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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

LBJ's Cousin Oreole

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

When vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey and his wife Muriel came to the Stonewall, Texas in August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson took them on a tour of the LBJ Ranch. At the Humphrey's insistence, the tour included a stop at Cousin Oreole's house.

The Humphreys had heard of Cousin Oreole and just wanted to say hello.


LBJ's Cousin Oreole Ruth Keele Bailey  monument
LBJ's Cousin Oreole Keele Bailey monument
Photo by Michael Barr, 2023

Born in Killeen, Texas on August 4, 1888, Oreole Ruth Keele Bailey lived about a quarter mile down the road from Lyndon and Lady Bird. She lived alone. Her husband James W. Bailey died in 1947.

Reporters in the 1960s described Oreole Bailey as "a tall handsome women with streaks of blond still in her hair." She had "clear, direct eyes" and a "girlish femininity."

She lived a quiet life in her small house on the Pedernales River until Lyndon Johnson, her kinfolk and neighbor, became the most powerful person in the western world. Soon her crusty charm and eccentric personality struck a chord with the Washington press corps.

Often described as the president's favorite cousin, Oreole fell into fame one day, but her brush with stardom didn't impress her at all.

A very independent woman, Cousin Oreole did pretty much as she pleased even after LBJ became president. She cared little for Secret Service protocol.

When driving over to see Lyndon and Lady Bird, she usually drove straight down the president's private runway, weaving through the airplanes parked behind the house, sending Secret Service men scrambling to intercept - until they saw it was just Cousin Oreole.

Her honest, folksy comments appeared in newspapers all over North America and Europe. A reporter once asked Oreole how the president looked. "Tired," she said, "but don't print that. He says it will cause a depression."

She remembered LBJ as a baby. She always addressed him as Lyndon, and she never shied away from correcting him, even in front of reporters and television cameras.

Despite being a favorite of the press, Oreole never hid her disdain for reporters. She believed the print and television media portrayed Hill Country people, including herself and the Johnsons, as hillbillies.


One evening the president, along with famed White House reporter Helen Thomas, paid Cousin Oreole a social call. The story Thomas wrote about the visit described Oreole's house as a ram shackled tin-roofed shack whose owner met visitors at the door in her bare feet.

The next time Oreole saw the president she shook the newspaper at him and said "Tell me something Lyndon. Does Helen Thomas sleep with her shoes on?"

Still, most people, including Helen Thomas, found Oreole's irascible personality delightful. LBJ's favorite cousin charmed President Ayub Khan of Pakistan and President Lopez Mateos of Mexico. A call at Cousin Oreole's house became a regular evening ritual when the Johnsons left Washington for a dose of the real world at the LBJ Ranch.


As much as Oreole loved Lyndon, she never voted for him. She belonged to the Christadelphians - a religious group that does not believe in voting or running for political office.

A Washington reporter, unaware of Cousin Oreole's religious beliefs, once asked her and her houseguest, Aunt Jessie Hatcher from San Saba (another presidential kinfolk and Christadelphian), when they would be casting their votes in the upcoming election.

Aunt Jessie spoke for them both. "I only vote for the Lord," she said.

Even though Cousin Oreole didn't vote, she celebrated LBJ's political victories. She hoped to be in Washington for the inauguration on January 20, 1965 but was "feeling poorly" and couldn't make it.

By then Oreole had become such a celebrity, a company called International News Pictures of New York called the Fredericksburg Standard asking for images of Cousin Oreole for distribution to reporters and news outlets. The Standard kindly sent several glossies.


Oreole Bailey died on October 4, 1974 in San Antonio. She is buried in the Johnson Family Cemetery at the LBJ Ranch.

Members of the Washington press corps had never met a character like Oreole, but Hill Country people couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Every family in these parts had a colorful relative like Cousin Oreole.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" September 1, 2023



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