnson got more legislation passed through Congress in one year than any other president. I remember he kept a large Rolodex in his private study. It contained the names of all the congressmen, senators, their wives, their children, their anniversaries, their birthdays, and any other pertinent information, especially whether he ever did a favor for them. On the appropriate date, LBJ would make a personal phone call, usually to the wife, to wish her a happy birthday or happy anniversary. Then a day or two later, another personal phone call to the husband at his office asking for support for whatever legislation he was trying to get passed. This was politics in its finest form. Most of the time the president got what he wanted.
The First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, has always regretted that the public did not get to see the family side of her husband. A strong husband and a doting father to his two daughters, Linda Bird and Lucy Baines. Few would believe LBJ was such a family man, as he preferred to keep his family life private.
LBJ was a man who could get things done and was willing to do whatever it took. In his private study, called “no man’s land” by his staff, there was a sign on a table. It read, “WYHTBTBTHAMWF”—When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. He claimed this as his motto, and anyone who didn’t know what it meant was told in no uncertain words. Believe me, I was on the receiving end of that lesson!
President Johnson’s sense of humor was certainly one of the more earthy of any American president. When asked about getting rid of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, he decided it would be too difficult to bring off. “Well,” he said philosophically, “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
While selecting a running mate in 1964, and before he actually settled on Hubert Humphrey, his brother was inquiring about different people and asked about Gene McCarthy. The president said, “There’s something sorta stuck up about Gene. You get the impression that he’s got a special pipeline to God and that they only talk Latin to each other.”
Once when LBJ was approached by a railroad executive who said, “I’m just a country boy…,” Johnson interrupted, “Hold on there, wait a minute. When anybody approaches me that way, I know I’m going to lose my wallet.”
An American diplomat once met then-Vice President Johnson at the Rome airport and, while on their way into the city, instructed him as if he were an ignoramus and backwoodsman on how to behave when he met the local dignitaries. Johnson listened patiently, and when they arrived at the hotel, the diplomat said, “Mr. Vice President, is there anything else I can do for you?” “Yes,” said Lyndon Johnson sharply, “Just one more thing—button up your shirt!”
Lyndon Johnson was very aggressive and wanted to get things done. One night, while working late and keeping his staff late when Johnson was majority leader, one staff member said to the other, “What’s the hurry? After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “No,” sighed one of the other staff members, “but Lyndon Johnson wasn’t foreman on the job.”
Johnson didn’t care much for President Charles DeGaulle of France. When Vice President Johnson was in Paris and he met then-General Charles DeGaulle for the first time, the latter looked imperiously at Johnson and said loftily, “Now, Mr. Johnson, what have you come to learn from us?” Johnson beamed and replied, “Why, General, simply everything you can ever possibly teach me!”
In 1963, the cruel tragedy of President Kennedy’s murder catapulted history’s most qualified man into the presidency. The new President had more political experience than anyone, except when it came to following in the footsteps of one of the most glamorous administrations in the history of the executive mansion. The new First Lady was also one of the best qualified persons ever to step into that very difficult role. She had twenty-seven years of experience on the national scene, and a great personal knowledge of government and the protocols for entertaining in the White House.
During President Kennedy’s funeral, Mrs. Johnson’s expertise was invaluable. Just about every head of state of the free world, or their representatives, converged on Washington, D.C. The funeral procession was attended by the likes of Charles DeGaulle of France, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of Great Britain, Queen Frederica and Princess Irene of Greece, Ludwig Eberhard of West Germany, and Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada, a few of the 109 dignitaries present. All of these people could have stayed at their individual embassies or missions or, if necessary, at Blair House (the official U.S. guest house). But all of them had to be officially received and, for the most part, fed by the White House. The White House staff did a remarkable job. The chief usher, all the protocol officers, the chefs, the cooks, and everyone concerned made sure America, the deceased President, his family, and the new President were not embarrassed in any way.
The first state dinner hosted by the Johnsons was for President and Mrs. Antonio Segni of Italy. One hundred and forty people, politicians and diplomats, attended the black-tie affair. This was the first black-tie state dinner ever served. The dress prior to this was always white tie for official state functions, but LBJ detested wearing a white tie and tails. After the welcoming ceremony at the north portico of the White House, the Segnis were invited to the presidential quarters on the second floor. There, an exchange of gifts was made as a symbol of friendship between the two nations. After the exchange, the president and First Lady and the guests of honor assembled at the head of the grand staircase for the ceremonial entrance down the red-carpeted steps with the marine band playing “Hail to the Chief.” The receiving line began just inside the door of the East Room.
The dinner menu—selected by Mrs. Johnson from suggestions by White House Chef Rene Verdon—featured Maryland crab meat, fillet of beef, waffled potatoes, string beans almandine, endive and watercress salad, cheese and coffee mousse. Spring flowers were set in green and gold china from the Truman collection and the blue and gold dinner china from FDR’s administration. Coffee was served in the red and green rooms after the guests assembled and afterward the guests went back to the East Room, which had been set up for a concert featuring The New Christy Minstrels and Italian opera sung by American performers.
This state dinner became the prototype for many to follow. World leaders made their way to Washington, one right after the other, to reassure themselves of the new President. Indeed, Kennedy was a hard act to follow, but LBJ carried it off perfectly.
The President’s personal taste in food did not require the fine talents of Chef Rene Verdon. Zephyr Wright, who had been cook to the Johnson family for many years, was installed in the family’s private kitchen. There she prepared all of LBJ’s meals. She cooked to please the president, and she tried to keep him on the low-calorie diet that was standard fare for family dinners.
Rene Verdon was in charge of all special occasions, and assisted by four other chefs with finely honed skills. Henry Haller took over as White House chef after Verdon complained to the press about the type of food the President preferred. Verdon was personally dismissed by LBJ.
Probably the most exciting social function at the White House of any administration is a wedding. In President and Mrs. Johnson’s case, they hosted two of them.
The first wedding was Lucy’s, on August 6, 1966 to Patrick Nugent. The bride and her new husband, along with both sets of parents, greeted guests in the Blue Room. There were three buffet tables offering a feast of hot and cold dishes including steamship rounds, casserole of sliced chicken, shrimp and lump crab in Creole sauce, and sweetbreads and mushrooms in a heavy cream brandy sauce. The cold dishes included supreme of turkey, duck breast a l’orange, glazed northwest salmon and lobster En Bellevue. The seven-layer wedding cake was a summer fruit cake, a favorite of Lucy’s.
When Linda was married to Charles Robb on December 9, 1967, it was the first wedding in the White House since Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, Eleanor, married William McAdoo in 1914. A private ceremony for Linda and Charles was held in the East Room. As with Lucy’s reception, Linda Bird’s reception featured an elaborate buffet with lobster barquettes, crab meat bouchees, stuffed mushrooms, mini-lamb kabobs, and quiche Lorraine. The chilled platters included smoked salmon with capers, chicken liver pâté en mould, iced shrimp, assorted cheeses, and finger sandwiches. The wedding cake this time was an old-fashioned, five-layer pound cake, iced in white fondant and decorated with handmade sugar scrolls, loops and braids, pulled sugar roses, white lovebirds, and topped with a sugar basket filled with real white roses.
Both Lucy and Linda Bird entertained their wedding parties at the White House and each gave their guests mementos of the occasion. The menus may have varied for each occasion, but both brides-to-be chose the same dessert, Flower Pot Sundaes. These are made by using small ceramic flowerpots of green, white, and pink. Place a piece of yellow cake, split and spread with apricot jam, on the bottom of each. Fill with vanilla ice cream (or any flavor you wish; I prefer homemade apricot ice cream) to within a 1/2 inch of the rim.
Place another piece of cake, spread with the jam, on the top. Cut a paper straw, 3 inches long, and insert it in the pot so that two inches extends above the pot. Swirl very stiff meringue on top of the pot until it reaches the top of the straw. At the last minute, place in a very hot oven and brown the meringue. Just before serving, insert an appropriate flower in the straw to complete the presentation. Lucy used a sweetheart rose; while Linda Bird used a sprig of holly and a red rose.
The American people meant everything to President and Mrs. Johnson. They tried very hard to overcome difficult obstacles and opened the gates of the White House to the public, inviting them to share the President’s home and walk through the gardens. Thousands of people from all walks of life toured the White House during LBJ’s administration, and it has been said that his administration was the most open and friendly in the history of the mansion.
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