Liz, Lyndon and that day in Dallas

I earlier wrote about my lunch a week ago on Petit Jean Mountain with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, and mentioned that I’m doing a profile of her for Arkansas Life magazine.

As a former journalist, I loved the fact that both of Christy’s parents — Liz and Les Carpenter — had been in the newspaper business. Christy and I talked about her mother. In doing research for the profile, I also read a lot about Liz Carpenter.

I wish I had known her.

Born in the historic Texas town of Salado (a community along Interstate 35 that’s now filled with bed and breakfast inns, interesting shops and good restaurants) in the plantation house that had belonged to her great-grandparents, Liz was a sixth-generation Texan who even had an ancestor die at the Alamo.

“We were all Methodists and Baptists and Democrats,” she once said of her childhood years. “I was 17 before I saw my first Roman Catholic and 21 before I saw my first Republican. Both were terrifying experiences.”

The 24-room home where she spent her early years has been a state historic monument since 1936.

When Liz was 7, her family moved to a home in Austin near the University of Texas campus. Liz headed east to Washington following graduation from UT in order to cover the nation’s capital. The year was 1942, and Liz was paid $25 a week by the Tufty News Bureau.

After Les Carpenter was discharged from the Navy, he married Liz in 1944 and they opened the Carpenter News Bureau in Washington’s National Press Building, producing stories for more than 20 newspapers, most of them in the Southwest.

Liz was covering the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when she was asked to join the staff of vice presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson.

“Both Lady Bird and Lyndon asked me to share the adventure of their lives by helping Kennedy and Johnson get elected,” Liz said.

After the election, Liz became Lyndon Johnson’s administrative assistant, accompanying him on trips around the world, writing speeches and dealing with the media.

UPI reporter Al Spivak once said of Liz: “She saw that we got what we needed most — the facts, food and beverages of our choice.”

She was with the vice president in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

It was, in fact, Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement LBJ gave after exiting the plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — the plane that carried President Kennedy’s body.

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

“I cannot really say I wrote those words,” Liz Carpenter would later say. “God was my ghostwriter.”

Liz became the staff director and press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson and worked for the first lady through the end of the Johnson administration.

Christy Carpenter remembers that November day in 1963 well.

She was at Gordon Junior High School in Washington when the announcement came over the public address system that President Kennedy had been shot

“They let us out of school early, and I went with some friends to a church,” Christy said. “We then went to the home of one of my friends to watch the news coverage. I remember my mother coming home late that night. My father was also late getting home since he was still running the news bureau and busy getting stories filed.”

Her parents attended Kennedy’s funeral. Christy watched the funeral procession from the window of an office building on Washington’s Connecticut Avenue.

Les Carpenter died of a heart attack in 1974. He was only 52.

Two years later, Liz Carpenter moved back to Austin. She bought a home overlooking the Austin skyline and the Colorado River. She called it Grass Roots, and it became her headquarters as she wrote, made speeches and threw wonderful parties.

President Carter brought her back to Washington for one year in 1979 as the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Education.

At her mother’s funeral in March of last year, Christy Carpenter had these memories of her parents: “They were social animals, and that’s part of what made them so successful. They loved to entertain in our modest house on Woodway Lane, which was nestled between dogwood trees, azaleas and the rose beds my father so carefully tended. Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, Al Gore Sr., lots of Texas congressmen and lobbyists, cabinet members and fellow reporters … would crowd into our small living room. The cocktails and laughter flowed freely, and sometimes deals were made.”

Christy said her older brother and she were trained to “help welcome guests when they arrived and carry coats to the bedroom. No shyness was permitted. We were taught to stick out our tiny hands, smile and say our names so guests could hear.

“Washington was a different town in those days, a small town where Republicans and Democrats were friends and often crossed the aisle to become allies on important issues. A big part of what made that possible was that Washington was a very social town. Republicans and Democrats socialized together constantly.

“In Washington, information is power. At the end of most days, my parents would dash into our house, quickly change clothes and head out to cocktail or dinner parties full of movers and shakers. This was where they developed sources and picked up the stories that they would bat out on their manual typewriters the next day in their office in the National Press Building. Life was exhilarating.

“My brother and I would always get a kick out of going to their office where the sound of teletype machines and the clicking and clacking of typewriters flooded the corridors, and we could read the names of newspapers from across the country that were stenciled on every glass door. You could literally smell the ink and feel the excitement of hurried people scrambling to meet their deadlines. In those days, reporting was romantic.”

You know, I still considered it pretty romantic when I worked in Washington for the Arkansas Democrat in the late 1980s.

I’ve always believed that a sense of humor is important. And I’ve always preferred those who are without pretense.

That’s why I think I would have liked Liz Carpenter.

Here’s how Christy put it in her eulogy: “Being funny went to the core of her being and came completely naturally to her. What a gift. Not only did it endear her to the thousands and thousands of people she made laugh throughout her 89 years, it also reflected her passion for life, her craving for fun and an inner wisdom that recognized that seeing the funny side was an essential ingredient to a happy life. And happy it was for the most part. As we experience the sadness of her loss, everyone should feel comforted that she had a whale of a good time on this earth, and she did it her way.

“Which brings me to another quality — earthiness. She was as authentic as the Texas soil. And she took the lessons she drew from it to the nation’s capital, to the White House, to the shah’s palace in Iran and to the mansions of the rich and mighty. She was the same person in those settings that she was in the shacks of Appalachia where she traveled with Lady Bird Johnson or to the shores of Senegal with Vice President Johnson. Princes, paupers, even thieves — everyone experienced the very same salt-of-the-earth Liz. She was totally without pretense, devoid of snobbery and comfortable in her own skin.”

Without pretense.

Devoid of snobbery.

Comfortable in your own skin.

What marvelous attributes.

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