WINNER OF THE TEXAS BOOK AWARD • LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD • “[An] extensive, engaging new biography . . . in the Caro mold . . . To those who do not know [Lady Bird’s] story, Sweig’s book will come as a revelation.”—The New York Times
“This riveting portrait gives us an important revision of a long-neglected First Lady.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt, Vols. 1–3
In the spring of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson had a decision to make. Just months after moving into the White House under the worst of circumstances—following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—he had to decide whether to run to win the presidency in his own right. He turned to his most reliable, trusted political strategist: his wife, Lady Bird Johnson. The strategy memo she produced for him, emblematic of her own political acumen and largely overlooked by biographers, is just one revealing example of how their marriage was truly a decades-long political partnership.
Perhaps the most underestimated First Lady of the twentieth century, Lady Bird Johnson was also one of the most accomplished and often her husband's secret weapon. Managing the White House in years of national upheaval, through the civil rights movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War, Lady Bird projected a sense of calm and, following the glamorous and modern Jackie Kennedy, an old-fashioned image of a First Lady. In truth, she was anything but. As the first First Lady to run the East Wing like a professional office, she took on her own policy initiatives, including the most ambitious national environmental effort since Teddy Roosevelt. Occupying the White House during the beginning of the women's liberation movement, she hosted professional women from all walks of life in the White House, including urban planning and environmental pioneers like Jane Jacobs and Barbara Ward, encouraging women everywhere to pursue their own careers, even if her own style of leadership and official role was to lead by supporting others.
Where no presidential biographer has understood the full impact of Lady Bird Johnson’s work in the White House, Julia Sweig is the first to draw substantially on Lady Bird’s own voice in her White House diaries to place Claudia Alta "Lady Bird” Johnson center stage and to reveal a woman ahead of her time—and an accomplished politician in her own right.
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Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a party is not to our party alone, but to the nation, and indeed to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power but the preservation of peace and freedom.
So let us not be petty when our cause is so great, let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our nation’s future is at stake. —John F. Kennedy, speech to have been delivered in Austin, Texas, November 24, 1963
When he came to the White House, suddenly everyone saw what the New Frontier was going to mean.
It meant a poet at the Inauguration; it meant swooping around Washington, dropping in on delighted and flustered old friends; it meant going to the airport in zero weather without an overcoat; it meant a rocking chair and having the Hickory Hill seminar at the White House when Bobby and Ethel were out of town; it meant fun at presidential press conferences.
It meant dash, glamour, glitter, charm. It meant a new era of enlightenment and verve; it meant Nobel Prize winners dancing in the lobby; it meant authors and actors and poets and Shakespeare in the East Room. —Mary McGrory, The Evening Star, November 24, 1963
Claudia Taylor Johnson drew her initial impression of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy not from a luncheon for spouses or an evening social event in Washington, but rather, from Jack and Jackie’s 1953 Life magazine wedding pictures. Jackie, she thought, was “absolutely the essence of romance and beauty.” When the newlywed Kennedys moved to Washington, real life, as it turned out, was even more remarkable than the photos. As a freshman senator’s wife, Jackie was “a bird of beautiful plumage” who “couldn’t have been more gracious.” By comparison, Bird felt, she and the other Senate wives were “little gray wrens.” When the Kennedys married and Jack began his first term in the Senate, the Johnsons had already been in that chamber for four years. In the Washington, D.C., of the 1950s, the Johnsons and the Kennedys were not personally close. They didn’t run in the same social circles. In fact, by the 1956 Democratic convention, Jack and Lyndon had become quasi-overt rivals. Elected Senate majority leader in 1955 and approaching the peak of his power in Congress, LBJ conveyed his standing to Lady Bird, who ruled the roost of Senate wives. Despite the differences between their husbands, Bird graciously inducted Jackie into the carefully choreographed courtlike world of Washington spouses, hosting her at their brick Colonial on 30th Place, Northwest, and otherwise brushing up against her youth and glamour throughout the decade. Finding Jackie impossibly young, Lady Bird worked to put her at ease at these spouse gatherings; Jackie liked Lady Bird and made a point of connecting with the Johnsons’ elder daughter, Lynda, just eleven when they first met. But Washington was not entirely new to Jackie: At fourteen, she’d moved with her mother and her mother’s new husband to an estate in Virginia’s hunt country. She briefly attended the private girls’ school Holton-Arms, and she finished her undergraduate degree at George Washington University before marrying Jack.
An accomplished equestrian, Jackie summered in the Hamptons and Newport; had studied at Miss Porter’s School, Vassar, and the Sorbonne; and spoke French and Spanish. Lady Bird had studied French, briefly, and her Spanish was still limited to what she had picked up during her childhood in Texas. Jackie was twenty-three years old, Bird’s age when Lyndon had already served for two years in the House. While Bird worked assiduously to grease the wheels of Lyndon’s political office with endless socializing, charity events, and travel back and forth to and across Texas, Jackie struck Bird as being uninterested in the tedium of the game, content to spend her early years married to Jack as a society photographer for the Washington Times-Herald, taking a course in American history at Georgetown, or repairing to Hickory Hill, the country house in McLean, Virginia, that the newlyweds had purchased and later gave to Bobby and Ethel. Even if outward the cultural signs of their differences were rife, inward, the parallels between Lady Bird and Jackie ran deep. Each had made her mark in Washington as the young, newlywed wife of a young, ambitious husband. Both soon had to contend with their husbands’ infidelities and the humiliation of knowing that their own political and social circles knew of and, indeed, often facilitated the behavior. Miscarriage after miscarriage plagued their quest for offspring. And by 1960, both had husbands for whom serious illness made the prospect of death loom large—Addison’s disease dogged JFK throughout his adult life; depression, heart disease, and other itinerant maladies afflicted Lyndon. Both their husbands smoked and drank too much. Yet, it was not until the 1960 campaign that Jackie and Lady Bird had real occasion to fully evaluate each other. By pairing their husbands on a surprise presidential ticket, the party convention that summer in Los Angeles forced upon the two women a rapid, at times uncomfortable bond, but one that eventually grew into a lifelong empathy and unexpected intimacy.
* * *
Neither Lyndon nor Lady Bird went to the 1960 Los Angeles convention with the ambition of landing the vice-presidential slot. Having turned down Joe Kennedy’s earlier offer to finance an LBJ-JFK ticket in 1956, Lyndon had instead delivered the Texas delegation for JFK’s own failed bid for the vice presidency during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year—former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson was the presidential nominee—on the surface a magnanimous gesture, but one unambiguously intended to telegraph to the young senator and his family that LBJ had the power to act as kingmaker within the party. But by the end of the decade, Joe, Jack, and Bobby made their play to build a national profile and organization to elect Jack to the White House. By 1960, much to the Kennedy clan’s distaste, they needed LBJ, for his regional roots and political chops. In assessing his own prospects for a presidential run, Johnson remained clear-eyed that while as majority leader he could organize massive support in the U.S. Senate, his leverage in Congress would not automatically translate into the national stature necessary for a successful presidential run. After working as a congressional staffer and then running a New Deal youth employment program in Austin, he won his first House seat in a special election in 1937 with ten thousand dollars in financing from Lady Bird’s inheritance. He went on to win it handily, and mostly unopposed, in 1938, 1940, 1942, 1944, and 1946. He lost a bid for the Senate in 1941, and in 1948 he authorized a fraudulent voting operation to secure victory against a primary opponent, winning by just 87 votes, before winning in the general election that year.
Ambivalence, the prospect of loss, the suggestion of illegitimacy—these were constant themes in Lyndon Johnson’s political career. From Lady Bird’s perspective when it came to national office, her husband had been “deeply uncertain about his ability, his health, his being a southerner, whether that was a good thing for him to do.” Yet, by the end of 1959, Lyndon, she recalled, had about “sucked the orange dry” from his tenure as Senate majority leader. “We were reaching a point of no return, a certain defining of pathways” leading toward a presidential bid for Lyndon. Despite his mentor Congressman Sam Rayburn and his longtime aide, future Texas governor John Connally, pushing LBJ to publicize his campaign for the top of the ticket more aggressively, Lady Bird’s husband had instead run an undeclared, ambivalent campaign in 1960. Bird had been at her dying father’s bedside in a hospital in Marshall, Texas, a trip she would make five times that year, when what she knew to be a halfhearted Lyndon finally announced his candidacy just three days before the kickoff of the 1960 convention in Los Angeles. By then, Bobby Kennedy’s national strategy for his brother’s campaign enabled JFK to trounce LBJ by more than double in the first delegate ballot. The night after the bruising defeat, Lady Bird and Lyndon treated themselves to “the best night’s sleep we’d both had in a long time.” But the defeat was a humiliation, and only the first.
Table of Contents
Lady Bird Johnson's White House Diary xi
Prologue: The Huntland Strategy Memo xv
Act I August 1960-January 1965
Chapter 1 The Surrogate 3
Chapter 2 "Shame for Texas" 19
Chapter 3 Transition, Succession 35
Chapter 4 "Thank You, Mrs. Vice President" 48
Chapter 5 The Urban Environment 74
Chapter 6 "We Might Have a Small War on Our Hands" 87
Chapter 7 The Strategist: The 1964 Campaign 101
Chapter 8 "Our Presidency" 123
Act II February 1965-December 1967
Chapter 9 Beautification, Euphemism by Design 133
Chapter 10 "We Could Fall Flat on Our Faces" 159
Chapter 11 "Impeach Lady Bird" 179
Chapter 12 "Little Flames of Fear" 193
Chapter 13 At Home 208
Chapter 14 Protest and the Urban Crisis 223
Chapter 15 "This Is a Stepchild City" 233
Chapter 16 "Not a Luxury … but a Necessity" 250
Chapter 17 Chaos or Community 258
Chapter 18 "Without the Momentum of Success" 266
Chapter 19 The Generation Gap 281
Act III January 1968-August 1968
Chapter 20 "Maggots of Doubt" 301
Chapter 21 "Somewhere … Between the Words Gut and Pot" 311
Chapter 22 "Standing Still When I Should Be Running" 329
Chapter 23 March 31, 1968 341
Chapter 24 Assassination 354
Chapter 25 Resurrection 373
Chapter 26 "Claudia All of My Life" 381
Chapter 27 "Over by Choice" 402
Epilogue: To Survive All Assaults, January 1969-July 2007 413
Photo Credits 507