First Family Stories: Grandpa and LBJ | January 22, 2023
First Family Stories
By Clifton Truman Daniel
“First Family Stories” is a serial memoir exploring the history, humanity and humor of being part of one of America’s First Families. Clifton Truman Daniel is the eldest grandson of Bess and Harry Truman.
“Grandpa and LBJ”
PRESIDENT LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON died on January 22, 1973, less than a month after my grandfather. I remember the shock of seeing him at Grandpa’s funeral, gaunt and hollow-eyed, Lady Bird Johnson at his side.
They and my grandparents had enjoyed a close friendship. Grandpa tried during his presidency to achieve national healthcare but couldn’t get it past voters and a Republican-controlled House. He considered it one of his greatest failures. President Johnson, aware that Grandpa had nonetheless paved the way, signed the 1965 Medicare Act on the stage at the Truman Library and gave my grandparents the first two cards.
Signing the Medicare Act at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum: President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Harry S. Truman, Bess Truman (July 30, 1965) TrumanLibrary.gov
To me, President Johnson was a towering figure, but not so tall that he couldn’t see eye to eye with a seven-year-old.
I met him in January 1965, the day after his inauguration. He’d invited my grandparents, but they declined, citing age and the rigors of travel. My parents served in their place, my brother, Will, and I going along. We stayed at Blair House and on the last morning, had breakfast with the Johnsons at the White House. I was astounded, and a little annoyed, that while my brother and I were forced to comb our hair and put on a jacket and tie, the President and First Lady had been allowed to remain in their pajamas.
Nonetheless, President Johnson immediately endeared himself to me.
It is a universal truth that when a second-grader is given a few days off from school to attend a presidential inauguration, his teacher, Miss Foster, will make him write a paper about it. To my astonishment, the president not only knew this, apparently without being told, but offered to help as well.
“You want to make it really good,” he said.
With that, he retired briefly to his office and returned with handfuls of stationery, envelopes, and pens, anything he could find that had his name and/or “The White House” printed on it.
“This’ll guarantee an A,” he said.
Not wanting to leave Will out, he proceeded to divvy up the spoils. Midway through, however, Mrs. Johnson leaned over and snatched something from the president’s hands.
“Lyndon, for goodness’ sake,” she said. “You can’t give them those.” President Johnson had almost handed us each a book of White House matches.
My brother and I were far from the only people President Johnson treated with kindness.
In January 1969, not long before Richard Nixon’s inauguration, W. DeVier Pierson, LBJ’s chief legal counsel, “signed out” of the White House. That meant you’d formally left the president’s employ. Not long afterward, Mr. Pierson was in Los Angeles, interviewing with a prestigious law firm. The partners had just entered the conference room when a secretary burst in.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, breathlessly. “Mr. Pierson, the president is on the line for you.”
The partners immediately filed out and Pierson picked up the extension.
“Mr. President?” he said.
“DeVier,” said LBJ.
“I’ve signed out.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, then, what can I do for you, sir?”
“Not a thing,” said LBJ. “I just thought the call might help.”
My grandparents’ friendship with the Johnsons suffered only one hiccup. After Mr. Johnson won the presidency in his own right, Mrs. Johnson called Independence to say that she wanted to hang my grandmother’s official portrait in the White House but couldn’t find it.
“That’s because it’s on my wall,” said my grandmother.
“I’m not sure it should be,” the First Lady said. “It belongs to the American people.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said my grandmother. “It’s a picture of me, it’s on my wall, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”
Not one to pick a fight with a friend when she didn’t have to, Mrs. Johnson commissioned the artist, Greta Kempton, to paint two copies. One is in the White House collection, the other at the Truman Presidential Library and Museum. The original is still on my grandmother’s wall.
Lady Bird Johnson shakes hands with young Clifton Truman Daniel at the White House Unveiling Ceremony for his grandmother’s portrait. (April 18, 1968) TrumanLibrary.gov
The Truman and Johnson families remain friendly to this day. Lynda Johnson Robb and I are co-founders, along with Tweed Roosevelt and Massee McKinley, of the Society of Presidential Descend-ants. (Yes, we have a club.) Luci Baines Johnson has been unflaggingly helpful to the Truman Library and Truman Library Institute.
At our last event together in Kansas City, I told the story of breakfast and the second-grade paper, after which Luci smiled and said, “I have something for you.”
She reached over and handed me several books of Johnson-era White House matches.
Clifton Truman Daniel is the eldest grandson of President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess. He is the son of author Margaret Truman and former New York Times Managing Editor E. Clifton Daniel, Jr. Mr. Daniel is honorary chairman of the board of the Truman Library Institute, board secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, and vice president of the Society of Presidential Descendants. He is the author of Growing Up with My Grandfather: Memories of Harry S. Truman and Dear Harry, Love Bess: Bess Truman’s Letters to Harry Truman, 1919-1943. In addition to portraying his famous grandfather on stage, Mr. Daniel gives a series of lectures on various aspects of the Truman presidency and U.S. and White House history. Learn more.
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