The thought of an American first lady campaigning independently for her husband doesn’t seem unusual today, but when Lady Bird Johnson took her solo campaign act on the road in 1964, people paid attention.
When Johnson’s “Lady Bird Special” campaign train rolled through a four-day, whistle-stop tour of the South that finished in New Orleans, the trip marked the first time that a first lady had campaigned alone.
All of this is colorfully recalled in “Mrs. Johnson’s Southern Strategy,” a lively article in the May/June issue of Humanities magazine, the national journal of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Readers can see the article online at http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/mayjune/feature/lady-bird-special.
Johnson faced a big hurdle in trying to round up votes for her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in the Deep South.
“The South had become hostile territory for Democrats because of the party’s role in championing civil rights,” writer Meredith Hindley tells readers. “And no candidate was more identified with civil rights than Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
Lady Bird Johnson’s Southern campaign swing covered 1,682 miles from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.
In four days, Lady Bird made 47 speeches, greeted more than 1,000 Democratic leaders, and spoke before more than 200,000 people. As her train tour concluded at Union Station in New Orleans, LBJ was waiting to greet her.
“She and the president made their way down Canal Street, riding in an open car, to attend a campaign fund-raising dinner at the Jung Hotel,” Hindley writes.
Of the eight states visited by the Lady Bird Special, LBJ won only three: Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. “The other five – South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – went to (GOP candidate Barry) Goldwater,” notes Hindley.
Despite the mixed results, Lady Bird’s campaign trip demonstrated that first ladies or wives of other presidential contenders could be useful as solo acts on the campaign trail.
But whether a national campaign train will ever pull into the Crescent City’s Union Station, we cannot say.