The Lost Story of Lady Bird

Lady Bird Johnson
Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Presidential Library

In May 1964, just months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Baines Johnson had to decide whether to run for reelection. With pressure picking up to escalate the Vietnam War, and civil-rights legislation stuck in Congress, he doubted he would be able to unify the country. He asked his most trusted political adviser to set out the pros and cons of seeking the presidency in his own right.

The nine-page memo he received in response was both convincingly constructed and startlingly prescient. It opened with a draft announcement of a decision not to run, shrewdly forcing Johnson to confront how such a move would feel. But after acknowledging that he could choose to leave the White House, it also laid out a projected timeline of the continued Johnson presidency, concluding with the correct prediction that he would “announce in Feb. or Mar., 1968 that you are not a candidate for re-election.”

The most significant thing about the memo, though, was its author. I came across the document in a folder at the LBJ Library called “Campaign Letters, Lady Bird Johnson to Lyndon Johnson.” When she wrote it, the vice presidency was vacant—LBJ had yet to name Hubert Humphrey to the job—and the traveling press corps used to refer to Lady Bird only half-jokingly as “Mrs. Vice President.” She even wrote notes to LBJ, feedback on his speeches, for example, on White House stationery printed with Office of the Vice President.

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CTJ, the initials she used for her full name, Claudia Taylor Johnson, was a woman who knew her place in history and left sufficient evidence to suggest that she wanted us to know it too. Yet in most historical accounts of her role in LBJ’s presidency, she is depicted as a loyal, cuckolded wife who focused on the frivolity of beautifying America at a time of transformative social and political change.

But she also left us her own account, an audio diary of her five-plus years in the White House—123 hours of tape filled with 1,750,000 words in an entrancing East Texas drawl. She recorded the first entry just eight days after the JFK assassination, before the Johnsons had even moved into the White House. She made her final entry on the last day of January 1969; by then, the couple had returned to the LBJ Ranch in Texas.

Her complete, unedited recordings, first hinted at in the highly redacted book A White House Diary, published in 1970, reveal her central role in shaping some of the most consequential decisions of LBJ’s White House years. The audio offers a crucial record of her dedication to civil rights and the Great Society, her pioneering work in environmentalism, and her riveting accounts of three political assassinations. It shows her clarity and her blind spots (especially over Vietnam), her deft use of language and imagery, her judgment of character, and her 360-degree command of detail. The result is a chronicle not just of a first lady’s day-to-day life, but of the entire Johnson presidency. And yet, despite all of that, for decades she has largely been relegated to caricature or all but overlooked in the innumerable biographies, political studies, psychohistories, reports, and analyses of her husband and his administration.

The biographer Robert Caro—whose four LBJ volumes so far take us through the July 1964 Civil Rights Act—famously quipped that “power reveals.” The phrase has always struck me as a little coy, but I think he means that the exercise of power is a window into deeper psychological truths. But for Caro and most other Johnson historians and biographers, power only ever seems to reveal the characters of men, who, with their larger-than-life personas, wield power in their own names. Figures such as Lady Bird, who exercise their influence with a lighter touch and without seeking credit for themselves, don’t receive the same attention.

From her pitch-perfect orchestration of Johnson’s transition to the White House in 1963, to her facing death threats while beseeching crowds of southern white people to support civil rights and her husband’s election in 1964, to her successful work to acquire the Hirshhorn collection of art for the American people in 1965, to her ambitious and almost entirely unknown attempt to bring together civil rights and environmental justice in American cities, especially Washington, D.C., Lady Bird Johnson offers a study in leadership and, yes, power. Throughout her diary entries, and in the thousands of linear feet of her other documents, Lady Bird reveals her significant political and personal power, her strategic brilliance, and her character.

So why, then, do most chroniclers of the LBJ presidency miss Lady Bird’s centrality and influence? A few answers come to mind. To be fair, LBJ is a massive subject in and of himself—his career is long, and the material in the archives enormous. But that, too, reflects Lady Bird’s influence; she played a key role in the culture of access at the LBJ presidential library, culminating in her 1995 decision to release to the public the tapes that LBJ had secretly recorded in the White House.

More broadly, the guild of presidential historians has a strong bias toward the president’s role in the presidency (followed by that of White House staff and the national-security team). A few exceptional first ladies have received some attention, but usually as tropes, whether positive (Eleanor Roosevelt) or negative (Hillary Clinton). When the Johnsons’ marriage has commanded attention, historians have tended to focus on LBJ’s vulgarities and infidelities, and in doing so, have overlooked Lady Bird’s substance.

It is perhaps ironic that so many historians, intent as they are on the president, have missed her sway in the White House, because Lyndon himself was not shy in acknowledging Lady Bird’s crucial role in his administration.

At the end of March 1968, following the timeline she had predicted and later (as her diaries show) worked relentlessly to make happen, Lyndon Johnson concluded a televised address billed as a major statement on Vietnam with the surprise announcement that he would not run for a second term of office. Save for a few staffers, whom he and Lady Bird had sworn to secrecy to help wordsmith his statement, everyone was shocked by LBJ’s decision to stay out of the 1968 race—his own White House, the national press corps, his many political adversaries in both parties, and Americans across the country. Only Lyndon and Lady Bird knew that in arguing the case for him to stay and run in the 1964 election, Lady Bird had given him, given them, the timeline and exit strategy that Lyndon Johnson would ultimately follow.

Very quickly, the explanations for his decision not to run for another term congealed around the factors that, by March 1968, had severely weakened his presidency. Most notable was Vietnam, which had riven the body politic and thwarted LBJ’s ambitions for domestic renewal. During the New Hampshire primary earlier that month, Eugene McCarthy lost to the sitting president by a mere eight points and signaled that Johnson would have to navigate a precarious path to renomination. Following McCarthy’s strong showing, Bobby Kennedy entered the race—a circumstance the Johnsons had anticipated for years. The immense historiography of the richly documented Johnson presidency largely repeats these explanations, albeit with more nuance, context, or emphasis.

Lady Bird’s true role in setting the arc of the LBJ presidency has not been forgotten for lack of documentary evidence. In describing his lack of confidence in his own ability to unite the country, LBJ himself reproduced her memo in full in his memoir. But in 1973, when he published it, his reputation had been so sullied by Vietnam that many of the details he shared were easy to ignore. To this day, only a handful of historians refer to or quote her May 1964 memo; their focus has mainly been on her more widely recognized role in jolting LBJ out of his paralysis during the August 1964 Democratic National Convention.

But her influence was all there in the memo. She called her letter “a nine-page analysis,” but in my new biography of Lady Bird, I took the liberty of elevating it further to the “Huntland Strategy Memo,” after the estate in Middleburg, Virginia, where she wrote it. In the lexicon of the powerful, words such as strategy and memo have greater gravitas than the more feminine letter. And if she was able to map LBJ’s political future, that was because she understood the pressures he faced. In a diary entry, written after a private meeting with two of his doctors in the spring of 1964, she wrote, “I don’t know though, that either one really understands the depth of his pain, when and if he faces up to the possibility of sending many thousands American boys to Vietnam.”

But while Lady Bird did leave us the material to piece together her formidable role in the Johnson White House, I’m struck by how seemingly at ease, or at least philosophical, she was about being thoroughly misunderstood and underestimated during the White House years, and even long after the presidency had ended. When a biographer asked her some questions in 1995, seeking to tease apart her story from that of her husband, in a manner that CTJ thought might come at LBJ’s expense, she wrote, “There is no way to separate us and our role in each other’s lives,” and broke off communication. I came across that line as I was writing my biography of Lady Bird, and I decided to take her at her word. She exercised her own kind of power—and perhaps, one day soon, historians will be prepared to recognize it.