Florida Keys News
Sunday, February 17, 2013
Remembering White House 'fish bowl'
Descendants talk about their life in presidential families

Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the eldest of President Lyndon B. Johnson's two daughters, told a Key West audience on Saturday that, despite 45 years of volunteer service on a literary nonprofit board, she is certain how the press will remember her.

"My obituary, which I am getting closer and closer to," she said, on a panel of other presidential descendants, "the first line will be, 'The daughter of ...' The second line will be, 'The wife of ...' and the third line I'm pretty sure will be 'The mother of ...'

"I have three almost perfect daughters."

Robb spent about two hours Saturday at the Harry S. Truman Little White House, sharing the stage with Gerald Ford's daughter, Richard Nixon's nephew, Herbert Hoover's great-granddaughter, and Truman's grandson.

"Presidential Families: Out of the Fishbowl, Back to the Pond," in its fourth year on the eve of Presidents Day, drew about 90 people to the lawn of the Little White House, 111 Front St.

Beneath the gumbo limbo and mahogany trees and outside the house that was a winter home to Truman and later served as a tropical respite for other White House chiefs, the five guests shared personal memories and experiences of what Margaret Truman, Harry's daughter, called life on Pennsylvania Avenue: a "fish bowl."

Robb, married since 1967 to Chuck Robb, a Marine who later served as U.S. senator for Virginia, drew some soothing murmurs from her co-panelists when she said the word "obituary," but she didn't change the subject.

Honoring her parents' legacy while carving out her own place in the world that largely knows her for the famous family name hasn't been such a bad life, she made clear.

"Everybody wants to feel they made a difference on this earth," said Robb, as her husband sat attentively and anonymously in the crowd.

Much of the event, though, was lighthearted. Nothing shocking came up -- both the daughters of LBJ and Ford at times had ditched their Secret Service guys.

"Everybody does that," said Robb, who credited the memoirs of Woodrow Wilson's daughters for the successful plan. "I just read it out of a book and copied it. The Secret Service and I had a deal: I won't tell on you, and you won't tell on me."

Robb listed the blessings of being a president's kid.

"The driver," she said. "And not having to worry about finding a parking spot."

Susan Ford Bales added, "Especially in Georgetown."

Bales said her father's time behind the presidential seal helped introduce her to the profession of photojournalism. Her teachers were the guys in the White House photo pool.

The inherited fame also led to Ford's brief gig in 1978 co-hosting a TV show with Jim Nabors.

"Thank goodness those videos are not on YouTube," Ford said, as moderator John Avlon of CNN teased her for the now-cheesy distinction.

"Damn," said Avlon, who is married to Margaret Hoover, 35, also on the panel.

White House blood ties also came with appearances on "Match Game," "Hollywood Squares" and the "Gong Show," Ford said, laughing.

"I was young and a little stupid -- immature is a little better way to put it," Ford said. "I was a Washington kid. I was very star-struck in California."

Don Nixon both bragged and made fun of himself for having a Ferrari and a beach house at age 22.

"I made a lot of money, selling things I shouldn't have sold," Nixon said. "I didn't pay taxes."

Yes, the Watergate scandal came up.

"Things happen," said Nixon, adding that he would love to say more but for a reporter's presence. "It happens. Right place, wrong time, who knows."

Nixon turned serious when ticking off what he believes are buried accomplishments of the man he knew as "Uncle Dick," such as the creation of the Environmental Protection Administration.

"Getting out of Vietnam and into China," said Nixon. "Those are little known details."

It was Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, though, who captured the crowd's emotions as well as their humor. She honored her parents, Lady Bird Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson, for instilling in her a desire for public service.

"I have been a professional volunteer," said Robb, 68. "They made it my training, and my DNA. 'Those who receive much, much is expected of them.' I remember my first paycheck. Mother said, 'How are you going to give it away?' I said, 'Give it away?'"

Robb said she divided the pay among two charities.

Nineteen years old when her father was sworn into office, Robb has spent more than half her life serving on the board of "Reading Is Fundamental," the largest children's literacy organization in the nation.

"That's going to be at least the fourth line (of the obituary)," she said.

People assume things, like that she love politics, Robb said, recalling how she swore she'd never marry a politician and reminding the crowd that the Chuck Robb she married was on a Marine Corps career path.

"I was a great asset to him," Robb said, drawing laughs. "I knew all about it."

Robb drew applause when she spoke of her father's fight for Medicare and his willingness to let others share the credit.

Political victories never belong to one person, Robb said, pointing out the photograph displayed inside the Little White House of LBJ signing Medicare into law on July 30, 1965.

Truman is seated at his side.

"He knew he was only following in the footsteps of Harry Truman," said Robb.

"He recognized people who had paved the way before. We are all standing on the shoulders of others. It was the right thing to do."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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