Sunday, February 13, 2011

Longtime LBJ aide Mildred Stegall finally tells her story

These are always interesting narratives to read. Check out Mildred Stegall's handwritten memoir. Powerful stuff.


Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

The oldest living White House aide for President Lyndon B. Johnson is finally telling her frontline tales.

Mildred Stegall is 102 and living in a nursing home in Fort Worth. She was a right-hand woman to LBJ and the one who saved his presidency, warts and all, by securing his secret White House telephone recordings in a West Wing vault only she could open. Johnson begged her for years to join his staff. When she finally took the job, his merciless demands and insensitivity made her so angry in the first week that she admits, "I had murder in my heart."

She stifled the urge for bodily harm and buckled in for a roller-coaster ride of 35 years working for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. Now she is telling her story for the first time through her family, which provided the American-Statesman with a short memoir Stegall wrote by hand when her memory was still sharp. Stegall is occasionally alert, and her family shared the document in hopes that she would not be overlooked by history.

"He was a man of many moods," she writes. "It was as though he was several people rolled into one. At times he could be as hard as nails. Yet, at other times he was as gentle as a lamb."

Stegall's 31-page memoir is a delightful romp, a well-told collection of stories that confirm in new detail the legendary LBJ persona.

She wrote the memoir in 1996 for her family and called it "LBJ as I Knew Him." She writes with authority and wit about the 36th president of the United States, a man she met on Capitol Hill when both were legislative aides to U.S. congressmen from Texas during the Great Depression. She and her husband, Glynn , worked just two doors down from Johnson.

She calls him one of the greatest men she has ever known but balances her insider accounts of his generosity with tales of outlandish assignments that put her in many awkward situations.

"I do not want to leave the impression that LBJ was somewhat of a saint — far from it. There was only one person who ever lived who was perfect and it wasn't you, nor me, nor Lyndon Johnson. He had his hang-ups just like everybody else. He was only human and would get upset when things did not go his way.

"Sometimes he would just yell to show his displeasure. Other times he would take his anger out on one of the most loyal employees when he knew full well that his anger had nothing to do with anything they had done. I cannot recall LBJ ever saying 'I am sorry. I know it was not your fault.' Instead, he would try to make amends in other ways."

For example, she writes, after Johnson berated a secretary for something that wasn't her fault, he sent her and two others to New York on an all-expenses-paid shopping trip.

Mildred and Glynn Stegall's lives were drawn into Johnson's official inner circle in 1942, when Glynn Stegall became a legislative aide for LBJ, who by then had been elected a congressman. Johnson wanted to hire Mildred Stegall, too, but she repeatedly turned him down because she found a higher-paying job at the Reconstruction Finance Corp.

When the reconstruction agency closed in the mid-1950s, she finally went to work for LBJ, who was then in the Senate. He demanded that she start right away and lose two months of leave accumulated in the previous job. Stegall had worked about a week, but Johnson apparently hadn't noticed. So he started asking when she was going to start the new job.

"Needless to say I had murder in my heart," she writes.

It was not the first time Johnson had played mind games with her career. When she was still working at the finance corporation, Johnson called and begged her to help out temporarily in his Senate office because they were swamped with work. She arrived the next morning only to be laughed at by Walter Jenkins, Johnson's top aide. "That is just his way of trying to make us work harder," Jenkins told her. "Go on back to your own job."

Such pressure was typical of Johnson. "People often asked me if LBJ wasn't hard to work for. I would always answer, 'Not if you were willing to work.' It seemed as though he never ran out of steam — work, work, work."

Johnson rewarded his most loyal workers when they least expected it. The night before he left for Hawaii to attend a governors' conference in 1960, he invited Stegall and her husband to come along as guests, not employees. The Stegalls got the call at midnight and went straight to their desks in Johnson's Senate office to clear their workload. They arrived home at 3 a.m. but made the plane's 10 a.m. departure. Once aboard, Johnson showered them with watches, scarves and other gifts.

Stegall cherishes the trip as "one of the highlights of our lives."

Johnson also provided Stegall with "the most embarrassing moment of my entire life."

Johnson suffered a severe heart attack in July 1955. He was hospitalized for more than a month and then, on doctor's orders, prepared to recuperate at his ranch in the Texas Hill Country near Stonewall. On the day LBJ was to fly to Texas, the Stegalls' phone rang before 7 a.m. They were given orders to round up some supplies and deliver them to the airplane within the hour, Stegall recalls.

The "supplies" included a couple of bottles of Cutty Sark, according to Texas author Jan Jarboe Russell's "Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson." LBJ whispered to Stegall, "Make sure Lady Bird doesn't know about the booze," Jarboe reports.

"We felt we had been given an impossible task but we hurriedly got dressed," Stegall writes. "I grabbed a dress that I would never have worn to the office, had no time to put on any makeup and I'm not even sure I took time to comb my hair as every moment was precious."

The Stegalls loaded the plane and then found a place at the edge of the crowd gathered to see Johnson off. LBJ stood on the top step of the plane.

"The last thing I wanted was to see anyone I knew," she writes. "My luck ran out as he spotted me from his vantage point and motioned for me to come to him. Reluctantly, I made my way through the crowd and climbed the steps to where he was standing. He gave me a big hug and kiss."

"I understand LBJ looked at that tape a number of times. I saw it once and that was one time too many. I looked even worse than I thought I did."

At 58, Glynn Stegall died of a heart attack in August 1963 while Johnson was vice president. A few weeks after Glynn Stegall's death, LBJ sent word to Mildred to pack her bags so she could accompany the Johnsons on an official trip to Scandinavia.

"Whenever I could slip away I would go on field trips with Mrs. Johnson out in the countryside. When I would return he would invariably ask me where I had been. When I told him he would ask, 'Are you working for me or for Lady Bird?' At heart I am sure he was glad to see me get away for awhile."

When Johnson became president in late 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he gave Stegall the job of assistant to the president. He put her in a large office down the hall from the Oval Office and had a buzzer installed on her desk so he could summon her quickly.

"And I might add he used it frequently," she writes.

Her office, one of the largest in the White House, had been used by Sherman Adams, the strong-willed chief of staff for President Dwight Eisenhower. "Mildred, I want you to know that is your office as long as I am president or until one of us dies," Johnson told her. But in short order, presidential special assistant Bill Moyers showed up and told Stegall that LBJ wanted him to take over the office and that Stegall was to share a smaller adjoining office with Moyers' secretary. Moyers moved in the next day, but Stegall didn't move out. She remembered the president's promise and buzzed LBJ to let him know what was going on.

"I made it clear that I was willing to do anything he wanted me to do," she writes. But, "Next morning Bill was back in his own office."

She stayed in the office "until we returned to Texas on Air Force One on January 20, 1969."

Stegall says Johnson, though ceaselessly demanding, rarely raised his voice at her. But on one occasion her lack of knowledge about bulls prompted him to let loose.

"One day the President buzzed me and said he and a man in Arkansas had bought a fine registered Bull for $15,000 and he wanted me to figure the depreciation on that bull. I told him 'Mr. President, I do not know how to figure depreciation on a bull.' In fact, I didn't even know you could take depreciation on a bull. That is the only time I ever remember his yelling at me in a loud voice. He said, 'Well find out.'\u2009"

Stegall immediately contacted a friend with the Internal Revenue Service, gave the president his answer and "then everything was calm again."

"The bad part was that in a few months that darn bull lay down and died."

Stegall served as White House liaison to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. One day, Johnson buzzed her and requested a meeting with her and Abe Fortas, a close Johnson friend, an adviser and a future Supreme Court justice.

"When we arrived the President was holding one of the unfavorable FBI reports in his hand. The President said the man had gotten wind of what was in the report. LBJ said: 'Only the three of us knew what that report contained. Now which of you talked?'"

Stegall and Fortas looked at each other and denied leaking any information. "We both felt we knew who was guilty"

Stegall's most historically important role in the White House was custodian of the secret telephone recordings that Johnson made. Over the course of Johnson's five-year-plus presidency, more than 640 hours of conversations were recorded in the White House complex and at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, according to the LBJ Library.

Stegall was also expected to transcribe all the secret telephone tapes made in the Cabinet meetings. But, she writes, "I doubt if recording the meetings was very secret as the (White House technical) men would bring the tapes down the hall to my office and made no attempt to conceal them."

"As the war in Vietnam escalated more meetings were held and more tapes so it was absolutely impossible for me to get them transcribed as quickly as the President wanted the transcripts back."

Documents at the LBJ Library show Johnson told Stegall he wanted the telephone recordings to be sealed for at least 50 years after his death. The recordings, on Dictabelts and reel-to-reel tapes, were being stored at the LBJ Library in eight sealed cardboard boxes when LBJ died on Jan. 22, 1973. A week later, Stegall deeded the recordings to the library, but they remained under her guardianship while she worked on an inventory, documents show.

In 1992, Congress required the library to release all recordings made in the wake of JFK's assassination. With the 50-year restriction broken, the library, with Mrs. Johnson's blessing, decided to release all the recordings once they were processed.

The public recordings are a treasure trove of history, revealing Johnson's anguish over the Vietnam War, his unvarnished powers of persuasion and his high-stakes political discussions.

"Mildred never let my father and his legacy down," said Luci Baines Johnson of Austin, the president's younger daughter.

Stegall herself can be heard talking with him on three of the recordings that have been opened. She is the model of professionalism even when LBJ snaps at her. "Where the hell is he?" he asks in one call. When Stegall tries to explain a top aide's whereabouts, the impatient president interrupts: "I didn't ask how long he's been gone or who's with him. I said, 'Where is he?'\u2009" Stegall remains unflustered as she fills him in.

Stegall lived in Austin until about 14 months ago, when she moved to the Fort Worth nursing home to be near three great-nephews who are physicians. Over the years, she told her family many stories about the Johnsons but added, "It seems like a dream now."

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