2007-07-19 / View From the Middle

View From The Middle

The Story Of Lady Bird, The Palace Garden And Me
By Charles Rogers

By Charles Rogers

There are certain milestones in one's life that are retained within the far reaches of the mind, sometimes seemingly forgotten - or put aside - until a spark revives them. In my memorable milestone, the spark that ignited my memory was when I heard of the passing of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Johnson, last week. The gracious lady died of natural causes at the age of 94. As we awaken and re-awaken some of our memories, old emotions rush to mind as vivid as when they happened. My memory surely serves me correctly as I tell you the story of an encounter with this grand lady.

It was 1966 and, because I had previously been to Indo China (later called Vietnam) and to the general area, I was chosen to go with the press/media crew for NBC News as we followed LBJ and Mrs. Johnson on their trip to Southeast Asia and some other spots in the world. It was October and the country was getting deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War. The trip was billed as a "good will" gesture, with meetings taking place in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and a few others, then hopping around the other side of the world with a few stops in Europe. Although the trip was not a "cover," the president took this occasion - while in Thailand - to quietly take a short sojourn to Vietnam to visit some of the troops and see for himself how things were going there.

Now, in most of the countries we visited, the red carpet was laid out for LBJ and Lady Bird, as you would expect. They also did a pretty good job treating the members of the press cordially, even to the point of inviting us to a dinner-banquet complete with Siamese dancers and a kick-boxing match. Now, how many people can boast they went to a banquet with the President of the United States and the King of Siam?

Ah, but enough about those exploits. I'll get to the Lady Bird point:

We were in Thailand for two days, I remember, covering LBJ's arrival, talks with the king and envoys and the banquet on the first night (Did I ever tell you about the time I went to a banquet with the...? Wellll....). The press overnighted in a hotel and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and their upper-level entourage stayed at the palace.

On the morning after the banquet - about six or seven o'clock - I decided to do my exercising near the palace. I was alone, not necessarily dressed like a sport, but comfortable. As I passed one of the gates, I noticed the palace guards standing properly at attention, as they are supposed to do. I went around a corner to another gate and....it was open (now tell me about the journalist who found an untended door and didn't open it). Of course I went inside and onto the grounds of the palace, still trotting like a dutiful jogger, figuring that if anyone caught me I would just say, "Sorry about that, heh, heh. I made a wrong turn."

Anyway, I came to a garden with lovely grass and small trees. Almost a park, really. Flowers everywhere. And there, standing near a small, quaint gazebo, were President Lyndon B. and Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson talking with a palace official, with two Secret Service agents standing nearby. The agents saw me the second I walked into the alcove - as did Mrs. Johnson. One of the agents approached me, but a split second before he got to me, Mrs. Johnson apparently recognized me from the press group, walked over and, in her sweetest Texas drawl, said, "Do you know where you are young man?" I said something profound, like, "Uh, the palace grounds?"

"Not exactly," she answered. "These are the private palace grounds; sort of a secret place. I think y'all are not supposed to be here - whether my husband the President is here or not."

Flustered as all hell, I apologized for everything wrong I had ever done in my life, took back everything bad I had ever said about Texans and thanked her for being so kind. I think I even congratulated her on marrying so well. She looked at the Secret Service guy and told him to kindly escort me out the same gate I'd come in. As I yelled my apologies (and congratulations) to her over my shoulder, the G-Man made sure I was who I am and suggested I do my jogging back at the hotel. Nothing more was said, either to my bosses or anyone else. As a matter of fact, it's one of those stories that hung back there in my mind - essentially forgotten until my best-ever traveling companion friend, Lady Bird Johnson, passed away. It would be our secret.

We all have favorite times of our lives; those times of which we're unabashedly proud, during which we perhaps have made a positive leap. Obviously, this was one of mine - one of many (I won't say anything about the negatives, mainly because I have neither the time nor space!). Being part of the LBJ entourage was one of those positives. And being able to tell the little story of my friend Lady Bird makes it that much sweeter. It's always nice to think of the good things; and, rest her soul, she was one of the good things.

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