Like the Eisenhowers and the Kennedys before them, the LBJs most enjoyed spending their Thanksgiving holiday weekend away from the White House at their private home, among nuclear and extended family members.
Home for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson was a Texas ranch house, not far from Austin, in the rolling hill country near the Pedernales River. While the practical First Lady had sometimes questioned the wisdom of making the flight for just a four-day weekend every Thanksgiving, she needed little coaxing.
Not that she could have prevented her imperious husband, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, from exercising what he considered his prerogative of spending each of their White House Thanksgivings home on the ranch.
While certainly the holiday weekend in 1963, her first as First Lady, was the darkest one for Lady Bird Johnson, coming a mere seventy-two hours after the funeral and burial of President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in Dallas, Texas had capitulated the LBJs into the White House.
That day, rather than return to Texas, the Johnsons remained in the home where they’d lived during LBJ’s Senate and Vice Presidential years, since Mrs. Kennedy had not yet moved out. It was a quiet, sad day, the President delivering a televised address to the nation about the sorrow all were feeling that particular Thanksgiving.
As a First Lady of activity, Lady Bird Johnson was purposeful in achieving her public goals related to environmental protection and preservation, against a darkening tapestry of protests of her husband’s Vietnam War policies. As she began to approach the end portion of her time on the national stage, it was two Thanksgivings, her final ones as First Lady, which she recorded with particular poignancy.
In her diary, she recorded of Thanksgiving 1967 at the LBJ Ranch, shared with her husband, two daughter Luci and her husband Patrick Nugent, and daughter Lynda and her fiance Chuck Robb.
It began, she wrote, with a sky that was “bright blue and gold,” enjoying coffee in bed as LBJ played with their grandson. They then drove around in LBJ’s convertible with the top down.
That evening, she sat down with nineteen others, relishing a “great big turkey, fat and golden…sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, green beans, lima beans, and cranberry salad, crunchy with nuts and celery. And finally, mince pie.”
She then sat down for a bridge game before friends and staff who had been guests began leaving.
The six Johnson family members paused before retiring, and then sat down and began to tell one another stories.
Mrs. Johnson, however, remained silently observant, and recorded:
“…Lynda’s bright and sometimes brittle vignettes of the people she meets and the events of her life, and Luci’s bubbling flow occasionally interspersed with philosophical insights sage beyond her years. Then I realized that this is really Thanksgiving…and this is what I have to be thankful for. I am reasonably satisfied with the way both of these children have turned out…I truly like their two young men…and today has been perfect and full. I shall remember this evening, I hope they will. There was more to it than many I’ve crowded with excitement and big names and important events.”
A fundamental shift occurred by the following Thanksgiving. That year, both of Lady Bird Johnson’s sons-in-law were at the front in the Vietnam War. Early in the day, she and her husband went into nearby Fredericksburg, Texas to attend holiday services at her parish. She recalled her feelings:
“I was happy to walk into St. Barnabas for one of the last times in front of ranks and flanks of cameras, all the faces good-natured today, and greet a lot of familiar people and be a part of a service with which I am much more in tune than with the Catholic or Lutheran services, which I often attend these days with my very ecumenical husband.”
Thanksgiving 1968 was packed with people, even at the private home of the LBJs.
As usual, her husband insisted that not only she but some seven other people pack all into the same car – with him at the wheel. At lunchtime, he turned up a radio and began teaching his little grandson a jig.
As was her way, however, Mrs. Johnson focused her attention for detail on the natural world that holiday, noting the changing leaf colors of the different types of trees, and the “crisp” yet “sunny” weather.
Some twenty guests sat down for Thanksgiving dinner at the LBJ ranch that year. She looked around the table at them all:
“…[E]very one of us…I am sure, was thinking of how much he had to be thankful for; a year of good health; the Vietnamese war at last maybe on the long slow way toward peace; the Tax Bill passed, and thereby a rein – though a light one – put on inflation; our dollar – so threatened just a few months ago – relatively stable once more. And, in the personal realm, Chuck and Pat still all right, though far away.”
“Today was one of those glorious golden days,” concluded Lady Bird Johnson with her gift for plain yet powerful words, “when just to be alive is enough.”