An Icon for Texas Women

Liz Carpenter, 1920-2010


Texas has produced a bounty of great women—Lady Bird Johnson, Ann Richards, Molly Ivins, Nellie Connally, Ma Ferguson, and many others. But standing tall with them was Liz Carpenter, the native daughter who became a household name from Washington to Austin.

Carpenter, who died on Saturday, was brilliant, witty, humane, and made an impression on all she met. She took life with all its ups and downs in stride, and somehow found the funny side. She broke the mold.

She grew up in Salado, Texas, and never lost her drawl. And never forget her roots as a sixth-generation Texan. She attended Austin High School in Austin and later graduated from the University of Texas, determined to be a reporter in Washington. I first met her when she came to Washington about the same time I did—1942.

World War II was well under way, and the U.S. was drafting every young man who had a pulse. Newspaper jobs began to open up for women to cover the major beats. But in the job search, Liz—always on the plump side—ran out of money and wired her brother: “Please send me $200 or I’m going to have to sell my body to the Smithsonian Institution.”

“Sell it by the pound,” he wired back. But he sent the money. Liz soon went to work covering Washington for the Austin American-Statesman.

She was courted by and married the late Leslie Carpenter, a fellow Texas journalist whom she met at UT. They had two children—Christy, who directs the Radio-Television Museum in New York, and Scott, a broadcaster in Seattle, Wash.

During her early days in Washington, Liz covered Eleanor Roosevelt’s “for women reporters only” and the Texas congressional delegation, becoming the lifetime friend, confidante and aide de camp of Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird.

Liz joined Johnson’s campaign when he ran for the vice presidency in 1961 on the same ticket with John F. Kennedy, and politics became her life. She was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963—that heartbreaking day when Kennedy was assassinated.

On the flight back to Washington on Air Force One, when Johnson was sworn in as the nation’s 36th president, he asked Liz to write a statement for him to deliver on his return to Andrews Air Force Base, where a grief-stricken crowd had been waiting.

Johnson stepped down from the plane and read her 58 words that said it all:

“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask your help and God’s.”

Liz moved into the post of Lady Bird Johnson’s staff director and press secretary, and put all her energetic talents to use to spotlight the greatness of the first lady with her national beautification program and devotion to the Great Society programs, particularly Head Start.

She planned Lady Bird’s memorable, four-day whistle-stop campaign tour of the South in 1964, during which the first lady was taunted with racial slurs. Liz had the press in the palms of her hands in those days, always attentive to their needs.

But the Johnson landslide victory was not to be savored for long with the onset of the unpopular Vietnam War, and the Johnsons were besieged by anti-war protesters.

At the end of March 1968, Johnson—faced with an untenable demand for thousands more troops and a bitter political climate—said he would not run again.

Shortly after Richard Nixon was elected as Johnson’s successor in 1969, Liz and I had lunch. As she walked me back to the White House and headed for the National Press Building, I said to her, “Liz, what do you miss the most about this place (the White House)?” She gave me an answer that I had never heard from a woman before: “Power,” she said.

Liz had her heyday in Washington. She was president of the Women’s National Press Club, and persuaded the National Press Club—which barred newswomen from becoming members—to allow us to sit in the balcony for the main speaking events. That was in 1956. We were not admitted as members until 1971.

When Johnson renounced re-election and went home to Texas on Jan. 20, 1969, Liz moved back to her old haunts in the National Press Building and became an activist in the feminist movement. She gave blood, sweat, and tears in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which has yet to be ratified.

The 6-year-old son of the man whose office was next door to Liz’s wandered into her office one day and told Liz: “I do magic.”

“Good,” she replied. “Make Nixon disappear.”

Who said “you can’t go home again?” Liz did and quickly re-established her roots.

If anything, she widened her horizons. For a woman who never met a stranger and never let a new idea pass her by, Liz began writing books that portrayed the different phases of her life: Ruffles and Flourishes for her White House years. Getting Better All the Time and Start with a Laugh.

“How do you write a speech?” she called one day and asked.

“Have something to say,” I told her.

In her 70s, her dying brother asked her take care of his three youngest children—teenagers.

Tough as it was at her age, she said they “forced me to think about their world and mine.”

She also had to cope with a series of ailments. When she underwent her mastectomy, she received a comforting call from former first lady Betty Ford, who had undergone a similar surgery. Mrs. Ford told her “to accept this challenge and use your sense of humor and call on the strength of women like me who have gone before …”

Some of Liz’s great quotes recorded by reporter and close friend Gwen Gibson: “I have learned to take life by the hand and laugh along the way with it.”

“Humor heals,” she said. “Don’t leave home without it.”

Liz recalled when she wrote a book titled Getting Better All the Time she was 65 and feeling fine. As a septuagenarian with aches and anxieties, she said if she wrote a sequel she would call it I Lied.

She had a great zest for life and an abiding curiosity about everything, and she had devoted help from a network of friends.

She called her hilltop house “Grass Roots” and an outside Jacuzzi “Golden Pond,” which became a gathering place for her Texas clan to “bay at the moon,” sing old songs, and sip champagne.

She became the “Auntie Mame” of Texas.

Her close friend, the late Erma Bombeck, said of Liz, “Texas never had a truer daughter.”

Liz was a national treasure. I believe the National Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, should be given to her for her contribution to this country.

Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst and the dean of the Washington press corps. Her latest book is called Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.