Lady Bird Johnson embodied contradiction, cloaking her gravitas in Southern charm. Even her name made that clear. From infancy onward, Claudia Alta Taylor (born in 1912) was known to everyone as Lady Bird, a lighthearted, whimsical nickname — invented by her nursemaid — that belied her grit, intellect and ambition. Now, a new documentary on Hulu, “The Lady Bird Diaries,” focuses on her White House years and captures the surprising influence and power that this gentle, smiling woman wielded over her husband.
Based on 123 hours of private audio diaries recorded by Mrs. Johnson (and embargoed until her death, in 2007, at 94), the film is told from the first lady’s point of view, and largely in her own recorded voice — a honeyed Texas drawl — interspersed with contemporaneous news footage. There are, however, virtually no outside perspectives or critiques offered. The film takes us inside Mrs. Johnson’s mind and keeps us firmly there.
The documentary, directed by Dawn Porter, opens with the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the ensuing chaotic hours that thrust the stunned vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and his wife into their new roles. “I felt like I was walking onto a stage for a part I had never rehearsed,” Mrs. Johnson says.
Although eloquent and highly educated, with degrees in history and journalism, and quite accustomed to being a politician’s wife, the 50-year-old Mrs. Johnson could not have been more different from her young and glamorous predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy. Compared with Mrs. Kennedy, who even in her bloodstained grief looked like a movie star, Mrs. Johnson seemed staid, even matronly. Her dark hair was set in a permanent helmet, and a triple strand of pearls nestled in the high necklines of her boxy suits and dresses. Her only obvious makeup was a discreet slash of lipstick.
Mrs. Johnson was a practical, down-home kind of woman who claimed that her greatest indulgences were a glass of wine and an episode of “Gunsmoke.” She disliked fussing over her appearance, and fashion held little interest for her: “I’m just not the type for sketches and swatches,” she said. She was, however, profoundly interested in America’s appearance — a cause that defined her White House years.
“Growing up, nature was my friend and sustenance, and teacher,” Mrs. Johnson said, and the documentary chronicles her successes in beautifying the nation: improving America’s highways by lining them with trees and flowers (the Highway Beautification Act, which she championed, was signed into law in 1965), creating attractive playgrounds for public schools, adding green and blooming spaces to urban areas. Her husband shared her passion and signed nearly 300 conservation measures into law during his presidency (paving the way for the eventual establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970).
Mrs. Johnson’s primary political interest, though, remained her husband’s success. She was his most faithful, strategic and honest critic, taking notes on his speeches and offering hard-hitting feedback — with a velvet glove. “Do you want to listen for about one minute to my critique, or would you rather wait until tonight?” she asks him sweetly in one recorded call after a news conference. She proceeds to explain that his performance was “a little breathless,” that his speech lacked conviction and that he needed to stop looking down while he spoke. She punctuates her assessment of his overall effort with a letter grade: “B plus.”
Generally, though, Mr. Johnson earned A’s in his wife’s eyes. She kept her admiring, affectionate focus trained firmly on him, and the film suggests that she was more concerned with how political events affected him than with how they affected the world. When discussing the thousands protesting the expanding Vietnam War, for example, Mrs. Johnson says little about the corpses coming home, but worries deeply about the pain it all caused her husband. “When he is pierced, I bleed,” she says.
Mr. Johnson did indeed suffer emotional pain, falling into a depression serious enough to make him want to quit the presidency. His wife stepped in, striving to protect him from stress to help him recover, get back to work and ultimately run for a second term. She was a seasoned and indefatigable campaigner, powering through a train tour of the American South despite bomb threats from those opposed to Mr. Johnson’s civil rights agenda. Yet when asked by an interviewer if she would be able to “keep the South in the Democrats’ camp,” Mrs. Johnson gave a typically fan-fluttering answer: “That’s a large order for a woman,” she cooed.
Mr. Johnson won his second term, and the film takes us through these turbulent years (1965-68) of war, riots, battles over civil rights and poverty, and the murders of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. At times, Mrs. Johnson’s narration of these events can seem oddly insular, even a bit blind. Recounting her interaction with Jacqueline Kennedy at Robert Kennedy’s funeral, Mrs. Johnson focuses on a perceived slight by the former first lady: “I called her name and put out my hand. She looked at me as though from a great distance, as though I were an apparition. I felt extreme hostility: Was it because I was alive? At last, without a flicker of expression, she extended her hand very slightly. I took it with some murmured word of sorrow and walked on quickly. It was somehow shocking: Never, in any contact with her before, had I experienced this.”
It’s an odd moment, with Mrs. Johnson seemingly unable to imagine any more plausible explanations — shock, grief, terror, flashbacks — for Mrs. Kennedy’s muted demeanor. Instead, Mrs. Johnson ignores the devastating tragedy of the occasion and interprets the situation personally.
Such insularity might have been a useful defense mechanism. When it comes to her husband, the woman known for her love of flowers seems, in this film, to wear rose-colored glasses. And the film puts those glasses on us, the viewers, too. Mr. Johnson is presented here only as a heroic figure, a devoted family man and progressive trailblazer. While his “Great Society” agenda did produce such monumental reforms as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, there was a darker side to his personality and presidency. Mr. Johnson’s crass and abusive behavior, and his womanizing, for example, appear nowhere in the film. Nor does the film delve into the devastating consequences of the Vietnam War.
Instead, the documentary allows its subject to float above all the roiling unrest of her era, even when worldly troubles encroach upon her own family life. When her daughter Lynda’s husband, Capt. Charles S. Robb, ships off to Vietnam, Mrs. Johnson’s narration of the situation remains calm and restrained. Lynda herself is shown kissing her husband goodbye and smiling bravely — clearly, her mother’s daughter.
Lady Bird Johnson was something of a transitional figure: a soft-spoken Southern wife who wound up one of the most influential first ladies in history; an environmentalist before that was a common or popular term; a trained journalist who was the first first lady to hire her own press secretary (the dynamic Liz Carpenter). After four years out of office, Mr. Johnson died of a heart attack, at 64. But Mrs. Johnson lived another 34 years, continuing her environmental work and, in 1988, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal for her advocacy.
In an era when a woman’s power could generally find expression only through her husband, she found herself married to the most powerful man in the world. She seized the opportunity.