I’ll confess these are questions that crossed my mind when I was tasked with reviewing Julia Sweig’s “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight.” I’ll confess I wrestled with them, even as I found myself caught up in the story.
“Well,” sniffed my mother, when I shared news of my assignment. “I can think of more exciting subjects. Although she did get all those pretty wildflowers planted along highways. That’s something.”
My mother, who was in college during most of the years that Lady Bird and Lyndon Baines Johnson were in the White House, is correct. Lady Bird was a driving force behind the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. But it was always about more than pretty flowers. Her big idea was that protecting and promoting the natural beauty of the United States — not just along highways but also in American cities — would make the country a better place to live. She advocated for cleaner, more abundant parks and public spaces. And she dreamed bigger than she was given credit for. “I’ll never forgive Lyndon’s boys for turning my environmental agenda into a beautification project,” she recalled later in life. “But I went ahead and talked about wildflowers so as not to scare anybody, because I knew if the people came to love wildflowers, they’d have to eventually care about the land that grew ’em.”
You can hear in those words the constraints of her time. Lady Bird was operating in a Washington that still did not admit women to the National Press Club. At the time she and LBJ moved into the White House, women made up only 2 percent of U.S. senators, 2.5 percent of U.S. representatives and 2 percent of U.S. ambassadors. Many states required a woman to take her husband’s last name. Women in Washington were supposed to host ladies’ luncheons and support their husbands’ careers.
Sweig’s thesis is that Lady Bird did that — and much more. While she’s often seen as “a diminished supporting actor in the sweeping narrative dominated by her husband,” she was in fact his most trusted political adviser and strategist. The evidence to support this comes largely from Lady Bird’s own voice, as recorded in more than 850 audio diary entries, the first taped eight days after President John F. Kennedy was shot. The detail can be eye-glazing. Lady Bird shares more than you ever needed to know, for example, about preparations for the parades and balls and ceremonies surrounding a presidential inauguration. But Sweig finds in the tapes “golden nuggets” of insight about the Johnsons, their marriage and “the ambitions animating the presidency they together crafted.” (Sweig hosts an eight-part podcast series, “In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson,” that delves into Lady Bird’s role and offers clips from the tapes.)
As Exhibit A for Lady Bird’s clout within what she herself described as “our presidency,” Sweig presents the Huntland strategy memo: seven pages, written to her husband in the spring of 1964. Having inherited the presidency after the assassination of JFK, Lyndon had to decide whether to run to win the office in his own right. He asked his wife to write out the pros and cons. She did, with love and brutal honesty. (“I dread seeing you look at Mr. X running the country and thinking you could have done it better. . . . You may drink too much for lack of a higher calling.”) Her counsel, in a nutshell: Go for it. The memo was “far more than a private note from one spouse to the other,” Sweig writes. “It stands out as a political strategy document that would set the course for the arc of the Johnson presidency.”
Maybe. I actually found the account of Lady Bird’s solo whistle-stop tour, in the fall of that year, the more compelling window into her character and influence. LBJ did follow his wife’s advice. And once he decided to run, he needed someone who could turn out votes in the South. The first lady had family roots there and was already a seasoned campaigner. So in October 1964, less than a month before Election Day, she set out on a 1,682-mile train trip, with stops in eight states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The Lady Bird Special, as the train was known, must have been quite a sight. “Some nineteen cars decked out in red, white and blue were stuffed with 30,000 whistles printed with ‘Lady Bird Special,’ 12,800 pieces of saltwater taffy in wrappers marked ‘Choose Lyndon,’ plus buttons, matchbooks, postcards, straw hats, books, and records for the crowds,” Sweig writes. And talk about a communications war room: As many as 150 journalists crammed on board, including foreign press. It’s tough to imagine any of our more recent first ladies, with the arguable exception of Michelle Obama, pulling that off.
The trip was not easy. Lyndon’s Civil Rights Act was controversial, to put it mildly, in many pockets of the Deep South. In Columbia, S.C., protesters showed up with signs reading “Black Bird, Go Home” and chanted: “[Lyndon] Johnson is a Communist. Johnson is a n—– lover.” As the train crossed from Alabama into Florida, the Secret Service was alerted to a bomb threat. Helicopters, boats and bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed to escort Lady Bird’s entourage. She did not quit. Whatever your take on her and her husband’s politics, the woman had guts.
In the end, LBJ won three of the states she visited — Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. While Sweig acknowledges there’s no way to directly connect the dots between the trip and the election results, she does note that an internal White House memo had predicted that “only a miracle” could deliver Florida to Lyndon. “That miracle,” she adds, “was arguably Lady Bird Johnson.”
At other moments, Lady Bird’s political instincts can feel less keen. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the country erupted. In Washington, 12,000 troops were sent to occupy the streets, a 4 p.m. curfew was put in place, and the smell of burning rubble wafted through the open windows of the White House. On April 6, “looting, property destruction, fires, and confrontations with police rippled through Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Daytona Beach, Tallahassee, and Nashville,” writes Sweig. In total, violence and unrest shook more than 100 American cities. Where was the first lady? “That evening in San Antonio, costumed in a jacquard-patterned gown with chiffon and a fur wrap, Lady Bird attended the first-ever production in the United States of Verdi’s five-hour opera Don Carlos.” Seriously? Is it unkind to be reminded of another first lady and the attire she chose for a very different trip to Texas five decades later — a jacket with words written across the back: “I really don’t care. Do U?”
The book is less forthcoming about the romantic partnership between Lady Bird and Lyndon than it is about their political partnership. What was their marriage like? Pet names for each other? Private jokes? He was known for sexual infidelities. Did they wound? We must assume so, but the author, like her subject, does not choose to spend time on this. You would think that 123 hours of audio diary recordings would dish up at least a little dirt. But Sweig points to Lady Bird’s “very female gift . . . at revealing her experience without revealing herself.” Lady Bird Johnson lived 34 years after Lyndon died in 1973. By Sweig’s account, they were happy years, spent burnishing her husband’s legacy and traveling with her daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (We do at least learn their nickname for their grandmother: “Nini.”)
To return to the question that snagged me at the start: Do we need a fat tome on this former first lady? To my surprise, my answer is yes. Sweig makes a persuasive case for Lady Bird’s influence not just within her marriage but on her husband’s career. In doing so, she forces us to adjust the lens through which we’ve viewed one of our most consequential presidencies. She also forces us to take a hard look at this country — at the state of our cities, the state of our environment, and the fights for civil rights and women’s rights — and to see both how far we’ve come and how very far we have to go.
Lady Bird Johnson
Random House. 533 pp. $32