Bill Murchison

Here's my Lady Bird Johnson story.

Our family was vacationing in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin. Sunday dawned. Being Episcopalians, we fetched up at St. Barnabas Church, Fredericksburg, for the main service. It was the '80s. Our two boys were young and -- dare I say it? -- disputatious. During the service they became embroiled with each other. Mom and Dad sought to still them. It was challenging.

Came time to pass "the peace of the Lord" to fellow communicants. We whirled round to find, passing the peace to us , Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson of the nearby Johnson Ranch: gracious, smiling, outwardly unruffled by any breach of the peace our generally angelic -- but not right then -- children might have committed.

We still talk about it. No scowl from Lady Bird, not so much as a pursed lip. No motions as if to move farther from the unruly Murchison tribe. Lady Bird was, as Rhett Butler said of Melanie Wilkes, a great lady, a very great lady. I wish we had a lot more such. That we don't is a principal element in our present national difficulties.

Our unexpected encounter with Lady Bird in a small Episcopal church on a Sunday morning was entirely typical, from what I gather, of encounters in general with Lady Bird. She was forever charming, forever gracious, especially and deliberately, I will wager, to non-admirers of her husband.

We native Texans of a certain age know better than most what a difficult and contentious figure was Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was crafty, self-propelled, a man born to lead in everything and to follow in nothing. These various traits rendered him, shall we say, less than instantly lovable. Well, who ever said power and lovability go hand in hand?

The wonder was that, hitched to this force of nature, was a woman like Lady Bird. Whatever Lyndon wasn't, in various particulars, she was. You had to scratch your head. How'd they ever get together? In my callow 20s I attempted a rude sally: "You have to wonder about anybody who would give Lyndon a second date." Apparently not. There was something there. She saw it. It drew her.

We read in the obituaries that she kept him in line, to the extent he stayed in line at all. She sanded down sharp edges, cheered and encouraged him, no doubt sometimes suggested alternative courses of action.

What amazes all these years later are the remembrances of Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson's patience and dignity as her husband was assailed and set upon from every side. "Hey, hey, LBJ -- how many kids did you kill today?" It was in the air. We heard it. She heard it.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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