Presidents’ daughters share experiences from inside White House



Lindsey Kudaroski | Staff Writer

It’s difficult for most Americans to imagine what it’s like to sit down for a family dinner with the person who is running the country.

Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald Ford, are two of the few people who have known that unique opportunity.

At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater, Johnson Robb and Ford Bales will discuss their experiences of living in the White House and growing up in the media spotlight. The discussion, part of Week Nine’s theme “The Presidents Club,” will be moderated by CNN contributor John Avlon.

Both women and their families entered the White House under difficult circumstances — the Johnsons became the presidential family upon the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the Ford family entered office after President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

“I personally felt devastated and sad, because I was so fond of the president,” said Johnson Robb of the Kennedy assassination. “It was just too horrible to imagine, and it would have been much easier and much more enjoyable to come in because we had won a great election, but you have to handle what happens to you.”

Because President Ford entered office in the midst of scandal and only remained in office for the remainder of Nixon’s term, his daughter worries that he has become the “forgotten president.”

“Sometimes we are the forgotten president, because we weren’t elected and because we were only there for two and a half years,” Ford Bales said. “A lot of people think Nixon, Carter and forget about Ford. So, to me, one of my goals in my lifetime is to continue my parents’ legacy.”

Johnson Robb and Ford Bales entered the White House at turning points in their young lives. Johnson Robb was a freshman in college when her father became president; Ford Bales was in her senior year of high school when her father entered office.

Johnson Robb felt the glare of the limelight in her dating life.

“Then, I would go out with somebody, and it would be in the paper. And the young man was not necessarily planning on marrying me — he was just taking me to the movies or being my escort to an event,” Johnson Robb said. “Of course, I think some of the young people I went out with were more interested in going out with the Secret Service than me. They were a real draw.”

Ford Bales was a senior in high school when her father took office, and she struggled to gain her independence in the spotlight.

“I was at kind of a rebellious age in the sense of going out on my own and being independent and that sort of thing. It made it hard, because I did get caught on occasion and things did happen,” she said.

As they were both coming of age when they entered the White House, each woman experienced a significant life event within the walls of the nation’s most famous home.

On Dec. 9, 1967, Lynda Johnson Robb married her husband, former U.S. Sen. Charles Robb, in the White House. The event marks her favorite memory from her time there, and she said that there is no more beautiful site for such an occasion.

Susan Ford Bales is the only president’s child to date who has held her senior prom in the White House. When she was in high school, the prom committee approached her to inquire about the possibility of holding prom there. Ford Bales asked her father, who saw no problem as long as the expenses weren’t charged to the federal government.

Johnson Robb and Ford Bales have known each other since their fathers were in Congress together, and they maintain a tight network that includes the other children of former presidents. It is a shared experience that exceeds the bounds of party lines and political beliefs.

“Lots of times when we’re asked as a group (to speak), all of the presidential children are going to do it,” Johnson Robb said. “At least we’ll all be in on it together.”

“It’s being a part of a sorority-fraternity, because there are guys that are part of it, too,” Ford Bales said. “Very few people understand what you’re talking about until you’ve lived in the White House, and that’s a really special thing to be able to share.”