Friday, July 13, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson -- And Other Political Wives

Both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times yesterday had long, colorful obituaries of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who died Wednesday in Austin, Texas at 94.

Elaine Woo, the skillful LAT obituary writer, reported that the late House Speaker, Sam Rayburn, had once told Johnson that marrying Lady Bird was the wisest decision he had ever made, and Enid Nemy, writing in the New York Times, quoted the great New York Times reporter James Reston as saying in 1960, "Lyndon could never have made it this far without the help of that woman." It reminded me of something my late father, a Navy Rear Admiral, once told me: "The men who make admiral have wives who are accepted well by the Navy."

Both of the newspapers ran the famous picture taken in Dallas on the fatal day of Nov. 22, 1963, showing Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson comforting Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy.

Reading these long accounts of what a wonderful woman Lady Bird Johnson was (she suffered four miscarriages before persevering and having her first child, for example, and she stood by her husband, regardless of his affairs and the Vietnam war tragedy that ruined his reputation), I thought of some of the other great political wives and helpmates I knew as a political reporter for the L.A. Times. And some of those who were not distinguished.

Certainly one of the great political wives was Bernice Brown, the wife of former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. The daughter of a San Francisco police captain, she had a college education (at U.C. Berkeley) when Pat never did, and she married him only after turning him down several times. He never regretted the great effort he had made to win her hand. Always self-possessed, Bernice Brown often had a wonderful wit about their marriage. One time, in Sacramento, when Pat seemed to have forgotten her first name, Bernice humorously interjected, "his wife of 38 years." She also was not only the wife of one governor, but the mother of another, and the mother of another child who was later a Democratic candidate for governor. She, in short, was the matriarch of a great political family.

During his first major bid for the Presidency in 1976, I had a chance to get to know Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald Reagan. After Reagan had lost his first five Presidential primaries to then-President Gerald R. Ford, Nancy Reagan did not lose heart. She encouraged Reagan to bring up the Panama Canal issue, and he made a terrific comeback in the Southern and Western primaries, almost wresting the nomination from Ford that year. Nancy was bright and loyal as Reagan's longtime second wife. As with Lyndon Johnson, Reagan might never have become President without her help and devotion. And later her independence, on such issues as stem cell research, marked her as a worthy figure in her own right. She is very widely admired today.

Some legislative wives, as well, were invaluable to their husbands. Dolores Beilenson, wife of Assemblyman, State Sen. and Rep. Tony Beilenson, did her husband a great service by insisting on moving the family from Beverly Hills to Sacramento and Washington, when he served in both places. Not content to be a stay-at-home wife as so many, she made a major difference to Tony's happiness in office. Other prominent legislators who kept their wives at home, were not as well-adjusted.

Sometimes, it took a long time for a politician to marry the woman who was his helpmate and closest friend. This was true of Jesse Unruh and his longtime mistress, Chris Edwards. Unruh married Chris only long after she became his mistress, in the last year of his life, when he was dying of prostate cancer. He used to treat her with some disdain, not realizing her value. One time, when I talked to Unruh about possibly mounting another campaign for governor, he told me, "If I were to run for governor, I'd have to marry Chris, stop drinking and be nice to the press corps, and I don't want to do any of those things." But, finally, Unruh was glad he married Chris.

Jacqueline Kennedy, of course, later became a national icon, in part because of her unforgettable resilience after the assassination of her husband, in part because of her beauty, style and role as a parent of two memorable children. But Jacqueline Kennedy was not, in my view, all that great a political wife. She disdained much of the ordinary campaigning of successful politicians and only seldom accompanied her husband when he ran for President in 1960. As head of the Kennedy-for-President club at Dartmouth College that year, I had an opportunity to see Mrs. Kennedy's reluctance to stump New Hampshire with the future President. I sometimes wonder whether Jack Kennedy would have had so many affairs, had he felt closer to Jacqueline (although, of course, Johnson had affairs despite his closeness to Lady Bird).

Jacqueline Kennedy was nonetheless an asset to Jack, because of her great looks and style. But I knew a few political wives who were albatrosses around the necks of their husbands. This was true of Bethine Church, wife of the late Idaho Sen. Frank Church. When Church briefly ran for President in 1976, she had a nasty habit of interrupting him when he tried to answer reporters' questions. Like Lt. Gov. Glenn Anderson's wife and Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis' first wife, she was no asset. (Davis, when he went into politics married a campaign worker, Bobbie Trueblood, who was devoted to him and, despite being considerably younger, stuck with him in his last difficult years of retirement before he died at 89. She is a thoroughly admirable woman.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's wife, Ethel, seldom shared his life as mayor, and was chiefly noted as an inveterate Dodgers fan. Nina Warren, wife of Governor and later Chief Justice Earl Warren, was a direct contrast, always fully sharing in the life of her husband and a tremendous asset to him.

Of the four presidential candidates I covered, Nancy Reagan was my favorite as a wife. Abigail McCarthy and Rosalynn Carter created only indifferent impressions, and Lurline Wallace I positively disliked, although I felt sympathy with her for the way she was treated by her husband, George Wallace, when she was dying of cancer.

What was rare about Lady Bird Johnson, as the obituaries about her explained, was that quite aside from being a great helpmate and devoted companion to her husband, she was an accomplished person in her own right, a highly successful businesswoman and a champion of beautification in American life. She throughly deserved the honors that later came to her, a Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

In that respect, she was like Eleanor Roosevelt, the memorable and indomitable wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But sometimes politicians' wives who remained out of the limelight were still tremendously important, because of the help and companionship they gave their husbands. Such was Bess Truman. Harry Truman almost never spent a night away from her, despite his long and varied career stumping the country. And we can never forget Clementine Churchill and Yvonne de Gaulle, the wives of the great World War II leaders. I didn't know them, but I admired them from afar, just as I did their husbands.

Strong and devoted wives, in and out of public life, are a Godsend.


Khalid Hassan, 23, an interpreter and reporter in the New York Times bureau in Baghdad since 2003, was killed today under mysterious circumstances, while he was on his way to work. He was the 110th journalist to be killed in the Iraq war, including 87 Iraqi citizens and two Americans.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, issued this statement: "Khalid, was part of a larger, sometimes unsung community of news-gatherers, translators and support staff who take enormous risks every day to help us comprehend their country's struggle and torment. Without them, Americans understanding of what is happening on the ground in Iraq would be much, much poorer. To the Times, Khalid was family and his death was heartbreaking."

John Burns, the great Baghdad bureau chief for the Times, called Hassan "a resourceful and brave member of our news team." He was the second NYT staff member in Baghdad to lose his life.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank goodness we no longer live in a time when all that a woman can aspire to is to be a "strong and devoted wife." Today's men have to earn that type of loyalty. Too bad so few of them can manage that.

7/25/2007 10:16 PM  

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