Grant Engle | Staff Writer
Most people can relate to a teenager’s difficulty dealing with homework, school dances and friends while growing up.
But only a few people understand what it’s like to deal with those things under the white-hot spotlight of being a presidential child.
Lynda Johnson Robb and Susan Ford Bales shared their stories with journalist John Avlon during Wednesday’s morning lecture in congruence with the Week Nine lecture theme, “The Presidents Club.”
Robb, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson; and Bales, the daughter of President Gerald Ford, talked about the unique circumstances in which both of their fathers took office.
Johnson came into office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Ford assumed office following the resignation of Richard Nixon.
“Both of our parents really became the healers at different times in our country,” Bales said. “Our Constitution works, and things like this are not going to ruin the United States.”
As far as living in the White House, Robb was a college student at the University of Texas when her father became the president, and she moved to New York after graduation. She had a room in the White House, but she didn’t spend as much time there as Bales.
Bales was a senior in high school when her father became the country’s leader. She said one of her main concerns as a teenage girl was not being able to make phone calls from her room on the third floor.
The White House phones could dial out, but only through operators. However, the staff installed a direct line for Bales.
The former chairman of the Betty Ford Center also has the distinction of being the only presidential child to have her senior prom at the White House. Bales was approached by the prom committee, and her father’s staff allowed the students and chaperones to dance the night away in the same building as the commander-in-chief.
When Bales noted that several parents volunteered to chaperone the dance, Avlon jokingly remarked that was the only time in history adults actually wanted to go to their child’s prom.
Upon moving in to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Robb said she was intent on finding out which celebrities and historical figures lived in her room on the second floor of the White House.
While no one of significant historical value called the room their own before Robb, she found out her room was where doctors performed the autopsy on Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated — not exactly what Robb had hoped.
Avlon asked the women to share their “White House escape stories,” and they happily shared their respective adventures outside of the famous black gates. The pair of presidential daughters used cunning tactics to give their Secret Service guards the slip.
Robb tied a scarf around her head and joined a group of people walking through the White House. However, when the people were done touring the building, Robb said they were essentially “pushed out” onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
She was satisfied with her escape, but she realized that she might get her Secret Service agent in trouble if her father found out about her disappearance. Robb casually went to the front gate and asked the operator to contact her Secret Service agent. The agent came and escorted her back into the building with no consequences.
Bales actually had a friendly bet with her guard that she could escape his watchful eye. While the agents were busy, Bales went down the backstairs of the White House and into the parking lot.
She jumped into her yellow Ford Mustang and exited the security gate as her mother was entering. At that time, Bales was a student at the then Mount Vernon College for Women in Washington, D.C.
The first daughter drove to campus and visited her roommate — who was in class at the time. Bales stood at the door and gestured for her friend to leave the class. When she came out of the classroom, she asked where Bales’ Secret Service agents were.
“I ditched them,” Bales told her friend.
Her friend asked the next logical question.
“Well, what are we going to do?”
Bales wasn’t sure what to do with her temporary freedom, so the girls went to the Super Safeway on Foxhall Road a few minutes from campus. The drinking age in Washington, D.C., at that time was 18, so the girls purchased a six-pack of beer and drank it in the parking lot.
The teenagers had plans to attend a Hall & Oates concert later that night, but there was a snag in the plan — Bales’ Secret Service agent had the tickets.
Bales went to a pay phone and called the command post. She decided to skip the part of the story where she escaped her guard, and told the operator that she would be back by 7 p.m.
When she returned to the command post later that afternoon, Bales asked what time she needed to be ready to go to the concert. The guard at the command post gave a reply that can make any teenager uneasy.
“Your father would like to see you.”
President Ford explained to his daughter that type of behavior wasn’t acceptable, but nobody was going to get in trouble. Bales went to the concert and said the Hall & Oates song “She’s Gone” had a new meaning to her that evening.
Despite the occasional teenage antics, living at the White House was not all fun and games. The women said the criticism their fathers received was painful to watch, read and hear.
Robb said 1968 was a particularly difficult year, and she referenced a specific chant from Vietnam protestors that upset her: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
The women closed the discussion by touching on their father’s legacies. Robb talked about Medicare, civil rights and Head Start.
Bales said her father’s greatest achievement was being “married to his soulmate for 58 years.”
The crowd in the Amp cheered and applauded for almost every reference to Betty Ford.
While both of the women’s fathers may be most well-known for making difficult decisions, they agreed that politics has changed from when they were becoming adults in the White House.
“We lived in a glory time,” Robb said. “Even if you disagreed with someone, you wanted government to work.”
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
Q: How do the presidents’ children reach out to one another? Is there a children of the presidents’ club?
Susan Ford Bales: That’s one of those things that Lynda and I were talking about earlier. Unless somebody picks up the phone and calls you and asks for advice, we both kind of zip our mouths shut. We have become friends over the years — plus our parents were friends, so the relationship goes way, way back. Just like the Nixon girls, we were all in the same kind of area growing up. Linda has hosted several of us at her home, because there are so many things that we can learn from each other: how to deal with foundations, and libraries, and museums, and the park service and how does the family work with those organizations and still keep it your own and continue these legacies, so those are probably the more difficult things to do. The easier thing is to sit around and talking about what room did you have have, and who was your chef, and what was your favorite meal, and who was your favorite head of state or entertainment when you were there, so there’s good sides to it, and there’s bad sides to it.
Lynda Johnson Robb: I would say mostly good sides. I would love to say that I was a bosom buddy of everybody, all of the former first children, but not everybody has reached that time where they want to do it. Let me tell you, you come to the LBJ library in November, and we’re going to have a panel on first children, and we’ve got, I think, at least three Bushes, and I said, “That’s a lot of Bushes.” And they said, “Yes, but they’ve got two presidents.” One of Susan’s brothers is coming, and so hopefully, we’ll have a lot more stories. … If I told you about the burdens of this, that and the other, you might say, “Why, my goodness gracious. All the wonderful things she has, why is she complaining?” So, you know, we all need someone to share stories with that we know are not going to read in the paper tomorrow. It’s a friendship where you can tell about things that happened — good, bad, otherwise. After Watergate, for instance, Chuck and I used to play bridge with Julie and David. Now, I’m sure they felt a little nervous about who they could trust, who was going to come over and who was going to go out and give a little gossip to somebody, but they knew we didn’t have any. … Why would we want to do anything like that? So we used to play bridge with them. You would say it was both affection, and it’s also a support society. Chuck and I were so honored to be invited to both President Ford’s funeral and to Betty Ford’s funeral in California. To some extent, we’re just a big family.
Q: Have either of you reached out to the Obama girls, or could you speculate as to what it’s like at their age to be first children?
LJR: Well, the answer is no, because I haven’t been asked, but the second thing I would say is I think there are goods and bads. One, they don’t have to worry about dating. Well, yet. But even so, they’re still pretty young. Susan was in her prime. I was also, I might add, a late bloomer, but I was still in there, and so to some extent, I think some of the young men that I would meet would want to go out with the Secret Service — they had nothing to do with me. The negative is you’d go out with somebody, and the next day, there’d be something in the paper, and the poor fella just wanted to go to the movies. He wasn’t proposing, and I’m sure it probably hurt him with his other girls that he was running around with, but we had the advantage of age and hopefully some judgement. Now, the other side for the Obama children is that they are young, and they’re very protected by their family, so they’re not quite out front. I hope that they’re making lots and lots of friends at the schools that they’re going to, and they seem to be doing it. Everything I read, that’s the only thing I know, I do see, not because of the presidency connection, but because of their Senate connection. Once a year, the Senate spouses have a lunch for the first lady, and so I’ve had an opportunity to see, I guess, all the first ladies since we left Washington because of the Senate to have lunch with them, but I just wish them well. And I hope they enjoy it. I hope they learn and take every advantage of opportunity, because you can meet so many interesting people, and you can learn so much living there. I’d try to take advantage of it.
SFB: To follow up on Linda’s, I had the advantage of traveling to China with my parents when I was a freshman in college, and the Chairman Mao was the chairman of China then. That’s how long ago it was. I got to meet Chairman Mao, and my dad used to tell this story of when we were walking through the receiving line, and you didn’t know when you were going to meet the chairman, it was one of those things that all of the sudden they would come up to you and say, “We need to get in the cars right now,” and they really didn’t tell you where you were going. You just got in the cars really quickly, but Dr. Kissinger was with us, and Dr. Kissinger would say, OK, we’re obviously going to the palace, and we’re going to meet the chairman at the time, so my father shook his hand. My mother shook his hand, and I shook his hand. He was a very elderly man at the time, and his health was not good, but he was known to like women. This picture that I have with him, his eyes light up like the man who has arisen from the dead and this smile on his face that he’s so glad to see this tall blonde woman in China. When you say you get to meet those amazing people, those are those amazing people you get to meet.
Q: Did you have Secret Service code names?
SFB: Yes, mine was “Panda.” Our whole family was P’s. My mother was “Pinafore.” Dad was “Passkey.” I was “Panda.” One brother was “Professor,” and I can’t remember what the other two were.
LJR: Well, we were L’s. Perfect. Daddy was “Leader.” No, no. We were V’s. I take it back. That was what we were. I was “Venus.” No, no. I’m just teasing. I was not “Venus.” “Venus” is what I wanted to be. (My sister) Luci was “Venus.” Mother was “Victoria.” She thought that “Victoria” was kind of stuffy, but later on, when I grew up and got married, and we had a costume party — “Come as your favorite lovers.” Mother came as “Victoria” with a big medallion of her poor dead Albert, so she looked great. She looked wonderful as Victoria. Chuck wasn’t anything. I was “Velvet,” so (my daughter) Lucinda was “Velvetine.” Very wonderful. But we loved it, and I just loved my Secret Service agents and kept up with all of them. One of them has recently stepped down as the head of the security at the Capitol. You probably remember Bill Livingood saying, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.” Anyway, the important thing you learn in this is it doesn’t matter who is in the White House, it matters who is the usher, because he’s the one who will get you in for a tour, and the same thing is true, you know, you have to keep up with friends, because I would call Bill and say, “Bill, I need a parking spot at the Capitol. Can you get me in?” So keep up with all those friends.
—Transcribed by Jennifer Shore