Book review: ‘Lady Bird and Lyndon’

Author Betty Boyd Caroli
Author Betty Boyd Caroli

Author Betty Boyd Caroli has given readers of history more of her expertise in the underdeveloped topic of America’s first ladies.

This time, she takes on the life and times of Lady Bird Johnson in Lady Bird and Lyndon. On the surface, it seems merely a portrait of marriage, but make no mistake it’s a biography of the 36th president’s spouse.

Raised in Texas long before expanded roles for women in American society were realized, Claudia Taylor Johnson played a central role in Lyndon Johnson’s rise to political power, first as a congressional aide, a New Deal employee and congressman, U.S. senator and finally as president.

Lady Bird, who died at age 95 in 2007, was an equal and no-less-ambitious player, lending to their partnership a financial fortune she built in the broadcasting industry as an astute businesswoman and political adviser. She played instrumental roles in her husband’s major legislative roles in the 1960s, starting with “Victory No. 1,” the largest income tax reduction to that point in history, and later triumphs in civil rights and the Great Society.

She also was learned in the social mores that he was completely ignorant of, “a gracious people pleaser.”

Perhaps most importantly, she was the president’s “mood stabilizer,” the only one who could steady his manic mood swings that were often manifested in legendary outbursts of ire.

And to do that she had to be incredibly strong.

It’s no stretch to suggest that if there were no Lady Bird, there likely would have been no LBJ presidency.

Caroli, author of First Ladies and The Roosevelt Women, took note of a recorded phone conversation of Lady Bird’s critique of his performance at a news conference. It showed “how cannily she could take him apart without riling his anger.”

First, she inquired if he wanted to hear her opinions now or later. “Yes, ma’am. I’m willing now.”

She praised parts as “good, crisp” answers or good examples of displaying a “pickup in drama or interest.” In other parts, she criticized him as “a little breathless and there was too much looking down and I think it was a little too fast.”

She also noted a contradiction between what he was saying now and what he had said in the past.

The reader will recognize many of the contributions of Robert Caro, author of the acclaimed four-volume (and counting) biography on LBJ.

Caroli’s work is a very nice supplement that fills in some important gaps.

Most notably, she uses love letters the two exchanged while courting in the 1930s, most of them not available to researchers until the 2013 Valentine’s Day release by the LBJ Presidential Library.

“They are romantic and raw and brimming with lust,” Caroli notes in the book. “But they also reveal the implicit deal the pair struck with each other: that Lyndon would fulfill her ambition of being a match with a man as charismatic and as comfortable with power as her father while taking her away from him; and that Bird would provide Lyndon with a ferocious devotion equal to his mother’s and the emotional ballast he needed to achieve his ambition.”

As LBJ grew blue (as he was wont to do) one August day in 1964, he was poised to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination for a full term as president.

Bird, as he called her, arrived with her Midas touch.

“Beloved: You are as brave a man as Harry Truman — or FDR — or Lincoln. ... To step out now would be wrong for your country and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future. Your friends would be frozen in embarrassed silence and your enemies jeering. ... In the final analysis, I can’t carry any of the burdens you talked of — so I know it’s only your choice. But I know you are as brave as any of the 35.”

She would be instrumental in helping him to a landslide victory with her influence in a Deep South angry over LBJ’s civil rights advances.

Lady Bird had other reasons for him to run in 1964.

“Out of office, he would feel frustrated and useless, drink too much, and look for a scapegoat. She did not want to be ‘it.’ 

Some of which was a very accurate forecast to his retirement, beginning in 1969.

Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President

  • By Betty Boyd Caroli
  • Simon & Schuster, $29.99
  • Audio: Blackstone Audio, $39.95; narrated by actress Amanda Carlin