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New book and podcast recast Lady Bird Johnson as political, policy partner of LBJ

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a signing pen to Lady Bird Johnson at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act in the East Room of the White House, Oct. 22, 1965. Although she was most identified with this law, Lady Bird had a hand in almost everything political in LBJ's career.

To a great extent, Texans admired Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson with no strings attached, not just while her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, served as congressman, senator, vice president and president. For more than three decades after LBJ’s death, on Jan. 22, 1973, she continued to enlarge her philanthropic leadership; she founded new initiatives, such as the Lady Bird Johnson National Wildflower Center; and she nurtured a family who carried on her singular style of quiet, charming, determined and effective influence. 

On one project, Lady Bird never wavered: The LBJ Presidential Library, which preserved not only her husband’s legacy, but also hers. In fact, she was already planning the Austin museum and library in 1964, months after LBJ took office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She wanted it to open soon after LBJ left office in 1969. 

That’s right: As repeatedly confirmed by Julia Sweig’s masterly new book, “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight,” the first lady was determined that LBJ would run in 1964, and just as determined that he would not run for reelection in 1968.  

While the details of these monumental decisions might have been known to deep insiders, Sweig’s brisk and well-written book will change minds about Lady Bird’s roles before, during and after the Johnson presidency. I learned a lot. 

When LBJ announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president," on March 31, 1968, many Americans, including many in the media, were shocked and surprised. 

Not so Lady Bird. She expressed relief after planning to make it easy for LBJ, whose health and energy had fluctuated since a near-death heart attack at age 47, to leave office. All the more crucial to protect his legacy, warts and all, at the LBJ Library, which was dedicated 50 years ago on May 22, 1971. 

Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson sit for a portrait in the White House on August 10, 1966. Although it wasn't recognized at the time, the Johnsons were the ultimate power couple, part of a political partnership that lasted for decades.

It is fortuitous that as Texas celebrates that anniversary — mostly online because of the pandemic — Sweig’s book, along with her illuminating podcast, “In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson,” proves once again the value of the contents of that white marble tower on the University of Texas campus, where Sweig did much of her research. 

I talked to Sweig, who lives in Washington, D.C., but was in California, on May 11. 

'In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson' details White House diary, personal causes

American-Statesman: You make a convincing case that Lady Bird Johnson made a more lasting impact on LBJ’s politics and, in certain areas, his policies than has been previously acknowledged. What led you to that conclusion? 

Julia Sweig: The totality of the material in the archives in Austin and elsewhere, but most especially Lady Bird's audio diaries, the unredacted transcripts, fleshed out with other material. She left us the bread crumbs, the raw material. 

You were able to crack open 123 hours of Lady Bird’s White House diaries, only parts of which have been published and only in fragments, not only through transcripts but the actual audio recordings, which you use in your podcast. How was this helpful?  

I read the transcripts first, then, when I found the material especially compelling or I wanted to understand a little more about her mindset or to characterize her mood, I’d listen to the tapes. Because the material was novel or gave me insight into her. There’s that beautiful East Texas accent, and how proficient and cogent she was in narrating her first draft of history. ... It just made the story of the 1960s and the Johnson presidency incredibly vivid. Transcripts don't do justice to whole drama. She goes from the sublime to the ridiculous in just a few sentences. With riveting detail and emotion, insight. 

Lady Bird Johnson greets children who gathered to welcome her to the Big Bend area on April 2, 1966.  Lady Bird was an extraordinary political asset for LBJ and her appearances during the White House years were choreographed by an East Wing staff headed by Liz Carpenter.

Lady Bird was compared favorably and unfavorably to previous first ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jaqueline Kennedy and Edith Wilson. Did that affect the way she approached the position?  

Very much so. Of course, she developed her own approach once she was in the White House. She knew Eleanor Roosevelt personally. She went on outings to slums, as they were called at the time, with Eleanor, who was very interested in improving the quality of life there. She also visited the White House and seems to have developed a very clear read on Eleanor’s partnership with FDR (as did LBJ) and her role on the major issues. She admired Eleanor very much, but wasn’t from the same culture, demographic or geography.   

Her relationship with Jackie was far more tangible. She was Jackie’s senior among Senate wives (during the 1950s), and she help introduce Jackie to the Kabuki theater of Washington politics. LBJ was majority leader, so the Johnsons held the power and position. The script flipped when the Johnsons joined the ticket in 1960.   

She campaigned as Jackie’s surrogate, won Texas for JFK, as Bobby noted. When she became first lady, knowing clearly that she couldn’t stand in Jackie’s shoes actually freed her. She did not have the cultivated elegance and was not associated publicly with high culture as Jackie was, although Lady Bird was very cultured. Jackie had the White House Historical Association and arts at the White House. Lady Bird continued her work, but decided the White House alone was not a large enough canvas for her. ...  

Lady Bird professionalized the East Wing with the help of Liz Carpenter and other aides. How did that help support her husband’s work while promoting her own causes?  

Liz was really key. Other than Lady Bird, she was only person in White House who could talk straight to LBJ. They went way, way back. She was on LBJ’s staff before she worked with Lady Bird. They worked with LBJ’s total consent because he knew how powerful they were, what an asset they were, and together they knit together a political operation between the East Wing and the West Wing, especially during campaigns, but also around the environment and civil rights.  

Lady Bird Johnson drives a nail into a picnic bench under construction during a visit to the Frederick Douglas Home in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 17, 1967. It remains little known today that Lady Bird's work on urban "beautification," a condescending term she didn't like, was part of a larger vision of urban planning and environmental justice.

Lady Bird Johnson's impact on Lyndon B. Johnson's health, women's rights and environmentalism

Sometimes it seems like Lady Bird’s first job was protecting LBJ’s health and energy. Yet her own well-being and that of her daughters were always right after that. Is that fair to say?  

She would have said that. She said that famous line to the chief butler at the White House: Basically, it’s Lyndon first, the girls second, and I’ll take what’s left over. But she was such a colossal multitasker, it’s hard to rank her priorities. And as for their emotional and mental and physical health, the first priority was the family. She invented “self-care” (such as hikes in the wilderness and retreats to the ranch) before anyone else used that phrase, something she needed, in order to be there for the family, and for the presidency. 

Women’s rights, urban planning and environmentalism — although often under the condescending term “beautification” — seem to be, in the end, where she made the most impact. How did that play out?  

Let me refer you to the 500-page book I just wrote. (Laughs.)  

In 1964, before landing on environmentalism, Lady Bird addressed women in extraordinary, modern-sounding and totally overlooked speeches. To the home economists, she told them they needed to get out of the house. Women were key to solving poverty in America. Men could not be relied on. It had to be women to get it done — massive shades of Hillary Clinton decades later. Women should be total women, complete women. Have it all, engage in civic life, study, become top-tier professionals, raise children and be spouses. She represented a sort of curated feminism, never stated as such. She was allergic to stridency.  

I think of her environmentalism as evolving from the ornamental to the fundamental.  

“Beautification” was always a euphemism that she didn't like but understood that it had a political value to raise the public’s consciousness about the environment. People remember highway beautification and planting beautiful blooms, but she had a much more comprehensive vision, focused on American cities, civil rights, mental health and what we would call now environmental justice.   

The Johnsons had lived in Washington, D.C., for 30 years before they moved into the White House. It was a majority-black city, almost entirely segregated, with a very pronounced imbalance in residents’ access to nature. There was Rock Creek Park in the northwest quadrant, which was used by primarily by white Washingtonians. The other three quadrants, especially along the Anacostia River, were where Black Washingtonians lived and were underserved in regard to publicly funded parks, recreation. Access to parks and swimming pools was a big part of civil rights.  As an avid swimmer and hiker, access to nature, Lady Bird believed, was essential to feeling human.  

Lady Bird put together a political coalition of very progressive philanthropists and visionary planners, as well as Walter Washington, first the head of the national capital housing authority, and later the appointed, and then elected, mayor of the District of Columbia. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall controlled park areas along the river— and the idea was to desegregate access to nature knitting together resources and political will at the local and federal level, making DC a model for American cities around the country at a time of major urban upheaval.  Lady Bird had no budget, no legislative authority per se, but she had the capacity of convening individuals, building public consciousness, and, tangibly, bringing in an innovative urban landscape architect from San Francisco named Lawrence Halprin. They planned this big riverfront project along the Anacostia River, but like many aspirations of the LBJ presidency, it never made itself manifest. It was meant to be a model for American cities after the devastation of the urban renewal program, which left so many communities without access to green space.  

Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, left, watches Lady Bird Johnson plant pansies on March 9, 1965, in Washington, D.C. In truth, Lady Bird hated being known as just the lady who planted flowers.

Preserving presidential — and First Lady — legacy

We're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the LBJ Presidential Library. You write that Lady Bird started planning the library and museum as early as 1964, and those plans were well underway by 1968. Why was it so important to her to preserve his legacy – and hers?  

The Johnsons were political animals to the core. They had very long political careers in Texas and in Washington. Lady Bird trained as a historian and journalist, so she was ever mindful of documenting his career, their careers, especially during the presidency. She was also a hyper-planner. She had a deeper sense and was aware early on that carving out a Johnson legacy in the aftermath of their pretty terrifying landing in the presidency, happening the way it did with the JFK assassination, meant documenting the LBJ story from the get-go.  

The had such an ambitious domestic agenda. … Long before historians could see the extent of what they did accomplish on the home front, they also understood that Vietnam would cloud their accomplishments. It shows in the meticulous way she went about finding an architect, hiring staff, requesting contributions and oral histories, keeping her diary, transcribing her audio — what I call the “other LBJ tapes,” even while they were still in the White House. She and LBJ  knew that it would be impossible to make sense of the full story of the presidency until well down the road.  

Clearly from your book, LBJ and Lady Bird were close partners on many of the most important decisions. He trusted her political instincts. And in laying out the options for running for president in a largely overlooked 1964 memo, she makes it pretty clear that LBJ should not, in 1968, run for a second full term. And yet people were surprised by his March 1968 announcement. Some people are still surprised. Did Lady Bird know better?  

This is the essence of the discovery: Her May 1964 memo is one of those seminal documents. It shows how intertwined they were, in their marriage, and in the political enterprise, how intimate the trust. Lady Bird had enormous power and influence over him. She said repeatedly after the presidency that she may have been the only one who really believed he did not initially want the presidency, and who knew full well he could walk away from it.  And the beat-by-beat story she tells in her audio diary describes how they got there — not just because of Vietnam or a presidency embattled by 1968, but beginning with her projection in 1964 that he would decline a second term in March of 1968.  

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson walk in wildflowers on July 5, 1968, near their ranch in the Texas Hill Country. The Johnson ranch provided enormous "self care" for the couple, while it allowed them to entertain and persuade guests.

I’ve listened to just a few of LBJ’s telephone tapes, which Lady Bird made public and which are now even more accessible. Her voice is soft and warm and Southern, but absolutely in control of the situation.   

She tells LBJ what she is going to do with disgraced aide Walter Jenkins — who was caught in a gay activity raid — by hiring him at the media stations in Austin. He had misgivings, but she is emphatic about doing the right thing for Jenkins – maybe LBJ’s other closest advisor – and his family. Do you pick up that firmness in the diary tapes, too?  

She didn’t ask her husband; she told him. She’s the originator of the “Johnson treatment,” devising a strategy, doing the homework, knowing her constituents, knowing how to make his interests hers, all done through gentle manipulation. At first, he says he wants to go with Abe (Fortas) and Clark (Clifford)’s approach to burying the story and distancing the Johnsons from Walter. That she might be overstepping the role of the first lady.  But by the end of the call, he agrees. It was all due to her firmness, her political strategy, her knowledge of him and his trust in her.  

What, in 2021, do we still get wrong about Lady Bird?  

Early on, she said: “I still find it distasteful to use the term first lady.” ... She had an awareness that the role was extremely confining even though totally undefined. She also talked about the limitations of the term "beautification.”   

In the chapter “Claudia All My Life,” she says that she sometimes wished she had been called “Claudia all my life.” Not Lady Bird. She wanted to leave behind the mythology that she was this nice lady who planted flowers and was first lady.   

She had enormous gravitas and substance, and she knew her value. Maybe that will start to change now:  the way the history is told must place her squarely in the center of the LBJ presidency, where she belongs. Not on all the issues, but she was in the room, not just for strategy, not just for politics, but navigating the massive tumult of three assassinations, a war abroad and conclusive upheaval in cities during that the 1960s. 

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at