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‘The Lady Bird Diaries’ sheds new light on the first lady’s contributions, in her own words

Lady Bird Johnson in the Texas Hill Country in 1990.
LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
Lady Bird Johnson in the Texas Hill Country in 1990.

In the midst of the turbulent 1960s, with President Lyndon B. Johnson mired in Vietnam and pushing for new civil rights and voting rights laws on the domestic front, many observers didn’t realize that Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson had become one of the most influential first ladies to occupy the White House.

But in the more than 50 years since she and LBJ left Washington, historians and ordinary Americans alike have learned a great deal more about her impact. Among the most revelatory sources of inside knowledge is years’ worth of audio diaries the first lady kept during her time in the White House. Julia Sweig’s book and podcast about Lady Bird Johnson first brought public attention to the diaries, which are the basis of the a documentary by director Dawn Porter.

The Lady Bird Diaries,” which recently had its world premiere at South by Southwest in Austin, traces five years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, beginning with Lady Bird’s observations on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Porter, who has made two other projects that focus on the era – the Netflix series “Bobby Kennedy for President” and the film “John Lewis: Good Trouble” – said she was particularly interested in what Lady Bird could add to our understanding of such an important time.

“We really wanted to see what we could add from Lady Bird’s perspective about this presidency, but also really give her a voice and lift up all of the contributions that she made to some of the most important decisions that Johnson was making during this presidency,” she said.

Lady Bird Johnson at a Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation Board Meeting in 1981.
LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
Lady Bird Johnson at a Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation Board Meeting in 1981.

In recording the audio diaries, Lady Bird – a UT Austin graduate in journalism and history – knew the importance of documenting her experience and building the raw material of her husband’s legacy and the legacy of his presidency, Sweig said.

“She had that impulse of a historian and journalist. She said very directly that she wanted to do it, to give herself a challenge, to have the discipline of keeping a record about her experience. She wanted to leave that record to her children and grandchildren,” she said. “But, of course, she knew very well how significant she was to the LBJ presidency and to LBJ himself. And she kept that record in order very much … for the public to digest it, to see life in the White House, the LBJ presidency, through her eyes.

Sweig said that the first moment she started to really see Lady Bird’s significance within the Johnson presidency was when she came across a document from May 14, 1964, about six months after Kennedy had been assassinated. Johnson, worried that even if he won the 1964 election, he wouldn’t be able to keep the country together, asked Lady Bird to lay out the pros and cons of him running or not running.

“In our collective wisdom about the Johnson administration, we know that that was his perennial problem. But what the document I found laid out in nine pages, handwritten, was a strategic mind that he was married to, who was at the time, I like to think of – and somebody in the press corps even jokingly, but not-so-jokingly called her “Mrs. Vice President” – acted as his closest aide,” she said. “And in that document, she lays out the pros and cons of running or not. And she says, ‘you should run and you should win; you’re too young to retire, and I don’t want to live with you when you’re this green still,’ essentially. ‘But then in February or March of 1968, you can announce to the world that you’re not going to run for a second term.’

And of course, we all know on March 31st, 1968, he surprised the country, his aides, the world, by stating this much. And the story was that this was because of Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy – and of course, all of those factors were huge, but the two of them had plotted that arc from the beginning. And so she got him into the presidency, you could say, and then led the strategy to get him out. And fill in the blanks: on civil rights, especially environment, Vietnam – she was at his side for all of the major decision-making that he made between the beginning and the moment when he announced he was stepping down.”

Lady Bird is well-known in Texas and beyond for her efforts around what at the time was called “beautification” – a term she hated and by 1967 had instructed her staff to tell the press not to use anymore, Sweig said.

“It was called ‘beautification’ when really she was an environmentalist,” Porter said. “And, you know, when you think about what is ‘women’s work,’ you know, and planting flowers is ‘women’s work;’ gardening is ‘women’s work.’ But beautification and thinking about how we’re going to preserve our environment for future generations and start parks and, you know, lead the precursor to the Environmental Protection Agency starting in Washington, D.C. – that’s not necessarily thought of ‘women’s work.’ And I think you can, you know, look to our later first ladies to see how hard they have struggled to have a recognized impact in policy work.”

Added Sweig: “She was also about bringing the idea of access to nature in American cities to make that more democratic, to make communities in our most underserved neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. – she was a Washingtonian – have access to nature. Not just white Washington, but Black Washington.”

Lady Bird’s tapes also reveal how wary she was of Robert Kennedy, even before he challenged LBJ for the presidency. The Johnsons’ complicated relationship with the Kennedy brothers dated back to them treating Johnson poorly at the 1960 nominating convention, Porter said.

“One thing I want to point out is when we think about when President Kennedy was assassinated, the Kennedys were coming to Texas; the Johnsons were going to host the Kennedys. It was this moment of rapprochement. They were going to, you know, show the Kennedys that there was culture in Texas and they were good hosts, and there were all these events planned,” Porter said. “And then, of course, Dallas happens. And it not only is this huge, horrific tragedy, but it’s also, you know, the Johnsons were like … Kennedy was killed in Texas – it was actually like an additional harm and hurt.

The Kennedys – JFK certainly, and Bobby Kennedy even more so than his brother – really did lean into civil rights. And, of course, it’s the Black vote that actually gets JFK into the presidency. But it’s Lyndon Johnson who does, you know, all the legislation – he does the Voting Rights Act; he does the Civil Rights Act. And so Bobby Kennedy really felt like that was his brother’s legacy, and he was very, very resentful that he felt Johnson was getting credit for what JFK had started.”

Lady Bird Johnson at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act in 1965.
LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
Lady Bird Johnson at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act in 1965.

Porter said that part of what she loves about the movie and the tapes is that the Johnsons had a very loving marriage.

“Regardless of Johnson’s other activities, they not only loved each other, but they respected each other. And I think in some ways, you see her defending her husband,” she said. “You see Bobby Kennedy is an external threat to his authority, to his legacy, and she’s 100% right when Bobby Kennedy declares that he’s going to run for the presidency. They were kind of always waiting for that other shoe to drop.”

“The Lady Bird Diaries” is about a woman, by women, said Porter, who chose not to have any talking heads speak for Lady Bird in the film because the former first lady had left the diaries to tell her story.

“It is a treasure trove of information for scholars about the time, but it’s also an important reminder about how a woman’s voice can be completely erased if we’re not vigilant about looking for this history,” Porter said. “And one thing I want to point out about the film is, people are like, ‘how did you make this film and how did you find footage?’ There was a ton of footage, but it was about Lady Bird, and so nobody asked for it until we asked for it. So it was there. This is not a film of footage that is found in a closet or is hidden for years. This is a film that was right there for the making, if somebody asked the question, ‘what did the woman in the White House think?’ And so we asked that question.”

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