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.