The death of Lady Bird Johnson this week has prompted many Texans to reflect on the times they crossed paths with the former First Lady, and the recollections that have found their way into the media are universally inspiring.
In Dallas, one man who was working on a freight elevator at a Neiman-Marcus store after-hours told of being ordered to stand back while an important visitor arrived. Stanley Marcus promptly walked in with Secret Service agents, and they were followed by Mrs. Johnson, who was there on a private shopping trip. “Why are you standing back there?” Mrs. Johnson asked when she saw the man standing several feet away. He replied that he was working on an elevator when they told him to step aside. “Let the man back in here,” she told the agents. “He’s got work to do.”
A woman in Austin told of being stopped by agents while bicycling in a park, because Mrs. Johnson was there exploring ways to make it more beautiful and useful to the public. Mrs. Johnson took that opportunity to talk for several minutes to the woman about why she came to the park and what could be done to make it more accommodating. Mrs. Johnson talked to her like it was the only thing she had to do all day.
Everyone who has had a brush with a top governmental official typically comes away from the experience with a sense of awe, if only out of respect for the office. Maybe you don’t agree with that person’s politics, or the politics of that person’s spouse, but some things, believe it or not, can transcend policy.
It’s easy, as well as politically correct, to say nice things about such people when they die. But most of LBJ’s detractors have acknowledged, even while she was still alive, Lady Bird’s contributions to her husband’s career and to numerous state and national environmental and educational programs.
The full-contact sport of politics can sometimes make it seem that opponents in elections are enemies of the highest order. So to many, and particularly to campaign activists who let their politics spill into personal attacks, it seems disingenuous for people like President Bush and Gov. Perry to be saying nice things about the wife of a Democratic former president. Sometimes, even a non-skeptic can tell from the tone and the length of an official statement whether the sentiment is heartfelt, or is instead merely the appropriate thing to say at the time. The comments I’ve read about Mrs. Johnson from current office holders — all Republicans — make me think they are sincere.
Perhaps the most extreme example we have today of political foes who have embraced each other involves two former presidents — George H.W. Bush (No. 41) and Bill Clinton (No. 42). In case you don’t remember, the latter defeated the former in 1992 in a particularly brutal campaign. But name a national election that isn’t brutal these days.
More recently, these two ex-presidents have teamed to do everything from raising relieffunds for tsunami victims to helping dedicate the Billy Graham Library. Their friendship is apparently secure enough that it has not only eclipsed everything that was said in the 1992 campaign, but also Clinton’s criticism of the policies of the presidential son now in office.
“I just love the guy,” Clinton has been quoted as saying about the man he challenged and beat. At another time, Clinton joked that the penalty he got for defeating Bush is that he’s had to become his straight man for life.
Some diehard partisans on both sides consider their very public friendship to be political treason. They might not be so critical if a younger Bush wasn’t still in the White House, and if another Clinton wasn’t running to succeed him. But even in politics, friendships apparently can be more important.
Almost 20 years ago, when Bush No. 41 was running for president, a well-connected Democratic Party supporter made a surprising observation to me after a chance meeting with the then vice-president. Although committed to the Democratic ticket, that supporter said anyone who spent five minutes talking with Republican George H.W. Bush would come away a fan. “If Bush could personally spend a little time one-on-one with every undecided voter, he’d never lose an election,” he told me.
I don’t know if that helps explain the Bill Clinton-George H.W. Bush friendship. Regardless, politicians would do well to remove their war paint occasionally and let each other (and the people they represent) know that they do respect each other, even if they strongly disagree on policy.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.