How a small-town girl rose to political prominence

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President Richard Nixon meets with Republican National Committee co-chairpersons Janet Johnston and George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office in March 1973. (John Duricka/Associated Press)

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The Express is sharing a two-part series on the life and experiences of Winters resident Janet J. Johnston. She shared her story of how she found herself involved in the political sphere and became an influence in Washington D.C.

Just how did a small-town farm girl from Winters rise in Republican politics, find herself in Washington D.C. in 1973 and serving as the youngest ever co-chair of the Republican National Committee alongside future President George H.W. Bush?

Childhood and education
Born into a Winters farming family, Johnston attended Buckeye School through eighth grade, a one room schoolhouse adjacent to her family home on the southwest corner of County Road 31 and Buckeye Road. During these years, Johnston said she had a total of three teachers shared with eight other students. 

At the age of six, Johnston’s father bought her first horse, a 17-hand Palomino gelding she named “Old Pat” that was so big she said could walk under its belly. The Johnstons grew wheat and raised cattle and hogs.

Once getting the horse, Johnston’s father told her, “Now you can get to work,” and soon had her herding hogs from one ranch to another. “If you’ve ever herded hogs, they’re all going in different directions,” recalling how her father got a great laugh as he watched.

After eighth grade, Johnston attended Winters High School and graduated in 1957. She attended the University of the Pacific on a music scholarship but soon changed majors. In 1961, she received her degree in French from the Monterey School of Foreign Studies. She then attended the Goethe Institute in Munich earning a degree in German before returning to Winters.

Call to politics
In 1965, Johnston became the first female president of the Winters Chamber of Commerce and served as a board member on the Yolo County Chamber of Commerce, where her interest in politics developed. 

From there, she joined the Yolo County Republican Committee and became president of the Winters Republican Club (WRC). 

When the WRC was looking for a speaker, Johnston said she took a chance and asked then California First Lady Nancy Reagan to come to Winters and speak at their luncheon. Reagan told Johnston she wouldn’t speak but would attend the luncheon. 

Once at the luncheon, Reagan was apparently so comfortable she did in fact speak to the club. 

After the Reagan success, club members asked Johnston how she would beat that. 

Johnston went to work lining up another public speaker and was able to get California State Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest to speak. Baker Priest served as Treasurer of the United States from 1953 to 1961 and California State Treasurer from 1967 to 1975.

During this time, Ronald Reagan was Governor of California and Johnston not only was on good terms with Nancy, but she was also called to duty by Gov. Reagan.

In 1971, Johnston received a telephone call from Gov. Reagan asking to meet in his office. At the meeting Reagan told Johnston he was nominating her to become the national committee woman representative for the State of California. 

At their convention in southern California, Johnston was elected with the distinction of becoming the youngest-ever national committee woman from any state. 

Johnston’s next role in politics came as she was home in Winters painting her bedroom. She received a call from Baker Priest who asked her to be her state treasurer reelection campaign manager.

Although Johnston had never managed a political campaign, she accepted the challenge. Baker Priest went on to win her second four-year term as state treasurer. 

While campaign manager for a state level republican campaign, Johnston gained both state and national exposure which led to her next opportunity — co-chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) during a particularly scandalous time — Watergate.

In 1972, Johnston was visiting relatives in Michigan when the phone rang. Her cousin answered, turned to Johnston and said, “The president wants to talk to you.” Her cousin’s husband asked with curiosity, “Who?” to the response, “The President of the United States.” The look of surprise on his face is forever etched in Johnston’s memory. On that call President Richard M. Nixon asked Johnston to come to Washington to meet. 

Johnston was later elected to serve as RNC co-chair with George H.W. Bush who in 1989 would become the nation’s 41st president. 

As co-chair Johnston was responsible for making speeches around the country to increase participation in the party from younger voters. At that time in her early thirties, the thought was that younger voters would identify with her.

Vietnam, Watergate and the women’s movement were all news of the day. Johnston recalled landing in new cities and being confronted by reporters about these issues as, she said, “the news cycle would change between the time I boarded a plane and landed.”

A 1973 photograph of Johnston, Nixon and Bush standing in the oval office was taken when bringing news to Nixon that longtime democrat and former Texas Governor John Connally switched parties to become a republican.

Johnston served as RNC co-chair until the end of 1973 when she accepted a position with the State Department as commercial attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

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