After all these years, years since the Lyndon Johnsons left Texas for Washington, years since they left Washington for Texas and years since the President himself just left, a thousand family friends could still gather here Sunday night in one of those special Texas celebrations of power and love.
In the name of LBJ they came, but this time it was the name of that other LBJ, the one he drove to excellence, achievement and, at times, to pain. The one he called Dearest and Bird and "one of my wisest and most trusted counselors." Lady Bird Johnson, no other.
Here they were assembled in the marble majesty of the LBJ Library - the conservative wealth of Texas anteing up $1.25 million to keep a presidential library open without charge to you and me, because that's the way Lyndon wanted it. And because Mrs. Johnson wouldn't tolerate a tribute to her unless it also benefited the library.
This event was called "A National Tribute to Lady Bird Johnson" and drew a crowd variously described as the Johnson family's kissing cousins and "the Democratic Establishment." Bankers, oilers and dealers, men who had twisted arms for Lyndon Johnson and men who had had their arms twisted.
"This is a love-in," said Texas humorist Cactus Pryor, whose one-liners from the LBJ Auditorium stage caught the light and the insight of Sunday night's gathering in honor of her 65th birthday, Dec. 22.
But catching the drama of the lifetime of two people were Helen Hayes and Kirk Douglas, whose dramatic readings of Johnson letters and diaries, as arranged by "Texas Trilogy" playwright Preston Jones, spirited an audience to times and places past.
"Lyndon," Claudia Taylor wrote in October 1934, "Please tell me as soon as you can what the deal is. I am afraid it's politics . . ."
"My darling," he wrote to her in 1942 in a wartime letter from San Francisco, "I've come around to thinking your head is better than mine on most things, even including so many political matters."
Those were the up times and the down times came too, as when graduating students walked out on Lady Bird Johnson in a Vietnam war protest at Williams College in October 1967. "I was their bait," read Helen Hayes. "How did I personally feel? Cool, furious and determined to maintain my dignity . . . All in all, I guess I lost this round Lyndon called . . ."
And Kirk Douglas said, "I just hate for you to have to take that sort of thing."
So compelling was their performance that afterward a struck Lucy Johnson Nugent would say of Hayes and Douglas. "One of them would look over and glance at each other, and there stood my mother and father."
"I could see Daddy," said her sister, Linda Robb. Indeed, at one point there is a reference to "Lyndon Douglas" in my notes.
But if there was confusion between theatre and reality, there was little doubt that it was Lady Bird Johnson's night. She was escorted by Henry Ford II, who was co-chairman of the event with philantropist Mary Lasker. Mrs. Johnson was presented with roses sent by Laurence Rockefeller. She was lauded by an absent President who received modest handclapping compared to the enthusiastic applause when Pryor mysteriously said, we had hoped that America's No. 1 citizen could be here," and added in reference to the University of Texas' All American football player, Earl Campbell, "but he hasn't returned from accepting the Heisman Trophy."
Jim Wright, the House Majority Leader, was here and so were John Connally and Dean Rusk and Jack Valente and Lloyd Bentsen. Liz Carpenter kind of ran things. Steve Martindale came too, "with Liz."
Gov. Dolph Briscoe couldn't make it, Pryor said, "because he was attending the funeral of a future appointee." Dead men have been appointed to office before in Texas.
But lots of people did make it, and influence and wealth, appeared to increase proportionately as the hair grayed, silvered and finally whitened. The object of the evening was to endow the LBJ Library, to finance frequent academic gatherings on public issues and to keep the library admission free so that no child must ever pay to visit it. Strange, then, that in a state where public spending for the poor is done with less than enthusiasm, that such a crowd would contribute $125, $500 and $5,000. But that's the way it is done here: Private charity instead of public outlay.
"There is a great diversity of political background here," said Nugent a few feet from the display case where her White House wedding gown is preserved. "That's one of the joys of my mother she has best friends from the very liberal end of the opitical spectrum and best friends from the very conservative end of the political spectrum. That does not eliminate their ability to love my mother for what she stands for."
What did her mother think of all this? She tried to get the audience to cut short the standing ovation for her. They wouldn't, not for a while anyway. Finally, she was able to say, "Thank you. My heart is very full tonight." Additional remarks followed. Then in a hallway she was asked for her thoughts. "They're full of gratitude, and happiness and memories."
As we rode the elevator to a post-performance reception, Mrs. Johnson acknowledged that the ever-increasing demands by her husband - a letter once suggested she handwrite 2,000 letters to constituents - had spurred her to try harder and to do more.
One letter also commanded her to acquire skills, so that if anything ever happened she would be able to get a job someday.
Last night it was clear that the trying and the doing had carried her farther and achieved for her not a job but a place in America. Her name is synonymous with beautification, with greenery and trees and flowers. You can see it. She is a businesswoman and works with passion for this library.
And if anyone needed to say, although one one really did, J. J. (Jake) Pickle, the congressman, went ahead. This library, with its presidential archives and artifacts is more than a memorial to one man. "This is the LBJ Library," Pickle said."Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird, one and the same, now and forever, Amen."