The White House is a symbol of power, intrigue and glamour: the various occupants of the iconic building, including their spouses, are subject to constant scrutiny from the moment they enter the threshold to the moment they leave.
The world of power politics and pursuit of power obviously involves a large degree of media exposure not to mention media courtship, so it can be of little surprise to learn that some of the world’s most powerful politicians have also worn contact lenses as a conscious effort to create a particular image.
Contact lenses have long been included in the list of essential accessories in the entertainment and fashion industries and indeed were already in use in the Hollywood of the late 1940s, but who was the first and most famous politician of the time to use them?
Who was the first US President to wear contact lenses?
Many mistakenly think that Ronald Reagan, the ‘Great Communicator’, was the first to wear lenses, which he had started to use during his days as a Hollywood actor. It may come as a surprise to many to learn that the first US President to wear contact lenses was in fact Lyndon B. Johnson or LBJ as he was referred to.
Of course, LBJ’s transition from Vice President to President is indelibly etched in recent history. His swearing-in ceremony on board Air Force One two hours after JFK’s assassination standing next to a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy, who was still wearing her blood-spattered dress, is one of the most iconic pictures ever to have been taken.
Contact lenses and the 1960 Democratic Convention
Previous to Johnson, all U.S. presidents who needed vision correction had worn spectacles, and Johnson was a man who very much liked eyeglasses – the LBJ Library and Museum holds over fifty pairs of his spectacles. However, his aides convinced him to wear contacts even before he became Vice President under John F. Kennedy.
Kenneth E BeLieu, who was an aide to LBJ and who subsequently held several high-ranking positions under presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, was the person who persuaded him to wear them. In an interview he gave recounting his times with LBJ, he said that prior to the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic National Convention, when LBJ was among the challengers for the Democratic nomination along with Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson II, he forgot his lenses and had to have them sent up to Los Angeles in time for the convention.1 LBJ lost the nomination to Kennedy but was asked on the ticket to be Vice President, and the rest as they say is history.
Real person behind the image
It is maybe of some comfort to know that behind the image, LBJ was just a regular person who had trouble getting used to wearing his contact lenses. Another person close to LBJ, Weeze Deathe, who worked on LBJ’s campaign from 1956-1960 and who was also a staff member at the LBJ Ranch, recounts the story of LBJ trying to get used to his contact lenses and how it took her together with another aide and LBJ half an hour to get them in2.
LBJ also wore contact lenses for some of his television appearances and also when on the campaign trail. The LBJ Presidential Library and Museum has one of his special travelling kits for his lenses, which also contained a bottle of lubricant and two suction cups to remove the hard lenses. Interestingly, President Johnson wore bifocal contact lenses, which were a relatively new invention in the early 1960s.
While LBJ’s predecessor was known for his slick TV image and Ronald Reagan was already a master at image creation from his days in Hollywood, LBJ was also concerned with his image and it is interesting that the the instructions from his eye doctor, which also explain how to care and insert the lenses, also make reference to his appearance “they will be more comfortable if you keep your eyes open. It will feel as if you are making a conscious effort to hold your eyes slightly open. Your appearance is greatly improved this way.”
Historians tend to debate his legacy but one thing is for sure: he was a pioneer when it came to contact lenses.
1 Transcript, Kenneth E. BeLieu Oral History Interview I, 10/11/84 by Michael L. Gillette, Electronic Copy, LBJ Library
2 Transcript, Weeze Deathe Pollei Shumate Oral History Interview II, 3/24/87, by Ted Gittinger, Electronic Copy, LBJ Library
Images: LBJ Library