- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
“We did get in his car and ride and ride and ride,” Lady Bird Johnson recalls about her first date with Lyndon Baines Johnson. “He did a great deal of talking of a surprising sort of nature for me. He told me all sorts of things about himself, and not the least bit in a bragging way but just factual things about the jobs he had, just a brief history of his life.”
Her soft, recorded drawl projects grace and caring. The almost theatrical range of her voice reflects her lifelong curiosity and enthusiasm.
There’s something else. An unmistakable resolve that helped carry her through more than nine decades while raising a family and managing its businesses, amid bruising political campaigns and during long years in the White House, here in Austin and at the LBJ Ranch.
These words were captured on tape primarily by Michael Gillette, now director of Humanities Texas, during 47 interviews conducted with Lady Bird Johnson between 1977 and 1991. Former LBJ Library and Museum Director Harry Middleton took on the final eight interviews.
“It’s the transformation of this shy country girl who is willing and able to play a significant role in a presidential campaign,” Gillette explains of the future first lady’s undergirding of resolve. “I think she was just as determined as he was.”
Five years after her death in 2007, the tapes, mostly recorded in the yellow sitting room at the LBJ Ranch, are available to scholars. This week, Oxford University Press releases Gillette’s compact and compelling “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History.”
Timed to the centennial of her birth — celebrations continue Saturday with a state dinner and black-tie gala at the LBJ Library and Museum — Gillette’s book condenses more than 470,000 recorded words into the book’s 200,000 printed ones, a total that includes introduction and footnotes. He preserved them with an ancient-looking Arrivox Tandberg and Nagra reel-to-reels while serving as chief of acquisitions and oral history at the presidential library.
Tall and well-tailored, the author has the bearing of a career diplomat or a gentleman scholar. Yet Gillette, 66, is no product of privilege. He was born in San Antonio and grew up in Baytown. His father’s family came from Michigan, his mother’s from Texas. He studied government at the University of Texas, where he eventually earned a doctorate in history while working at the LBJ Library.
“The best way to understand politics is to study political history,” he says. An interest in the charismatic populist Huey Long led Gillette to Louisiana, where he was encouraged to interview Long’s associates by award-winning historian T. Harry Williams.
“Long was the portal into history,” Gillette says of his intellectual journey. “Then into the New Deal, then FDR’s relationship with LBJ. … You could get closer to the story if you talked to a surviving person.”
Back at UT, historian Joe Frantz headed up the LBJ oral history project. In a research seminar that Gillette attended, Frantz brought up Heman Sweatt’s successful suit to become the first African-American accepted at UT Law School. Gillette dug a little and found that Sweatt’s case was not happenstance, as commonly believed.
“It had been in the works for a year,” he says. “They had been looking for a plaintiff. How did the NAACP advance this legal agenda through the courts?”
This question led to interviews with historical figures in Dallas, Fort Worth, Atlanta and Houston, then to his dissertation in 1984.
“Most of the black civil rights leaders had never been interviewed and had been waiting for somebody to tell their story,” says Gillette, who worked at the LBJ Library from 1972 to 1991, after which he took over as director of the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, D.C.
There, he sorted through treasures such as President Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten message to Congress about the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition.
“It was like being a kid in a candy store for 12 years,” he says. That job also helped prepare him for his current gig with the Austin group that encourages lifelong learning in the humanities on a budget of $2 million, about $1.5 million of that coming from the federal government.
Back in 1977, after five years at the LBJ Library, he landed his first oral-history session with Lady Bird Johnson.
“You can’t tell from the first interview how far the project is going to go,” he says. “It was not as systematic as the sessions became. As we got into it, we developed a rapport and a sense that we would take this exploration to a deeper, more thorough level.”
As the project grew, Gillette assembled a staff of transcribers, researchers and editors who prepared detailed chronologies that jogged the first lady’s memories. The pair usually advanced one year each session.
“For the courtship, almost all of it comes from her memory,” he says. “If you listen to the tapes you can tell the difference in the style of her narrative when she is relying heavily on the material in front of her. In each case, the prose is wonderful, using her very vivid, expressive language.”
Gillette does an excellent job of rekindling Johnson’s singular voice. Daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb have enthusiastically endorsed the results, which taper off in detail when the interview subjects overlap with those covered in the first lady’s White House diaries.
“I think she enjoyed it,” Gillette says. “She was a very modest person. Yet I think she had an important story to tell, and this was a way to document it. She often expressed a wish she had recorded it at the time as she had with the White House diaries.”
One more glimpse at that whirlwind first date in 1934, during which LBJ proposed marriage.
“We rode around all day long,” Lady Bird Johnson says. “I knew Austin much better than he did. The Capitol was just about the main thing he knew or was interested in. We did drive around to some of my favorite haunts, which were the lovely little country roads around Austin where there were these clear streams running over the white rocks and the chalky limestone outcroppings. I think we went out Anderson Mill Road. It was intensely exciting. Also a little bit frightening because I was far from sure I wanted to know him any better.”