Whatever you may think about the reliability of oral histories, the set of interviews that Lady Bird Johnson gave Michael Gillette and Harry Middleton allow the reader to go deeper into the life of one of the most interesting, and least understood, modern first ladies.
From 1977 to 1991, Johnson spoke 36 times with Gillette, who, for most of that time, directed the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library’s Oral History Project. From 1994 to 1996, she gave eight interviews to Middleton, who was then the director of the library. As you may expect from a symbiotic relationship, they didn’t pose questions that Robert Caro might have asked. Still, these exchanges (which Gillette has compiled) help us understand the culture, values, and background that shaped a wife who, from afar, could seem overshadowed by her mythically large husband, but was actually an independent woman for her times.
One way to understand this Southern woman is through the way her life mirrored the arc of Texas. Naturally, that aspect will interest those of us who are Texans; but understanding the trajectory of her home state is important to appreciating Lady Bird Johnson’s evolution, as well as the nation’s shift in the middle of the last century. We see Lady Bird rise from isolation in East Texas to become a pioneering businesswoman in emerging Austin, to a political wife in the midst of a cultural shift in racial relations in her state and country.
There was little in Claudia Alta Taylor’s background to predict that she would become a central player in one of America’s most dramatic upheavals, brought on by the Kennedy assassination and the turbulent sixties. As those who read Jan Jarboe Russell’s excellent Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson (1999) know, the future first lady grew up far removed from the center of American life in tiny Karnack, Texas. In her early days, Texas—especially East Texas—had the feel and rhythms of a novelist’s imagination; you can almost hear the cicadas in the background as she describes Karnack. She lived in a large house with a big front porch in a rural town. Her father was a successful lumberman/businessman, and a leading citizen. But he later would tell his only daughter not to return there after finishing at the University of Texas. He knew she had a better future elsewhere.
Some of the most revealing and poignant insights come from her remembrances of being a shy, bookish girl who lost her mother at age 5. When her father sent her to finish high school in nearby Marshall (which seemed urban compared to Karnack), all the hours she had spent around adults since her mother’s death came into play. Said the future first lady, who one day would live a very public life:
Shyness is a fairly common phenomenon, particularly when you get to be about thirteen or fourteen. But if you’ve been raised way out in the country and not associated with a variety of people, it can be pretty excruciating, and in my case it was. I imagined that everybody knew more about how to behave and dressed better than I did.
We also see how she started to enter the mainstream of American life after she left the University of Texas with degrees in history and journalism. Her prosperous father gave his favored daughter and a friend a trip to New York; here is how Lady Bird described the coming-of-age voyage she and Cecille Harrison took from Galveston to the Big Apple:
This tour also included going to a nightclub. Our eyes were out on stems; we had a great time. We were not the least bit apprehensive about going to a nightclub. Then, we went down in the dreadful part, the really skid row part of town. We’d see people huddled on the sidewalk, clutching a bottle or asleep or raggedy. Of course, this was June and it wasn’t as miserable as it probably was in January, but it was an eye-opener.
Lady Bird’s interviews stopped before she got too deeply into the tumult of the 1960s, and the sessions came to a halt as she proceeded into her eighties, leaving the White House years largely untouched. But we know from hindsight what role she and her husband played in the civil rights revolution. Like LBJ, she stumped for racial equality. Her efforts included a whistle-stop train trip through her native South in 1964, largely motivated by her experiences growing up in segregated Texas.
Even her famous nickname comes linked with the complexities of that past. For years, the nickname “Lady Bird” was attributed to a black nurse. But Gillette says she told him that two black playmates, nicknamed “Stuff” and “Doodlebug,” had given her the name. She could not let that become too well known, though, given the sensitivities of black and white children mixing together in her earlier days.
And her awareness of others with fewer advantages was not simply for show. The current director of the LBJ Library, Mark Updegrove, told me recently that she would invite whoever happened to be working at the LBJ Ranch to stop and have lunch with her. After her husband died, she and the house staff and ranch hands, who often were Latino, would break bread together.
Most readers will want to know to what degree Lyndon Johnson dominated their life together. This book does not give a clear indication. Yes, there are plenty of accounts in which Lyndon says this, and the Johnson family does that, and she describes him in a way that acknowledges his many sides, including this stream-of-consciousness depiction:
Marvelous. Contradictory. Great natural intelligence. Showman sometimes; hurtful sometimes; very often tender and giving.
Lyndon Johnson was undoubtedly a force of nature. Witness how he asked her to marry him on their first real date: She recalls being too astounded even to answer. But about three months later, they married—after what she described as a “ridiculous” ride. They left her home in Karnack one day—she still not certain she was going to marry him—and by day’s end they had arrived in San Antonio, where he had arranged a ceremony by phone from the road and, whoosh, they were married in an Episcopal church.
So, yes, it would be impossible not to get caught up in that force-field. Yet we need to remember, too, that Lady Bird Johnson was a pioneering businesswoman in Austin in the 1940s, using her inherited wealth to buy a radio station, which she left Washington for a while to staff and run. Female entrepreneurs were hardly common then, or during the 1950s, and LBJ promoted her independence, encouraging her to go beyond her shyness and engage the public, saying things like: “You had two majors at the University of Texas, you can do that.”
William McKenzie is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News.