Friday, March 25, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Lady Bird Johnson's 1964 whistlestop tour

Lady Bird Johnson died just a few months before The Eloquent Woman blog launched, and it was during her funeral services that I realized few today recall her shy start as a public speaker. Robert Caro, prolific biographer of the late U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, her husband, describes in Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2) just how she sabotaged her own speaking early on:
So deep was her shyness that, as a high school senior, she prayed that if she finished first or second in her class, she would get smallpox so that she wouldn't have to be valedictorian or salutatorian and have to make a speech at graduation.
Eventually, circumstances forced her to face -- and speak to -- the public. When her husband was John F. Kennedy's running mate in the 1960 election, she was pressed into service to give dozens of speeches when Jacqueline Kennedy's troubled pregnancy made it impossible for her to travel. After her husband become president, Lady Bird was the first of the First Ladies with her own press secretary, made hundreds of public appearances and wound up giving as many as 16 commencement speeches, if only to accept her own honorary degrees.

On the LBJ Library website, you can read a biography of Lady Bird Johnson; read and listen to quotations from her speeches, interviews and conversations with her husband; and read the eulogy to her written by PBS journalist Bill Moyers, a former special assistant to President Johnson. He divulges a tip she gave him about speaking early in his career:

She was shy, and in the presence of powerful men, she usually kept her counsel. Sensing that I was shy, too, and aware I had no experience to enforce any opinions, she said: “Don't worry. If you are unsure of what to say, just ask questions, and I promise you that when they leave, they will think you were the smartest one on the room, just for listening to them. Word will get around,” she said.
Despite all that shyness, Lady Bird Johnson demonstrated courage as a public speaker during a 1964 campaign whistle-stop tour of Southern states. It took place just after her husband had signed the Civil Rights Act--a time when political advisers decided he could not himself risk personal appearances in the South, so unpopular was the new legislation. So they sent the First Lady on a four-day, 1,600-mile, eight-state train trip, stopping in small towns and giving her speech off the back of the "Lady Bird Special" train, as shown in the photo.

In all, she made 47 speeches in as many towns in four days, reaching about a half-million people in person. And she liked the idea of a whistle-stop, in part because it would reach local people who didn't usually get to see or meet national leaders. But her fears were still there. She alluded to her speaking fears right at the start, according to a PBS documentary:
"For me this trip has been a source of anxiety and anticipation," Lady Bird said at the start of the whistle-stop. "Anxiety because I am not used to whistle-stopping without my husband; anticipation because I am returning to familiar territory and heading into a region I call home."
On this tour, she listened to catcalls that said her husband--and her daughters--were "nigger lovers," and more. Moyers' eulogy noted that in the face of jeers, protests and name-calling on the tour:

She never flinches. Up to forty times a day from the platform of the caboose she will speak, sometimes raising a single white-gloved hand to punctuate her words — always the lady. When the insults grew so raucous in South Carolina, she tells the crowd the ugly words were coming "not from the good people of South Carolina but from the state of confusion." In Columbia she answers hecklers with what one observer called "a maternal bark." And she says, "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now is my turn to express mine."
That's something any speaker can use today with a heckler. Here's an audio clip from her whistle-stop in Tallahasse, Florida, October 8, 1964 and, in the same year, this excerpt from a speech at Texas Women's University in March:
We've conquered so much in technology...What we haven't learned is how to get along together. Technology can be the prop, the aid, but it still is the human machine, the mind and the heart of each individual, which spells success or failure in this. It is a good time to be a woman  because there are so many roads to take. It is a good time to be a woman, because your country, more now than any time in its history, is utilizing your abilities and intelligence. Witness the 93 top appointments since January, including two ambassadors and a woman on the Atomic Energy Commission.
As the PBS documentary notes, her speaking was an astonishment in 1964: "Lady Bird had embarked on her political tour at a time when only 30 percent of married women had jobs, and only 20 percent of women with children were employed."  In the two anecdotes in his eulogy, Moyers captures several smart tactics employed by this eloquent woman:
  • Ask questions. More than a stall tactic for the shy speaker, asking questions of your audience--whether it's one person or 500--will help you to better understand your hearers. You'll be less likely to make a misstep with the help of this "market research." It builds your confidence, and theirs in you. And it's a great attention-getter.
  • Word will get around. Whether you're quiet or loquacious, people are watching. Your reputation rests on moments when you're resting, as well as when you're actively speaking.
  • Speak calmly and for yourself. Lady Bird Johnson was spit on, yelled at, had things thrown at her, heard her children insulted, and still remained calm in front of the angriest of audiences. In some cases, she confused and silenced the protesters who were seeking to embarrass her, simply by acting as she planned, rather than reacting. And she spoke for herself: In disagreeing with the protesters, she used "I" statements, saying, "I respect your right" to disagree, but insisting on her own right to express her views.
The National First Ladies Library offers this extensive biography of Lady Bird Johnson and I wish there were more of her speeches available for you in text and video. Here's a video half-hour tour of the White House in 1968, featuring the First Lady and President Johnson. It will give you some idea of her presence and speaking style:

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