Lady Bird Johnson: Former first lady had both grit and grace

Dwight Garner / New York Times News Service /


“Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History” by Michael L. Gillette (Illustrated, 400 pgs., Oxford University Press, $29.95)

In 1934, on their first date, Lyndon Baines Johnson asked Claudia Alta Taylor, the woman who would become known as Lady Bird Johnson, to marry him. He was 26. She was 21.

They’d been driving around all day. He’d felt he’d been struck by lightning. She was less sanguine. “I just sat there with my mouth open, kind of,” she reports in a crisp and absurdly endearing new book, “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History.” She adds, “I was far from sure I wanted to know him any better.”

President Johnson’s impetuousness came to mind when a copy of this volume made its way to my kitchen table a few weeks ago. I hadn’t planned to write about it. Other books out this month seemed more pressing. The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s titanic biography of Johnson, published just last year, looms in the rearview mirror. Hey, hey. Enough LBJ.

Something about the cover, however, kept calling to me. The photo on the book’s front displays its subject in a deck chair, swiveling around to look at an observer. Her gaze is so eager and engaged that you can’t help wanting to take a seat beside this commanding distillation of forward-thinking Southern womanhood. You wish to go where she is going.

“Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History” has been compiled from 47 interviews she recorded from 1977 to 1996 with this book’s editor, Michael L. Gillette, the former director of the LBJ Presidential Library’s oral history program, and his colleagues. (Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007 at 94.) It’s an approachable companion volume of sorts to “A White House Diary,” her overstuffed 1970 book.

Old-fashioned style

About the life depicted in that earlier volume, Jean Stafford wrote in The New York Review of Books, “The velocity at which Mrs. Johnson flew makes the hardiest Bird-watcher giddy.”

That’s true here, too. Great victories, averted crises and successful parties are fondly recalled. Most of the big political and journalistic cats of the mid-20th century prowl across the pages. The Johnsons knew everyone, and she, it turns out, had a knack for mini-portraiture.

She captures Drew Pearson’s “aristocratic face and bristly mustache.” When John F. Kennedy arrived in Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy attended a lunch for new Senate wives at the Johnson house. “I remember her big eyes,” Johnson recalls. “Here is a bird of beautiful plumage among all of us little gray wrens.”

What’s so uniquely winning about “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History,” and what makes me grateful to have picked it up, are the old-fashioned and now threadbare virtues it evokes and relentlessly champions. You will find yourself ennobled by Johnson’s example and may wield this book like a sunlit talisman against your post-holiday depression.

You may suddenly find yourself in Lady Bird mode, practicing more selfless acts; writing more necessary letters; being more grateful; attending more to self-improvement; forgiving more people their thoughtless behavior. You may find yourself paying more attention to friendships and to nature, and trying to stretch, as she did, your awareness of, and capacity for, joy.

“I felt very small but very eager,” she declared about herself as a young woman new to Washington. Small but eager describes her entire essence.

That touch of language

“Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History” is not a book of overly serious political or literary import. A more exacting portrait of her life can be had in Jan Jarboe Russell’s 1999 biography, “Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson.” This new volume lacks the pleasures of gossip, for which Johnson has no instinct. It is also devoid of irony and wit, those crucial spices of mental life. Yet we are carried effortlessly along.

Her language is as piquant as that of a Eudora Welty narrator. About an unusual sight, she declares, “My eyes were out on stems.” About a grim political reality: “It was like trying to swallow a nettle: hurt, sticky, spiny.” About her husband’s finally winning a long-disputed election through a court ruling: “the last shoe dropped on that centipede.”

She is a collector of aphorisms. “The richest inheritance of any son,” she reports that her husband liked to say, “is his father’s friends.” She paid attention to food and to small graces. She recalls how, during World War II, friends lent a hand during times of scarcity: “I remember a wife of a Supreme Court justice arriving at dinner one day, bringing me a stick of butter.”

She was aware of her own lack of worldliness. “I didn’t know a fauteuil from a bergere,” she says after meeting the Kennedy family. “Elegance in living had not been a part of my life.”

Yet she was no hayseed. “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History” charts her evolution as a canny and influential political spouse. She ran her husband’s congressional office while he served in the Navy; she bought a radio and TV station that would ensure their wealth. She became an assertive first lady, the first to employ her own press secretary and to make a solo campaign tour. As an environmental pioneer, she was decades ahead of her time.

Strong and loyal

She had grit. “It was one thing to marry Lyndon Johnson,” Gillette observes in his introduction, “but quite another to remain married to him.” About Johnson’s verbal abuse and infidelity, he tells us: “Mrs. Johnson did not record in her oral history any discussion of her husband’s extramarital affairs. She would have regarded doing so as both embarrassing and disloyal. Off tape, she confided to me that she tried to improve herself by observing other women whom LBJ found appealing.”

About her disinclination to speak ill of others, Gillette notes: “Only once in our informal conversations did she indulge in what I regarded as criticism. While referring to Alice Glass” — with whom her husband is said to have had an affair — “Mrs. Johnson recited from memory the litany of surnames that Alice had accumulated during the course of her multiple marriages.”

Johnson goes negative, in this oral history, only on herself. “As I look back upon those years, I get a lot of black marks” is a typical assessment here. She often felt that she was too plump (Johnson consistently implored her to exercise and diet); she feared she did not spend enough time with their two daughters. Among her only criticisms of her husband is this one: “He believed in me too much.”

Lady Bird Johnson adored America’s scenic beauty, and she hoped that her love might become contagious. About this, she deploys a line that, when applied to her moral qualities, lingers over this entire book: “Multiply me by about quite a few million, and you’ve got something.”