Liz and Les: From UT Sweethearts to D.C. Power Couple
Journalists Liz and Les Carpenter made their names in Washington. Now their legacy lives on with a scholarship in their honor.
By Jamey Smith
Texas and UT are known for producing larger-than-life personalities, but few have been as brashly entertaining as the late reporter and political aide Liz Carpenter, BJ ’42. “With my journalism degree in hand and my virtue intact, I set off for Washington, D.C.,” the Distinguished Alumna used to quip. “I still have the degree.”
Her tenacity, humor, and creativity with words always came forth to suit the moment, for better or worse. “Liz would charge Hell with a bucket of water,” said her former boss, President Lyndon B. Johnson. At her 2010 memorial service the tears were interspersed with chuckles as admirers paid tribute.
Behind the laughs, however, was a respected journalist who, with husband Les Carpenter, BJ ’43, ran the Carpenter News Bureau for many years. As equal partners, the couple covered Capitol Hill and the White House for newspapers ranging from the Houston Post to Variety.
Luci Baines Johnson was raised in the capital and came to know the Carpenters well. “Liz and Les were a journalistic dynamic duo,” she says. “They were determined to be a credit to their profession, the truth, Texas, and their family and friends. They always were.”
The couple met at Austin High School, where they worked together on its newspaper before writing for the Daily Texan at UT. They married in 1944, following Les’ discharge from the Navy, and started the bureau.
Daughter Christy Carpenter recalls growing up along with her brother, Scott, in a less partisan era. The family’s living room was often jam-packed with politicians of both parties, as well as lobbyists, cabinet members, and fellow reporters.
“My parents were truly a team in every sense of the word,” she says. “Liz and Les. That’s how everyone knew them. They were social animals, and that’s part of what made them so successful.”
When John F. Kennedy named Johnson his running mate in 1960, Liz accepted an invitation from fellow UT journalism graduate Lady Bird Johnson, BA ’33, BJ ’34, to join the campaign. Jumping into the role with characteristic zest, Liz organized events to introduce the future Distinguished Alumna to the nation.
Once Johnson was vice president, Liz served as his executive assistant. “I didn’t always tell him what he liked to hear,” she later acknowledged. “Why don’t you use your head?” Johnson is said to have roared during one kerfuffle or another. To which she replied: “I’m too busy trying to use yours!”
After Kennedy’s assassination — and after writing, on the flight back from Dallas, the first 58 words Johnson spoke to the American people as president — she transitioned to chief of staff and press secretary to the first lady, a position she held until LBJ left office in 1969.
Liz then became an author, speaker, and tenacious crusader for feminism and other progressive causes. “It never occurred to me not to work,” she once said. “I had a restless spirit that kept drawing me to new adventures.”
Les, meanwhile, continued operating the news bureau until a heart attack cut his life short in 1974. His loss was keenly felt in D.C. “Les was always loyal to his duty of objectivity and truthfulness, and in that loyalty he made us all better public servants,” Texas Congressman George Mahon, LLB ’25, said at his memorial service.
Returning to Austin, over the next three decades Liz kept the spirit of their partnership alive, throwing herself into whatever interested her and nurturing a strong relationship with her alma mater. A prolific party thrower, she also was known to welcome entire classes of UT law and journalism students to her home, gamely inspiring generations of future movers and shakers.
After dozens of friends, both local and far-flung, honored her by funding a guest lecture series in her name, she worked her connections to draw an impressive roster of well-received speakers to the Forty Acres each year, from presidents to well-known writers and thought leaders.
She did not take kindly to the word no. As Luci puts it, “It was easier to do what Liz was trying to get you to do than to successfully explain why you couldn’t.”
Both Liz and Les would be gratified to learn that family and friends have now pledged to honor their achievements through the Liz and Les Carpenter Journalism Scholarship. The endowment will help support financially strapped students who share the couple’s ambition and talent and want to study investigative or political journalism.
“My parents developed their passion for reporting at UT,” says Christy. “They would be tremendously honored to know that this scholarship is helping aspiring journalists.”
School of Journalism director R.B. Brenner says the scholarship will benefit not just outstanding students but also broader society. “Investigative and political reporting have never been more important — and more needed. The current political season is a vivid reminder of that.”
You can contribute to the scholarship at journalism.utexas.edu/news/carpenter.
Monday, April 17, 2017
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