Liz Carpenter -- who boasts she had "a press pass to every thought and action" during eight presidencies -- has discovered the cure for Potomac Fever -- a $475,000 advance on a 100,000 first-edition printing of her Simon and Schuster book, "Getting Better All the Time."
Unlike most Washington Once Weres, she came riding back to town last week in a long black limousine, booked to the minute with triumphant speeches at the Women's National Democratic Club and the National Press Club, television and radio appearances, and a genuine Steven Martindale party.
Ten years ago if you'd asked who'd be the last to move away from Washington, most insiders would've guessed Liz Carpenter, even before Freedom, the statue on the dome of the Capitol.
Reporter, press bureau partner, executive assistant to Lyndon Johnson, legendary press secretary and staff director for First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, president of the Women's National Press Club -- Carpenter was the insiders' insider.
She brags that her daughter was conceived in her National Press Building office after deadline. She wrote Johnson's speech when he was sworn in on Air Force One after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She wrote perhaps the most uninhibited White House memoir, "Ruffles and Flourishes" (now available only at garage sales, she says). She was a fierce campaigner for the Equal Rights Amendment. She was a friend to most politicians and all journalists. Though many White House staffers (before and since) unintentionally have made people laugh, Liz Carpenter holds the record for being funny on purpose.
"When I was 22, I first walked into this building, journalism degree in hand, virtue intact. I still have my journalism degree," she said last Thursday at a standing-room-only Press Club luncheon, adding with a shake of her lily white hair, "Gray hair is a license to say what you think."
Back in Washington, she said, she finds that "Try to Remember" has become the national anthem. "I rub my eyes in wonder at Washington today. Like George Bush, I wonder where I am and where I have been all this time."
Two other Washington insiders who knew her well admit they were amazed that she went back to Texas, and even more amazed that she stayed. Bess Abell, the Johnson White House social secretary, says, "I didn't think she'd be happy there. But when you see her in her hot tub, you know she is." Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, says, "You have to remember that she wasn't just Mrs. Johnson's press secretary or staff director. She was the P.T. Barnum of the White House. She was bigger than life. Her unbounded optimism infected us all. I never thought she'd leave."
But to everybody's astonishment, after the death of her husband and colleague Les Carpenter in July 1974, Liz Carpenter packed up her awards and her photographs of herself with the dignitaries of almost four decades and went back home to Austin, Tex.
She said the other day, between hugs from old friends, that Washington was Les and Liz's town. So she went back to Texas looking for her own town and a second life. And she found it.
She went through her family letters and photographs. She found a house that overlooks Austin and named it Grass Roots (though she also calls it the Last Lap House and Happy Hour House, among other things). She founded the Bay at the Moon Society, which meets, as you might expect, once a month. The only thing, she misses, she says, is knowing immediately "the real story behind the news of the minute."
Going home might have been easier for Carpenter than for immigrants from states with fewer pretentions. From the days of House Speaker Sam Rayburn to today's Speaker Jim Wright, Texans keep tribal customs and closeness in Washington, and they keep up their friends down home. Liz Carpenter, in her Washington years, never lost her Texas accent.
She was lured back to Washington for a year during the Carter administration, when she was assistant secretary of education, and found out that "people don't hurry to answer the phone when it's a department, not the White House, calling." She decided that in Washington, "I was one of many" people who'd had a turn at power. "But in Austin, I'm a legend," she said. And so she is.
She started the book on her 65th birthday, determined to tell all -- and she does, even her weight. She finished it in a year, stuffing it with homilies, meat loaf recipes, advice to the lovelorn, an impassioned plea for equal rights, more photographs than most family albums, enough names dropped to cover a front page, and, perhaps the funniest, instructions for her own funeral:
"No high Episcopalian ceremonies for me. I want low Methodist with hymns you sing and go away whistling. I want the church full, and I want open sobbing, not just a few wet eyes ... after all the political meetings I've advanced and pew-packed for politicians, presidents-to-be, and presidents-that-were, I deserve a good funeral. I want good press and glorious obituaries with some irreverent anecdotes about my life. And I want laughter along with tears. I want friend and foe alike to know I had a whale of a time walking about God's earth."