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Biographer: Lady Bird Johnson influenced LBJ's presidency while 'hiding in plain sight'

LadyBirdandLBJ
Courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
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Courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Environmentalism was one area where President Lyndon Johnson relied on First Lady Lady Bird Johnson's dedication and expertise.

It may seem a little cliché to ask an author about the title of a book. But in the case of Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, it actually seems spot on to do so.

Lady Bird Johnson biographer Julia Sweig contends that while Johnson may have demurred at the use of words like "power" or "influence" to describe her role in her husband's presidency, at a deeper level she was likely very aware of the powerful impact she had on the LBJ administration.

Although Sweig describes Lady Bird Johnson as an "astute political animal" who was "engaged with LBJ's ups and downs," Sweig says politics was not Johnson's first love.

"When she first got involved with Lyndon Johnson," Sweig says, Lady Bird "was not wild about the idea of becoming a political spouse." But Sweig says her time in Washington, D.C., and her deep involvement in constituent work, fundraising and her family business helped Johnson evolve into what Sweig describes as "a multitasking, highly skilled person."

Sweig says that skill and influence can be seen in instances such as Johnson's role in persuading LBJ to run for president in 1964 after becoming president following President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. Vietnam and civil rights had LBJ wondering whether he could pull the country together. Johnson persuaded him to run and helped craft an "exit strategy" for him so that "in February or March of 1968 he can announce that he's going to leave."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear why Sweig thinks Lady Bird Johnson and LBJ worked so well together and whether or not Johnson considered herself a feminist as the women's right movement was growing during the LBJ administration.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What did Lady Bird Johnson think of the power she had in her husband Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and in her dynamic with him?

Julia Sweig: If she were sitting here today listening to us use words like power and influence within and on LBJ and his presidency, she may say you're overstating it because she didn't need to take credit in the kind of explicit way that maybe I'm giving her credit for. She was such an astute political animal, and she was so engaged with LBJ’s ups and downs and the upside and the downside of his presidency, that I mean at a very real level she also really did know how important she was; how much he relied upon her - and especially when it comes to some of the elements of his presidency - civil rights and his environmentalism, her environmentalism. I think she was well aware of the role she cast for herself.

 You say Lady Bird Johnson was an astute political animal. Where did that come from?

When she first got involved with Lyndon Johnson she was not wild about the idea of becoming a political spouse or being married to somebody who was going to be a politician, and she let him know that. It's in their love letters from the six-week period between when they first met and became engaged in 1934.

But over time, and especially beginning not with his first congressional campaign but once he was in the House of Representatives in the 1940’s and World War II and thereafter, she really took to - and I'm not saying it was easy — but she did develop and then over 30 years of living in Washington, D.C., and having her hands in constituent development and fundraising and the kind of intelligence networks that he had to build and the management of their public narrative and their business — she really developed as this multitasking, highly skilled person.

Some of that she learned in the doing; some of it she got from him. She talks about how LBJ stretched her and pushed her, and that's really very true. He had a knack for doing that with everybody around him, and sometimes I'm sure it wasn't easy.

It's hard to extrapolate from loss and trauma what kind of grit that builds in one. But she did lose her mother when she was five years old and developed very early on a great deal of independence and autonomy.

Lady Bird Johnson was in the White House when the women's movement was growing and really gaining traction. Was Lady Bird Johnson a feminist herself?

She, I think, would have bristled at calling herself a feminist; to my knowledge [she] never did. But in the doing what she was doing — both as second lady and then as first lady — and elevating the role of professional women, shining the platform, the light of the East Wing's platform in her own voice onto what she called the opportunity for young women and all women to become the total woman, the complete woman.

And what she meant by that was you have a duty to participate professionally and in civic activism and politically but also raise your kids and be a good wife. So she kind of had one foot in the 1950s and one foot in the 1960’s [and] early '70s.

But she resisted what she called stridency and so she wasn't eager to call herself a feminist. And it wasn't until after she left office, as far as I know, when she speaks on the platform of the National Women's Conference in Houston where she tells the audience, "I once thought that the women's movement was for my daughters and their generation, but I now realize it's for all of us."

What is something that even close followers of Lady Bird Johnson's life and work, or people who have studied the Johnson presidency - what is something about her that most people don't know?

The entire thesis of my book has to do with her direct influence in shaping the arc of the LBJ presidency; in getting him into office in that difficult transition of the 14 days between Nov. 22 and Dec. 6, 1963; in persuading him to run in the November 1964 election and that tracks back to a memo that I found in the library in May of 1964 when Vietnam and civil rights and the kind of duality and tension between the two are making LBJ wonder whether he can pull off keeping the country united and should even run at all.

She gets him to run, and then she sets that arc by saying in this memo, what I call the Huntland Strategy memo, that in February or March of 1968 he can announce that he's going to leave. So she's mapped out his exit strategy, too.

Why do you think they worked so well together?

This is where the ability of an outsider to diagnose or explain a marriage has its limits. I think it's kind of easy to do the pop psychology answer to your question but it seems to me that their chemistry, their alchemy, the extent to which they became so intertwined in their business and political enterprise that they just had something — and he saw the intelligent and grounded young woman that she was when he met her.

And she, I think, was very much drawn in by his charisma and his ambition. And that ambition sparked something in her, too. But she gave speeches sometimes where she said, "I never thought that this would become my life," and I don't think it was easy to be married to Lyndon Johnson. She had to give enormously of her energy and mind in order to keep him going. But boy, having the most powerful man in the world rely on you for so much I think also energized her.

Plus the trauma of the JFK assassination and having to move into the presidency under those circumstances also kept them together. He was lucky to have her. I'm not sure he would have pulled it off without her.

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.
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