TERRY GROSS, host:
The health care debate and last night's House vote passing health care reform brought President Lyndon Johnson to mind because of his work pushing through passage of Medicare and Medicaid.
We're going to remember Liz Carpenter, who worked closely with him. She died Saturday at the age of 89. Carpenter began her career as a journalist covering Washington. She was Johnson's executive assistant when he was vice president. She was one of the first women to hold such a position. She wrote the 58-word text that Johnson read the evening President Kennedy was assassinated. She had been in the Kennedy motorcade.
After LBJ became president, Carpenter became press secretary for Johnson's wife, Lady Bird. She later became active in women's rights issues. She was one of the founders of the National Women's Political Caucus and lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
I spoke with Liz Carpenter in 1987, after the publication of her memoir.
(Soundbite of archival interview)
GROSS: You wrote LBJ's speech after - it was a short speech - after the Kennedy assassination.
Ms. LIZ CARPENTER (Journalist): Yes.
GROSS: That must've been a very difficult thing to write. I mean, who would know what to say after a national tragedy of that magnitude?
Ms. CARPENTER: You know, it was - it came and I cannot say it came from in me. It came from above or genes, something. But somehow at the time of a terrible day you're called upon to be a survivor. And my role had been being a writer, writing remarks for LBJ, and so as we were moving out of Dallas to Air Force One, somehow my hand went into my purse, pulled out a pencil and a pad, knowing as a reporter that I had been, that he would be faced with a battery of reporters when we stepped off the plane in Washington and he'd need some words.
And so the words just began to come and I don't think I rewrote them. I think that they just came. And without any real conscious effort, and I can't help but feel they were God-given. And this was true also I think to other people. All of us were moving around in a sort of a trauma, we - still trying to reject what had happened.
And I remember the two wire service reporters just automatically moved to telephones at Parkland Hospital and grabbed the phones. But that's their profession telling them, more than any conscious effort. The White House photographer knew he had to have the picture of the swearing in, and he set about doing that. So you kind of went about your work in a trance.
GROSS: You started that message for Johnson with a very simple and very moving line. You wrote: This is a sad time for all people.
Ms. CARPENTER: Yes.
GROSS: Why did you open with that?
Ms. CARPENTER: I guess - I first started thinking this is a sad time for all Americans, but Kennedy was beloved around the world, and so it seemed to be too limiting.
GROSS: So you came up with this is a sad time of all people.
Ms. CARPENTER: For all Americans, and for all people. And then I ask your help and God's at the end.
GROSS: You became Lady Bird's press secretary, and you say you saw the job as helping her help him - of helping the first lady help the president.
Ms. CARPENTER: That encompasses everything, doesn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Well, but I wonder what can you really do? As the press secretary for the first lady, what's your best way of helping the president?
Ms. CARPENTER: Well, by making her his translator. And he deserved one, and he - a president is terribly busy doing their things, and Lady Bird could go out and walk through the Head Start projects in Newark, New Jersey, or the Job Corps in Kentucky. And she had been a reporter herself - briefly, but she had been a trained journalist with a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas. So she really knew what the five W's and the H are. She knew the difference between an AM and a PM, and if she could go and help kind of be the catalyst that brought out the story of what the kids in Head Start were like before and after the program, it certainly was helpful in selling the program to Congress and to the people.
GROSS: What were some of the greatest crises that you had to cope with as press secretary to the first lady?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CARPENTER: Well, two that kind of dropped in on me were the weddings of the two daughters. And this is because I'm not, by nature, a press spokesman about weddings, but I was thrust into that. And there were about 85 to 100 women reporters who were eager to know every tedious detail about the plans for the weddings. And it was a joyous kind of relief, I think, from the steady barrage of stories about Vietnam that were certainly full of our front pages.
And all the world does love a lover, so romance was ripe in the White House, and that was some of it. You would get cornered on small things like: Did Lucy's wedding gown have a union label in it? And this would be - drop out of the sky. You didn't even know, and you'd have to find out: Did it? And if it didn't, it'd better.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: When you were first secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, I'm sure that there were plenty of times when she was out on one of her beautification campaigns when she was met by anti-war demonstrators, and when that became a part of the story that the press covered. Actually, I'm sure you must've run into that a lot, where anti-war demonstrations were receiving more coverage than the message that you and she wanted to get out. What was your stand on the war then?
Ms. CARPENTER: Well, after 1966, when things began to get worse in Vietnam and you were getting more demonstrators, well, that's when the signs began to go up. And she would be out trying to tell not just about beautification, but about many other things like the war on poverty, and suddenly these signs would appear. And the newswomen would just - and the picture would be the sign. All you did was try to plead with them. You could not manage their news, but you would try to hope that somehow the story of the Job Corps camp of the boy that had been improved by it would get in. But often, it was taken away from you, and that made it very difficult and discouraging. But she still kept on keeping on.
GROSS: You found out that Johnson was resigning like most of us did, by watching television. You saw his speech.
Ms. CARPENTER: Absolutely.
GROSS: And later learned that his speech had two endings, one in which he resigned, and one in which he didn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CARPENTER: That's the one I'd read earlier that afternoon, the one in which he didn't.
GROSS: The one in which he didn't resign. Well, did you feel angry that you had to find out about this from television?
Ms. CARPENTER: Not at all. And I went right down to the White House. Lady Bird called me and said they'd wanted to tell me, and they made a point of calling staff real quickly after the broadcast so you wouldn't have this. But I was sorry that he decided not to, because I think that - well, we went into the Nixon period, and so - and ultimately, Watergate. But it would've been tough for him to get reelected, because, as he realized, he was not the person to rally people together when everyone was so divided on Vietnam.
GROSS: Liz Carpenter, recorded in 1987. She died Saturday at the age of 89.
This is FRESH AIR.