He was coarse and obnoxious. A big, overbearing, profane, restless, ambitious Texan who pushed and prodded and wheeled and dealed his way from poverty in the Texas Hill Country to the most powerful office in the world.
She was soft-spoken and eloquent. A gentle, quiet, polite, and comforting presence for her father, her husband, her children, and her country. As the social fabric of the United States began to tear during her husband’s Administration, she found a way to literally beautify the nation.
On November 17, 1934, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a 26-year-old secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg, the member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 14th Congressional district of Texas. Johnson was a tall, gangly, anxious, antsy young man. So driven was Johnson that he made sure to personally answer every letter which arrived in Kleberg’s office – whether the Congressman deemed them important or not. Johnson had started his career as a teacher, but it was politics that he was drawn to and politics which he was obsessed with. Very few people truly knew Lyndon Johnson, but everyone who came in contact with him knew that he was somebody. Lyndon’s confidence in himself was never quite as high. Throughout his entire life, Johnson felt he needed to press on further and faster in order to prove himself.
On November 17, 1934, Claudia Alta Taylor was 21 years old. When she was born, Claudia’s nurse said “She’s as purty as a lady bird” and the nickname had stuck. Almost nobody called her “Claudia”, she would always be “Lady Bird” and it was a fitting name. Lady Bird’s mother died when she was just five years old and her beloved father, a wealthy man actively engaged in business, couldn’t provide all of the attention she must have hoped for. What he could provide for his lonely daughter was opportunity. Although she came of age in a time (during the Great Depression) and a place (southern Texas) where women rarely received a thorough education, Lady Bird was able to make the most of her intelligence and determination. Not only did she attend college, but Lady Bird graduated from the University of Texas with two bachelor’s degrees – one in history and one in journalism. Following her graduation, Lady Bird hoped to teach in an exotic locale such as Hawaii or Alaska, “But all that never happened because I met Lyndon.”
On the night of August 1, 1934, Lyndon and Lady Bird met for the first time, introduced by a mutual friend, Eugenia Boehringer Lasseter in Austin. Though their initial meeting was brief, Johnson asked Lady Bird if she would meet him for coffee the next morning and she agreed. Lady Bird nearly had a change of heart on the morning of August 2, 1934 and was close to leaving Johnson stood up on what was supposed to be their first date. That morning, Lady Bird was scheduled to meet with an architect in downtown Austin who the Taylor family had hired to remodel their mansion, the Brick House in Karnack, Texas. The architect’s office happened to be next door to Austin’s Driskill Hotel and Johnson – sitting alone inside the hotel’s coffee shop – spotted Lady Bird walking by. Johnson urged Lady Bird to join him and when she did, one of the more unique marriages and partnerships in American political history truly began.
Lyndon Johnson hated wasting time. His entire life seemed like a race against the clock. Most of the men on the Johnson side of his family tree had lived relatively short lives before dying of a heart ailment. Johnson always felt that he would not live long, and he often lived each day as if he were going to die that night. Whether it was in the jobs he worked prior to entering public service or in his political career, Johnson wanted results and answers, and he wanted them immediately. In his personal life, Lyndon Johnson was really no different.
As they enjoyed coffee and breakfast at the Driskill Hotel during their first date, Johnson peppered Lady Bird with dozens of questions and bombarded Lady Bird with his own feelings, goals, worries, and intentions. Lady Bird was a well-refined, polite young lady with impeccable social skills, so she must have been taken aback by Johnson’s unabashed energy and intensity. Yet, she was also captivated by Johnson’s passion. After breakfast, Lady Bird accepted an invitation to take a drive through the rural areas surrounding Austin. An early version of LBJ’s legendary “Johnson Treatment” persisted throughout their whirlwind afternoon together. By the time Lyndon dropped Lady Bird off – after spending just a few hours together and meeting her for the first time only 24 hours earlier – he had proposed marriage.
Lady Bird said no to his immediate proposal. Not only did she barely know Lyndon Johnson, but earlier that morning she had even considered skipping their coffee date. But while she declined Johnson’s marriage proposal, she didn’t deny her interest in him. Later, she would say of their first date that Lyndon “told me all sorts of things that I thought were extraordinarily direct for a first conversation…about how many years he had been teaching, his salary as a secretary to a Congressman, his ambitions, even about all the members of his family, and how much insurance he carried. It was as if he wanted to give me a complete picture of his life and of his capabilities." In truth, that’s exactly what Lyndon wanted to do. Although she turned down his proposal, Lyndon and Lady Bird spent several days together that week before Lyndon returned to Congressman Kleberg’s office in Washington. Johnson couldn’t leave her alone because he wanted "to keep her mind completely on me until the moment I had to leave for Washington." By the time Johnson went back to the Capitol, Lady Bird had met Johnson’s parents in Johnson City and Lyndon had met Lady Bird’s father in Karnack.
Lady Bird’s father, Thomas, was an old-fashioned Southern gentleman and Lady Bird was his youngest child and only daughter. A successful businessman and self-made man, Thomas Taylor didn’t seem like the type who would mix well with impatient, boorish Lyndon Johnson from the Hill Country. Lyndon himself was full of nervous energy as he and Lady Bird drove to Mr. Taylor’s Brick House mansion near the Texas/Louisiana border. He was worried about whether the wealthy Mr. Taylor would look down on the Johnson family’s hardscrabble roots and hoping to conduct himself in a way that would impress both Lady Bird and her father.
Thomas Taylor told his daughter exactly how he felt about Lyndon Johnson. After Taylor, Johnson, and Lady Bird had dinner at the Brick House, Mr. Taylor excused himself and asked to speak privately with his daughter. With Lyndon no doubt concerned in the other room, Mr. Taylor held nothing back. "Daughter,” he said, “you’ve been bringing home a lot of boys. But this time you’ve brought a man." Mr. Taylor adored Lyndon Johnson.
Scheduled to return to Washington, D.C. the very next day, Lyndon again proposed to Lady Bird that night. Once again, she turned down the idea of a quick marriage, but she encouraged him with a kiss before he started his long drive back to the nation’s capital. They had only known each other for a few days and she had declined two marriage proposals during that time, but Lady Bird "had a queer sort of moth-and-flame thing” she later said. “I knew I had met something remarkable, but I didn’t know quite what.”
Once Lyndon Johnson returned to Washington, he continued his pursuit of Lady Bird Taylor. If he didn’t talk to her on a long-distance telephone call from Congressman Kleberg’s office, Johnson wrote a letter to her every single day. Lyndon was always consumed by work – particularly answering the Congressman’s correspondence – but things had changed after his visit to Austin. Johnson would still work on the mail as soon as he arrived at the Capitol each morning, but before he did anything else he would find a quiet room and write his daily letter to Lady Bird. To his co-workers, it seemed that every conversation or event or issue would remind him in some way or another of Lady Bird. It was so unusual for Johnson to put so much focus on one of his own interpersonal relationships that the people he worked with at the time would distinctly remember the change in his ways even years later after he had been President of the United States.
Back in Texas, Lady Bird Taylor was having a similar experience. “I had never before considered myself a lonely person,” she later said. But she “had spent so much of my life by myself that I had gotten used to being alone." The whirlwind that was Lyndon Johnson made an immediate impact on her. "Lyndon came into my life and in one week’s time he had become so much a part of me that when he left, I felt his absence terribly. It was embarrassing to admit that so much could happen in such a short time. Here was this man I barely knew talking about marriage and I was seriously considering the idea.”
While Lyndon kept pressing the idea of marriage, Lady Bird’s heart agreed with Johnson while her mind told her that perhaps she should wait. She still barely knew the man, and being married to the secretary of a member of the United States House of Representatives wouldn’t have provided any woman with a sense of security. Lady Bird had inherited money from her mother’s estate and her father was a wealthy man, but she was unsure of how Lyndon might be able to support her. She was also unsure about being a political wife, telling Lyndon in one letter, “Oh, I know I haven’t any business – not any proprietary interest – but I would hate for you to go into politics.”
Lyndon was certain of two things that he wanted and needed in his life. One was politics and though he was just a Congressional secretary, he was also intensely studying how Congress worked and building a foundation and network of political contacts back in Texas with his voluminous correspondence from the office of Congressman Kleberg.
The other want and need was Lady Bird Taylor’s hand in marriage. On October 23, 1934, Johnson wrote Lady Bird a letter from Kleberg’s office that expressed both of those wants and needs. “This morning I’m ambitious, proud, energetic and very madly in love with you,” wrote Johnson. “I want to see people – want to walk thru’ the throngs – want to do things with a drive. If I had a box I would almost make a speech this minute. Plans, ideas, hopes – I’m bubbling over with them." The hope that bubbled most intensely was his dream to walk down the aisle with Lady Bird.
An overlooked aspect of Lyndon Johnson’s life and character is his sensitivity. In later years, that sensitivity was highlighted by insecurity and moodiness. In the autumn of 1934, that sensitivity allowed him to articulate his feelings to Lady Bird with astonishing clarity and demonstrated an impressive ability to recognize and express exactly what he was doing and why he was proposing marriage so quickly:
"I see something I know I want. I immediately exert efforts to get it. I do or I don’t, but I try and do my best. You see something you might want. You tear it to pieces in an effort to determine if you should want it. Then you wonder why you want it, and conclude that maybe the desire isn’t an ‘everlasting’ one and that the 'sane’ thing to do is to wait a year or so, and then if you still want it, to decide at that time whether or not you should make an effort to get it.”
At the beginning of November 1934, Lyndon Johnson couldn’t wait any longer. It was obvious to him that Lady Bird loved him, and he knew he loved her. Lady Bird was still turning down Lyndon every time he pleaded with her to marry him immediately. They had only known one another for about three months, but Lyndon forced the issue by pulling his Ford roadster into the long driveway at Lady Bird’s father’s mansion, the Brick House, in Karnack, Texas. “Let’s get married,” Lyndon said. “Not next year, after you’ve done over the house, but about two weeks from now, or right away. We either get married now or we never will And if you say goodbye to me, it just proves to me that you just don’t love me enough to dare to. And I just can’t bear to go on and keep wondering if it will ever happen."
Lady Bird was still torn and turned to her father for advice. "Bird,” said Mr. Taylor, the successful businessman who admired the guts and determination of Lady Bird’s suitor. “Some of the best deals are made in a hurry." Thomas Taylor’s words seemed to validate one of Lyndon Johnson’s frequent exhortations in his letters to Lady Bird, "Why must we wait…to begin to do the things we want to do forever and ever?”. On the evening of November 16, 1934, Lady Bird Taylor finally said, “Yes”, and agreed to become Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson.
Just because Lady Bird agreed to marry him didn’t mean that Lyndon was satisfied. The very next day, November 17, 1934, the newly-engaged couple drove nearly 400 miles to San Antonio, Texas. Lyndon had a friend in San Antonio who owed his political career to Johnson. Dan Quill had been appointed postmaster in San Antonio after Johnson recommended his nomination to his boss, Congressman Richard Kleberg. Johnson knew it would be difficult to find someone who would agree to marry him and Lady Bird on such short notice, but Quill was determined to return the favor for Lyndon. As the couple drove to San Antonio from Karnack, Quill used his influence to acquire a marriage license for Lyndon and Lady Bird on almost no advance notice. More impressively, Quill was able to talk an Episcopalian priest into marrying a couple that the priest had never met and who had only been engaged to be married for a few hours.
With obvious reluctance because he had no prenuptial meetings with Lyndon and Lady Bird, the Reverend Arthur E. McKinistry nevertheless officiated a wedding on the evening of November 17, 1934 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio. Quill served as Johnson’s best man, a surprised local friend of Lady Bird’s served as Maid of Honor, and there was just one other witness to the ceremony. When Reverend McKinistry asked for the rings, the wedding ceremony was paused as Quill ran across the street to Sears, Roebuck and brought back a selection of wedding bands for the couple to choose from. After paying $2.50 a piece for the temporary rings, Lyndon and Lady Bird placed them on each other’s fingers and were officially proclaimed husband and wife.
The Johnsons – lanky Lyndon in a perpetually rumpled business suit and petite Lady Bird in a basic lavender dress – celebrated their wedding with a dinner at a restaurant on the rooftop of St. Anthony’s Hotel two blocks south of the church. They spent their first night of marriage together at San Antonio’s Plaza Hotel. The next morning, the newlyweds drove to Corpus Christi and caught a train to Monterrey, Mexico for a brief honeymoon. One of the earliest pictures of the couple shows them standing in a boat while visiting the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. For Lady Bird, the honeymoon was an eye-opener in many ways. A passionate lover and advocate of natural beauty and wildlife, Lady Bird was thrilled to explore the scenery and culture in Mexico. The honeymoon, however, also gave her an indication of the life she was beginning. Lyndon spent a significant amount of time talking about politics and itching to get back to Washington. As Lady Bird would later say, “I was a born sight-seer, but Lyndon was a born people-seer. He indulged me on that trip, but the truth is he wasn’t much intrigued." After Mexico, Lyndon and Lady Bird moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., and their life together truly began.
It is impossible to do justice to the story of the relationship of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson in just a simple essay. It is worthy of (and has been the sole subject of) entire books. There are so many levels, so much depth, and such extraordinary complexity to their marriage that a definitive history requires thorough study and an ample commitment of time and space.
We do know that Lyndon Baines Johnson was not always the greatest husband. Just as apparent, however, is that Lady Bird Johnson was indeed one of the greatest, most influential, most loyal wives in American political history. As First Lady, she not only understood her position in her home, but recognized the opportunities that she had to serve her country. "The Constitution of the United States,” Lady Bird said, “does not mention the First Lady. She is elected by one man only. The statute books assign her no duties; and yet, when she gets the job, a podium is there if she cares to use it. I did."
Exceedingly capable, Lady Bird expanded the role of First Lady and marshaled all of her intelligence, ability, and beliefs in order to become a transformational activist in American life. Every First Lady since Lady Bird has played an influential role in the lives of Americans, and that’s not solely because of Lady Bird but mostly so. Whether it was her campaigns for environmental protection and conservation, beautification, her support for civil rights, or her advocacy for those suffering from poverty or social injustice, Lady Bird was a force for positive change.
It is her most important role, however, which is often overlooked. Lyndon Johnson was not easy to live with. His larger-than-life personality and overflowing ego was constantly engaged in a see-saw battle with insecurity, a lack of confidence, and an overpowering fear of failure. In every election that Johnson ever contested, there came a point where he was dominated by the thought that he would lose and all but decide to quit the race before Election Day. In almost every one of those elections (and he only lost one election in his long political career), LBJ fell seriously ill shortly before Election Day. Whether it was due to Johnson’s tendency to work himself to exhaustion or partly due to a psychosomatic condition is not completely clear, but Doris Kearns Goodwin would later write that "Personal rejection was so unbearable to Johnson, so mortally threatening, that withdrawal was necessary…Episodes of rejection, actual or apprehended, seem[ed] to cripple Johnson’s faculties and even, at times, interrupt his normal state of physical health and vitality.”
It was Lady Bird who could calm him in troubled times. While Lyndon Johnson is remembered as a political maestro, particularly in legislative politics, Lady Bird had great political intuition and knew how to handle Lyndon himself. LBJ could be cruel and coarse – not just to his colleagues and staff, but to Lady Bird. In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, Lady Bird admitted as much. “Our was a compelling love,” she said. “Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment.”
That humility was not false humility; it was Lady Bird’s characteristically earnest belief. Yet, she arguably offered him more than he offered her. When he was sick, she helped care for him. When he was depressed, she helped make his life as easy as possible. She motivated him in a way that nothing else could – not even his intense drive to prove himself or ceaseless ambition for the power to help change things. If Lyndon Johnson was a hurricane – a force to be reckoned with, Lady Bird Johnson was the quiet breeze and warm sunshine which helped settle everything in the storm’s wake. I’m not sure Lyndon Johnson made Lady Bird more than she could have been, but I’m positive that Lady Bird helped LBJ become who he was.
In many of the books and interviews that I’ve read about the lives and times, accomplishments and failures of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, I have frequently come across the word “anchor” to describe her influence on the 36th President of the United States. The intent of that description is to demonstrate how she helped LBJ remain grounded. It’s a positive label, but it’s not the word that comes to my mind when I think about their unique relationship.
Instead, the word that comes to my mind is a word that Lyndon Johnson probably heard many times when he was just out of college and teaching at a small school for impoverished Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas. The word is “brújula” and it is the Spanish word for “compass”. Lady Bird wasn’t Lyndon’s anchor. She was his “brújula” – the compass which helped him find his way.
Lyndon Baines Johnson could never stay in one place, so an anchor wasn’t what he needed. LBJ was always on the move, always going somewhere. Perhaps that’s why he knew he needed Lady Bird before she realized how she felt about him. He recognized what she could be for him, and he couldn’t let her get away. For Lyndon, in a life full of historic accomplishments, it might have been his best decision. Until the day he Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973, whenever he was lost, whenever he was disoriented, whenever he found himself wondering where he was, where he was going, and if he could go on, there was Lady Bird – his brújula, his loving compass, his most important adviser, his closest friend, his indispensable partner – to guide him on his way.
On this day in 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed school segregation, had sparked a new and more direct phase of the struggle for racial equality in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement that followed involved defiance of discrimination in the United States, especially Jim Crow segregation in the South and restriction of black voting rights. The movement initially had little support from the federal government, who instead focused mainly on foreign Cold War policy. It was in 1963 that the violent resistance encountered by peaceful black protestors, including children, by whites in Birmingham, Alabama, led President John F. Kennedy to call for a civil rights bill. After his assassination Kennedy’s successor Johnson, who was a vocal supporter of civil rights, took charge of the fight for the bill. Facing opposition from conservative Democrats and Republicans, Johnson utilised his personal forceful nature (known as ‘The Johnson Treatment’), the power of the executive to provide incentives for congressional support, and the legacy of Kennedy to push the bill through Congress. The Civil Rights Act passed the House in February 1964 and the Senate in June, before it was signed into law in July by Johnson. Those present at the signing ceremony on July 2nd included prominent African-American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King Jr. The Act focused on racial discrimination, banning segregation and unequal voter requirements. However it also included a prohibition on sex-based discrimination which fuelled the burgeoning feminist movement; though some claim it was added by a Virginia Democrat in an attempt to derail the passage of the act. The Civil Rights Act, along with the Voting Rights Act a year later, were the primary legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, and remain the cornerstone of American civil rights legislation. 50 years on, it is a time for reflection on how far America has come since the days of Jim Crow segregation and black disenfranchisement, but also how much further is still left to go in the struggle for racial equality.
George, you and I shouldn’t be talking about 1964, we should be talking about 1984. We’ll both be dead and gone then. Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. A lot of people need jobs, a lot of people need a future. You could do a lot for them, George. Your President will help you. Now, in 1984, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says, ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil that reads, 'George Wallace: He Hated’?
President Lyndon B. Johnson, imploring Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace to help protect Civil Rights activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who planned to finish the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights which was originally interrupted by violence from law enforcement and white citizens against the non-violent protesters on Bloody Sunday in Selma.
Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was in the Oval Office during the meeting between President Johnson and Governor Wallace and witnessed LBJ used his famed Johnson Treatment" against the staunch opponent of civil rights later said, “That was the most amazing conversation I’ve ever been present at.”
University of Virginia students took to the streets and campus thoroughfares Thursday night to protest after the brutal arrest
of a black UVA student by state Department of Alcoholic Beverage
Control officers outside a local bar. According to USA Today, Thursday’s protests over the treatment Martese Johnson received
after he was confronted and violently subdued by ABC agents
at Charlottesville’s Trinity Irish Pub followed a Wednesday rally that
drew more than 1,000 people.
The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.
“My highest hope was for David. Because I know what he put into this. Every inch of himself. ” AvaDuVernay #SelmaFilm
Ava DuVernay is ‘stunned’ over her Golden Globe directing nod for 'Selma’
Posted Dec 11, 2014 6:16 PM By Gregory Ellwood @HitFixGregory
One of the nicest surprises from this morning’s 2015 Golden Globe nominations was the love the Hollywood Foreign Press Association bestowed upon Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” The dramatic story behind the historic 1965 Selma-to-Birmingham march earned four nominations including Best Picture - Drama, Best Original Song (“Glory” by John Legend and Common), Best Actor in a Drama (David Oyelowo) and Best Director (DuVernay). It’s somewhat disheartening that DuVernay is only the fifth woman nominated by the HFPA (still more than the Academy Awards for the moment) and the first African-American one, but this sort of love for one of the best pictures of the year? We can only hope Oscar is listening.
DuVernay and Oyelowo were in Toronto this morning following a special TIFF screening last night. She jumped on the phone to chat about the big day.
HitFix: Congratulations Ava! How is Toronto? Where were you when you heard about the nominations?
Ava DuVernay: It’s snowing and we are so high up I can see the flakes. It kind of feels like we are floating and it’s all white. And it’s just me and David in a room and we’re getting ready to do TV interviews because we’re here in Toronto doing press. When they said, “Turn on the TV, it’s happening now,” my highest hope was for David. Because I know what he put into this. Every inch of himself. Every molecule. Every bit of his DNA is in this picture. So, yeah, it was a very happy moment.
Do you feel like you’ve even had a breather? You were just shooting this movie less than six months ago.
This is the thing. We shot for 32 days. The bridge, the Bloody Sunday scene, we only had two days on that Bridge. It rained for half of a day so we had a day and a half. We had two and a half months to edit and finish. I mean, from July 4 until when we debuted on November 11 we were editing all of the time. It was August, September and October what we had to work on. Finishing all the music, all of the crafting of the film. Yeah, I’m still in that. I feel like I just took my hands off the film. I really, really feel like I’m barely ready to show it to people and now things are happening. It’s a little surreal, but beautiful.
One of the major strengths of the film is its incredible supporting cast. Did you have a list in the back of your head of all the actors you’d always wanted to work with and whether they’d work for the movie?
Yes, I had a mental list. Oprah Winfrey being in it allowed me much more freedom in casting than one traditionally has, just because they wanted a “name, name, name, name.” So, her being there allowed me to have freedom everywhere else. I am like the biggest Tim Roth fan going back to obscure films. I am a Giovanni Ribisi stalker. I love, loved him. André Holland, who is on this show called “The Knick” right now, I first saw him in “42” and thinking, “My God, who is that?” Tessa Thompson. I saw her in this small little film a few years back and I always remembered her. To be able to put together your dream cast of who you always loved. That’s how I approached it.
How did Tom Wilkinson come about playing LBJ?
He was one of the first on my list because the physicality of King and Johnson was so much a part of their relationship. They used to do something called the Johnson Treatment. There are pictures of it in the historical archives. He was a huge guy. He was 6’ 4" and would lean over people and use his physicality. And we do that in the film, so it was really important that I had a bigger guy. So, I was looking for taller actors. Who were the best tall actors with gravitas? And, literally, he was at the top of the list. And I asked him and he said yes.
I know David can’t talk this morning, but what are your thoughts on what this sort of recognition means to him? He’s been a working actor for over a decade. He’s finally getting the spotlight.
David is in every movie basically. [Laughs.] Every movie you see? Do not be freaked out because David Oyelowo is going to pop up. “Interstellar,” “Jack Reacher,” “A Most Violent Year,” “The Help,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Red Tails,” “Lincoln.” I mean, the list goes on and he’s always good. He’s never the center. Never the center. Oh, I don’t want to get emotional, but I adore him so much. His talent is immense and his heart is even bigger. And for him to be the center of this film? For the first time? And to be received like this? Really and truly what I want out of this whole thing is that for David. I think it means a lot to him. It means a lot to me. It means a lot to a lot of people.
Bradford Young’s work is phenomenal and he just feels like a cinematographer who is going to be at the top of everyone’s must have list. Have you done everything you can to lock him down for your next picture?
I know, I know. I’m sure I need to negotiate my next five films with Bradford right now. I’m using my friendship with his wife, his child. I’m just trying to stay in with this brother because he is a young master. We have so much fun together. We have a shorthand. We have a connection on the things we care about. I think he’s really brilliant and I’ve been fortunate now to have shot three things with him and I hope many more.
Last question, you’re only the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Globes and the first African-American woman. Does that have any significance for you personally?
I had no idea. That is not anything that had come into my mind. I wasn’t thinking about this for me. I thought it was a bit of a longshot. I really put my highest hopes for David with it. I’m stunned by it. I really don’t have words for it. Someone literally told me seven minutes ago. It’s bittersweet in a way. It’s absolutely not true that there hasn’t been good work by black women before this moment. So for whatever reason, it’s happening now. It’s very sweet for me, but I tip my hat to all the black women who came before me, women of color period, who haven’t been able to be in this category and just hope now that a door’s been opened.
As 1967 edged towards Christmas and the arrival of a New Year, the Vietnam War continued to rage on while President Lyndon Baines Johnson and a full contingent of staffers and press climbed aboard Air Force One to attend the funeral of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had drowned off the coast of Victoria, Australia. Following the funeral (and despite the rapidly approaching holidays), LBJ decided to extend his journey – several times. From Australia, the President touched down in Thailand and Vietnam to visit U.S. troops, followed by a short visit with Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan.
LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who remained back home at the White House, called the whirlwind world tour, “the fastest, longest, hardest trip any President of the United States had ever taken.” The exhausted press contingent which had accompanied LBJ agreed. They had circled the globe, covered a state funeral, tagged along during a Presidential visit to an active war zone, stopped off in six different countries, and topped everything off with an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican.
The real goal for the trip’s ever-evolving extension from a quick appearance in Australia to honor the President’s friend, Prime Minister Holt, to a 28,294-mile circumnavigation of the Earth became apparent on December 23, 1967. After a short visit with Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and Prime Minister Aldo Moro, President Johnson was received in Vatican City by Pope Paul. With nothing else working, Johnson hoped that the Pope might be able to help broker peace in Vietnam. Despite the President’s efforts, however, Pope Paul VI only promised to study the matter.
Thousands of anti-war demonstrators had greeted LBJ as his plane touched down in Rome, but the President was able to rise above it – literally – as he flew to the Vatican via helicopter. The Presidential helicopter landed in the Vatican Gardens – a first – a technological achievement that traditionalists, including the Pope, grumbled about when they witnessed it. How dare this American land a helicopter in the Vatican Gardens rather than fight his way through Roman traffic like everyone else? After the President’s visit, however, that grumbling gave way to acceptance and the advantages of modernity as the Pope himself began to use a helicopter for short flights out of the Vatican, particularly to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat perched on the hills of Lake Albano, approximately 15 miles outside of Rome.
Up to that point in American history, the relationship between LBJ and Pope Paul was probably the closest between any President and Supreme Pontiff (but still a far cry from the relationships between more recent Presidents and Popes) . With the war in Vietnam stagnant and increasingly bloody, President Johnson had been hoping to find a way for Pope Paul VI to act as a peacemaker, bring the belligerent parties together, and broker a deal to end the conflict. While that never happened under Pope Paul’s guidance or mediation, LBJ had tremendous respect for the Pope and believed that a face-to-face meeting with Paul VI – something which might give LBJ an opportunity to use his famously effective Johnson Treatment – would make a difference in enlisting the Pontiff’s assistance. What happened in the private meeting between Johnson and Paul VI remained known only by those two leaders. According to LBJ’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President told him, “The Pope is a very great man,” and suggested that Paul VI was sympathetic to American struggles in Vietnam. However, other sources reported that the President and Pope had a tense meeting about the worsening state of the war in Southeast Asia and escalation of the conflict due to American policies. LBJ didn’t go into details about what did or did not happen in his meeting with Pope Paul, but in describing his private audience to his brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President claimed, “Incidentally, the Pope said I was one of the great leaders of our time. What do you think of that, Sam Houston?”
What does stand out about the meeting between President Johnson and Pope Paul VI was the gifts that they gave one another. Although Christmas was just a couple of days away, the gifts were not Christmas presents but part of the diplomatic niceties observed by world leaders who frequently exchange gifts during their meetings. Technically, any gifts given to the President by other leaders during his term actually belong to the American people rather than the President himself, but in many cases, the gifts a President receives can be found on display in their Presidential libraries.
Since LBJ arrived at the Vatican on the day before Christmas Eve, Pope Paul’s gift to President Johnson did, in fact, reflect the holiday season. The Pope gave the President a stunning oil painting from the 15th Century – a Nativity scene featuring the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus being watched over by angels.
President Johnson, of course, had a gift for the Pope. To the amusement of the Pontiff and many others within the Vatican, LBJ gave Paul VI a bronze bust of an American President. Was it a likeness of George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? No. Was it a sculpture of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first-and-only Catholic President, who had been assassinated just months in Paul VI’s pontificate?
No. Lyndon Johnson gave Pope Paul VI a bronze bust of…Lyndon Johnson. In a photograph capturing the exchange of gifts between the two leaders, the bemused expression on the Pope’s face pretty much says all that one needs to know about the gift bestowed upon him by LBJ.
According to the State Department’s Chief of Protocol, James Symington, this wasn’t a unique gift:
“You can’t fault a man for wanting to give mementos and gestures of his friendship. But what [LBJ] wanted to take with him was, I don’t remember the exact figure, something like two hundred busts of himself. Some of them were white marblish in appearance and others were bronze-looking. It is, I think, unusual for a man to give a bust of himself in his lifetime, although it’s difficult to give it any other time. But to make a mass-production gesture really boggles the mind…
Today, there are heads of state all over Asia who are trying to decide what to do with the President’s bust. But not just heads of state, because that would have been only a dozen or less [of the busts]. As I say, we had hundreds of them, so many, many people – cabinet ministers and all kinds of functionaries – received one. The President would say, "I want a white one.” “I want a bronze one.” And you never had the one he wanted and you had to go back to get it. [LBJ would exclaim] “Damn it! Can’t anyone do anything right?”
It’s not known what Pope Paul VI did with his bust of Lyndon Johnson, but one thing is certain – the gift definitely wasn’t some sort of limited edition, one-of-a-kind, priceless national heirloom. In fact, over 40 years after LBJ’s death, the gift shop located in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin remains stocked with the same type of busts that the 36th President of the United States once presented to Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Queens, and, on the night before the night before Christmas in 1967, an altogether bewildered Pope.