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Correction to This Article
The March 21 obituary for Liz Carpenter, who served as press secretary for first lady Lady Bird Johnson, inaccurately reported the time that she worked as assistant secretary of education for public affairs in the U.S. Education Department. Ms. Carpenter worked at the department toward the end of the Carter administration, not at the start.
LIZ CARPENTER, 1920-2010

Liz Carpenter dies; former aide to LBJ, Lady Bird Johnson

In her later years, Liz Carpenter gave speeches, wrote books -- and helped raise her late brother's three young children.
In her later years, Liz Carpenter gave speeches, wrote books -- and helped raise her late brother's three young children. (Harry Cabluck/associated Press)
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By Joe Holley Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Liz Carpenter, , an earthy, tart-tongued Texan who served as Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary during her tenure as first lady and who was a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus, died of pneumonia March 20 in Austin. She was 89.

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, Ms. Carpenter was in a Dallas police car being driven to Love Field. There she would board Air Force One, the plane returning to Washington with the body of a slain president and his widow, as well as the Texan who would take the oath of office aboard the plane, his wife standing at his side.

"Having been a reporter for 20 years of my life, I knew [Lyndon Baines Johnson] would soon face the press," she recalled, "and they were going to want a statement. I pulled out a card and just started writing. Fifty-eight words: 'This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help -- and God's.'

In addition to rising to the occasion, Ms. Carpenter was known for feistiness and sass and had what former Texas governor and close friend Ann Richards described as "a lifetime of madcap adventures."

She was born Mary Elizabeth Sutherland in 1920, near Salado, on a spring-fed creek between Waco and Austin.

She was a descendant of five generations of Texans, including a 17-year-old relative who died at the Battle of the Alamo. A great-great uncle wrote and signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836.

When Ms. Carpenter was 7, her older brother Tom enrolled at the University of Texas, in Austin 40 miles to the south, and the family moved with him to a big house near campus. A dozen years later, she enrolled at the University of Texas herself to study journalism.

Graduating in 1942, she immediately moved to Washington and two years later married her college sweetheart, Leslie Carpenter, also a journalist.

"I'm grateful for having gone to Washington from the University of Texas," Ms. Carpenter told the school's journalism students years later. "I had my journalism degree and my virtue intact -- and I still have my journalism degree."

Shortly after arrival, she caught on as a reporter with a news service for Michigan newspapers run by Esther Van Wagoner Tufty, who paid $25 a week.

"I was there in the glory days with Sam Rayburn as speaker and LBJ as the majority leader," Ms. Carpenter recalled. "I was 22 years old and in awe of FDR."

As one of the few female reporters in Washington, she covered the last of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's news conferences and several of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's.


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