Mrs. Johnson's Southern Strategy

By Hindley, Meredith | Humanities, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

Mrs. Johnson's Southern Strategy


Hindley, Meredith, Humanities


Just before dawn on Tuesday, October 6, 1964, the Lady Bird Special pulled away from Track 12 at Union Station. Over the next four days, the nineteen-car train carried First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson on a whistlestop tour of the South, covering 1,682 miles from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Johnson wasn't going to be sitting quietly and smiling pleasantly while her husband did all of the talking. Instead, she was going to make speech after speech from the back of the train, telling folks in towns big and small why they should vote the Democratic ticket. Before it was over, she would make forty-seven speeches, shake hands with more than one thousand Democratic leaders, and speak before more than two hundred thousand people. It was the first time that a first lady had campaigned alone, without her spouse. Not even Eleanor Roosevelt had done it.

Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and other first ladies have stumped for their husbands. But, in 1964, it was a decidedly uncommon event, made more so by Johnson's choice of where to go. The South had become hostile territory for Democrats because of the party's role in championing civil rights. And no candidate was more identified with civil rights than Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Several factors made the 1964 election especially contentious. President Kennedy had been assassinated. Cold War hostilities with the Soviet Union were a grave concern after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Americans had good reason to feel they were living through a moment of great social change. President Johnson had become the major advocate of civil rights legislation among officeholders, while the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, tapped into a significant stream of negative feeling against an activist federal government.

The campaign was extraordinarily negative: Democrats showed, though only once, the famous "Daisy" ad, equating a Goldwater presidency with nuclear destruction. Critics of the civil rights movement used blatantly racist language and the threat of violence to make their case.

Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which LBJ had maneuvered through Congress with skills he had learned over three decades on the Hill and by invoking the fallen president's memory. Goldwater, an early favorite, had stumbled badly, and, with two months to go before Election Day, the momentum clearly favored Johnson, who, craving validation, wanted a margin of victory large enough to smash any doubts that he had gotten to the White House on his own steam.

In September, a Gallup poll gave Johnson a 69 percent to 31 percent lead. So far ahead, the Johnson campaign could have ceded the South to the Republicans. Even if every state in the region went for Goldwater, Johnson could still garner almost 400 electoral votes, far surpassing the 270 needed to win. But Johnson wasn't a man to shrink from a fight, and Lady Bird believed an effort needed to be made to court Southern voters. As a native of Texas with relatives in Alabama and Louisiana, the first lady knew there was more to the South than angry white men who opposed civil rights.

"I have a strong sentimental, family, deep tie to the South, and I thought the South was getting a bad rap from the nation and indeed the world," she recalled years later in her oral history. "It was painted as a bastion of ignorance and prejudice and all sorts of ugly things. It was my country, and although I knew I couldn't be all that persuasive to them, at least I could talk to them in language they would understand. Maybe together we could do something to help Lyndon and then perhaps to change the viewpoint of some of those newspaper people who were traveling with me."

The extensive oral history that Lady Bird did in conjunction with the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library reveals a gracious woman who continued to grow with each new challenge thrust upon her. Michael Gillette, director of Humanities Texas, conducted the majority of the interviews and has edited the newly declassified transcripts into the highly readable Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History, from which some of the material for this article was drawn. …

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