Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Lyndon Baines Johnson has been the subject of more books than almost any other twentieth-century American president, with the magisterial works of Robert Caro and Robert Dallek heading up the list. Lady Bird Johnson has by contrast not received nearly such effective treatment, despite her generally being regarded as one of the most outstanding First Ladies in United States history. Except for the biography by Jan Russell, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson—published in 1999 while its subject was still alive, and before her legacy was complete—only minor treatments exist.
Julia Sweig’s much-anticipated new book, Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, is appropriately titled. In the 1960s and 1970s, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor Johnson (1912-2007) was the most visible First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Everyone living in those years knew what she looked like, had some sense of her charming persona, and could identify her influence on, for example, the Highway Beautification Act and a variety of environmental causes. In the shadow of her husband’s towering, if not always positive presence on the public scene, however, few Americans had any conception of Lady Bird’s true personality, or of her influence in the White House, and on politics generally.
Sweig’s treatment rests on a mighty foundation indeed: Lady Bird’s recorded diaries, adding up to 1,750,000 words covering the almost 2,000 days of the Johnson presidency. Although excerpts of these diaries were published in 1970, the LBJ Presidential Library did not release recordings and transcripts of the tapes in their complete form until the beginning of 2007. Originally begun as a form of therapy in the days after JFK’s assassination, these diaries eventually became for Lady Bird a form of self-discipline as she observed and participated in the complicated machinery of Washington politics. She also compiled them with an eye to posterity, understanding the significance of the tumultuous times through which she lived, with their high aspirations and grim realities.
Relying on these highly detailed diaries, which she studied word for word, listening to Lady Bird’s own voice, Sweig offers not a full biography of her subject. but a deep study of her years in the White House. At the beginning, we witness Lady Bird’s preparation in 1964 of a detailed memorandum that not only tilted LBJ toward running for the presidency in that year but established a timeline for office that would see him declining to run for reelection four years later. Sweig then pulls back to look at the life of Lady Bird Johnson—inextricably intertwined, as the First Lady believed, with that of her husband—in successive stages through the 1960s.
Lady Bird appears on the scene in 1960, notebook constantly in hand as she took copious notes on people and prospects through the presidential campaign—eliciting the contempt of Jackie Kennedy, whose own preference was for style over substance. Sweig then skips—disappointingly—over LBJ’s vice-presidential years from 1961-1963 to take in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the first months of the Johnson presidency. Where Jackie had disliked the political scene, Lady Bird, much like her husband, delved into if she didn’t exactly revel in it. From the beginning, and continuing throughout, she was a close observer and participant. She also steered White House affairs with a steady hand, taking on First-Lady-tedious, but essential roles and responsibilities that her predecessor had avoided.
The First Lady’s sense of responsibility, though, was not just domestic but public. Outside the White House she interacted purposefully with Congress and the American people on a variety of subjects, including the expanding roles of women in society. Lady Bird embraced wholeheartedly her husband’s so-called “War on Poverty” and then his Great Society, not only advocating for it, but working to ensure its proper implementation. Her emphasis here transitioned quickly from rural to urban poverty as she sought to champion the revitalization of American cities—a cause that dovetailed with her growing interest in environmentalism.
Beautification is the prime focus of Sweig’s chronicle of 1965-1967, the pinnacle of the Johnson presidency. Passing and then implementing the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was far from easy, obvious as its merits may seem today. Lady Bird’s role here was critical, as it was with the government’s promotion of the arts and humanities. As urban race riots became more frequent and urban decay accelerated, however, Lady Bird could only share her husband’s frustration at the gulf between the Great Society’s promise and harsh realities on the streets. Likewise, although she anticipated to some degree the acceleration of the war in Vietnam, Lady Bird could only watch from the sidelines as it corroded– and eventually–destroyed her husband’s presidency.
Lady Bird’s earnest but unavailing efforts to help stem the tide of war, economic decline, and especially societal dislocation that swamped the Johnson administration in 1968 present a tragic coda to an otherwise exciting and uplifting chronicle of a remarkable First Lady. As LBJ accepted the inevitable and announced in March 1968 his decision not to seek another term as president, she shared his anguish if not his brokenness, comparing herself to Prometheus on his rock. Perhaps the most touching and intriguing element of Hiding in Plain Sight is its chronicle, first, of Lady Bird’s shepherding her husband through the final months of his presidency; and then her grim determination “to survive all assaults” as she endured his premature death in 1973 and then the long struggle to define her—and her—legacies. A lengthier discussion of Lady Bird’s long, dignified presence on the American scene between then and her 2007 death, would have been welcome in this otherwise excellent treatment of her powerful and underappreciated role in American history from 1963-1969.
Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas