From Winters to Washington

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

Janet J. Johnston (Rick von Geldern/Winters Express)

Janet J. Johnston sat down with the Express to share some of her personal experiences and adventures from Washington D.C. to a “Best of Breeds” win in the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

In 1973, during a speaking engagement at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles Johnston sat between then Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and former Texas Governor John Connally.

Connally, she said showed her his scars from the gunshot wound he sustained during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

At one point during the function Agnew leaned over and whispered, “Janet, I’d like to talk to you after the meeting.”

After the meeting Johnston accompanied Agnew to his room where Agnew’s wife, Judy, and Frank Sinatra were found waiting to travel to Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs. Agnew told Sinatra he needed a moment in private to speak with Johnston. Judy stayed and Sinatra left the room.

Johnson said, “Ted, you’ve got Frank Sinatra waiting for you.” “Yes, I know but I want to talk to you,” Agnew replied.

As the three of them sat down Agnew told Johnston he was being “accused of things.” Johnston said tears were running down Agnew’s cheeks when he asked her, “Should I resign?”

Johnston responded, “Ted, I can only say one thing. If you’re innocent of these charges then fight like heck and don’t resign, but if there is something to it then I would advise you to resign.”

Agnew composed himself and departed to Palm Springs.

“This little farm girl from Winters, California — never in my wildest imagination would I have thought the Vice President of the United States would be crying and asking me for my advice.”

On Oct 10, 1973, Agnew pled guilty to a single count of tax evasion and sent Nixon his letter of resignation.

Watergate tapes — the missing minutes
During the height of the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation, Johnston said she received a sobbing telephone call from Nixon’s personal secretary, Rosemary Woods. Johnston asked her what was wrong.

“They’re accusing me of erasing 19 minutes of the tape,” Woods told her. Johnston said this was the first, but certainly not the last she heard of the audio gap from White House recordings made days after the June 17, 1972 break-in.

The Watergate prosecution team was interested in discussions captured between Nixon and his Chief of Staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, in the days closely following the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel.

Woods was accused of intentionally erasing evidence from the tape, but she always maintained the erasure was inadvertent.

Innovation on vehicles
In 1962, while driving to Sacramento with the sun in her eyes Johnston noticed cars and trucks about a quarter mile ahead of her braking with brake lights flashing and making traffic slow down.

This gave Johnston the idea to develop and patent four-way emergency flashers, long since standard equipment on vehicles.

“When you see a flashing light you automatically take your foot off the accelerator,” Johnston said.

Volkswagen was the first automobile manufacturer to use it on their cars and was followed by some English car companies, she said, like Aston Martin.

Initially, the emergency flasher was offered as an aftermarket item but eventually it became a standard feature. Many years and millions of cars later, Johnston said she no longer receives royalties on the patent.

Love for animals
Johnston never lost her love for animals. Even during her life in the political limelight she managed to raise, breed and show Arabian horses and West Highland Terriers.

In 1993, her West Highland Terrier won “best of breed” in New York at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Today Johnston resides outside Winters in the home where she was raised, returning years ago to help care for her aging parents who have since passed.

“I’m not active in the community like I was years ago. When I was raised here you knew everybody. If you wanted to know what anybody was doing you just asked Jenny the telephone exchange operator,” Johnston said.

In 2021 Johnston published Unknown Destiny, a true historical story of her maternal grandparents’ journey from Slovakia in the 1880’s to Pennsylvania where they began their American dream journey. The book is available on Amazon where it has received five-star reviews.

As for the current state of politics, Johnston said, “We need to get back to love, not hate.”

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