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 a new 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.
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.”