Texan first ladies Bush, Johnson fueled husbands’ campaigns

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Their husbands hailed from different political parties, and the two women grew up on opposite sides of their vast home state.

But Lady Bird Johnson and Laura Bush were both instrumental in their husbands’ rise to power. And each endured harsh criticism of the White House over a faraway American war – Johnson for Vietnam and Bush for Iraq.

“It’s got to be a very wearing ordeal for either family to endure the kind of disapproval and unhappiness that the American people visit on the presidents of unpopular wars,” said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas in Austin whose expertise is the presidency.

During Vietnam, Lady Bird Johnson often spoke her private thoughts into a tape recorder. Transcripts of her comments were published in the 2001 book “Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965,” edited by historian Michael Beschloss.

“How much can they tear us down?” she wondered as criticism of the war heightened. “And what effect might it have on the way we appear in history?”

It may be years before the public learns more about Laura Bush’s feelings on the Iraq war, said Bruce Schulman, a professor of political history at Boston University and author of “Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism.”

In the Johnson administration, the president’s wife was “at the emotional center of Johnson’s world as things started to fall apart, as he was hunkered in at the White House,” Schulman said.

Lady Bird Johnson also seemed to be a moderating force for her husband’s rhetoric. “When he was tending to say something that may have been too extreme or pointed, she would reel him in,” Schulman said.

President Bush’s tone regarding the Iraq war has moderated in recent months, Schulman said, adding that he would not be surprised to learn one day that Laura Bush played a role in that process.

Lady Bird Johnson was raised in the small town of Karnack in East Texas and Laura Bush in Midland in West Texas.

Possessing distinct Texas accents, both women hesitated early in their husbands’ political careers to make public speeches. But they became known as confident speakers and assets to their husband’s presidencies.

In public-opinion polls, Laura Bush’s popularity has been higher than the president’s.

“I believe she may be the most popular person in the administration,” Buchanan said. “I think people like her, as they did Mrs. Johnson.”

Both women, scholars say, were also instrumental in their husbands’ rise to power.

Laura Bush seemed to be key to President Bush’s turnaround after a “somewhat irresponsible youth,” Schulman said.

Lady Bird Johnson entertained her husband’s political allies in Washington – many of them bachelors who appreciated the family’s hospitality. And she ran their lucrative Texas broadcasting business empire, Schulman said.

Everybody who knew Lyndon Johnson well agreed “that his career was unimaginable without Lady Bird,” Schulman said.

The Johnsons and the Bushes also dearly loved their Texas ranches.

While Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson were in the White House, they often returned to their beloved Hill Country ranch northwest of Austin. After leaving Washington in 1969, they resettled there.

Since taking office in 2001, President Bush and Laura Bush have retreated periodically to their rugged ranch near Crawford.

The Johnson and Bush families each had two daughters who were young women during their time in the White House.

Both Johnson daughters, Luci and Lynda, were married during the family’s White House years. The twin Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna graduated from college during their father’s first term.

In March, the Johnson daughters and their families came to a White House bill-signing ceremony for legislation naming the Education Department headquarters after Lyndon B. Johnson, who died in 1973. Laura Bush attended the Oval Office gathering. Lady Bird Johnson, who was unable to attend because of poor health, listened by telephone from Texas.

AP-ES-07-13-07 1445EDT

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