Review: ‘Lady Bird and Lyndon’ Reveals the Demure Powerhouse Behind a President

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Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1972

In the annals of Washington D.C. power couples, Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife Lady Bird rarely make the top of the list. He’s often seen as the bombastic, abrasive cowboy, showing off his appendectomy scar to reporters and riding roughshod over his presidency by sheer force of will, while Lady Bird is usually considered to be the nice woman who made sure our highways had wildflowers growing beside them.

That assessment, however, is a gross misrepresentation, according to author Betty Boyd Caroli. In her absorbing new book Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President (Simon & Schuster; October 27, 2015), Caroli delves deep into the complex and compelling relationship between Lady Bird and LBJ, and the indispensable role the First Lady played in his public and private life, up to and including his tenure in the White House.

lady-bird-and-lyndon-coverCaroli’s book comes just as the 2016 presidential race is getting started and political onlookers are evaluating possible presidential spouses (What role might Bill Clinton play in a possible Hillary Clinton presidency? Would Columba Bush play as prominent a part as First Lady as her mother-in-law or sister-in-law?). And back in the 1960s,while Jacqueline Kennedy might have gotten the lion’s share of headlines as First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson played as influential a role in getting both JFK and LBJ into the Oval Office—and in keeping her husband’s presidency running.

Caroli paints a fascinating portrait of boisterous, abrasive, temperamental husband who, underneath it all, was needy and insecure—and a wife who, on the surface, was demure and unfailingly gentle, but behind the scenes, was part ambassador, part power broker and part psychological therapist. A shrewd businesswoman, it was Lady Bird who bought a failing radio station in 1943, working hard to make it profitable so that her husband could pursue a career in politics without worrying about supporting the family. Later, thanks to her husband’s influence in the House and the Senate, Lady Bird was able to open the doors to licenses and other favorable treatment that was essential to the formation of a broadcasting empire.

Caroli also reveals Lady Bird’s vital role as a campaigner. In 1960, her work organizing events for women voters was crucial to the election of the Kennedy/Johnson ticket—nowhere more so than in her prized electoral home state (“Lady Bird won Texas for us,” Robert Kennedy said after the election). In 1964, after LBJ was demonized in the South as a “traitor” for his stance on civil rights, it was Lady Bird who embarked on a campaign tour of her own through the region, speaking on her husband’s behalf.

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Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson in Oval Office

But the book also contains groundbreaking new revelations on the importance of Lady Bird’s role as advisor to her husband, both politically and personally. Caroli mines Lady Bird’s own unpublished diary to tell stories of the numerous occasions that LBJ woke the First Lady in the wee hours of the morning to discuss Vietnam or the upcoming election—or even about how he could get out of the presidency, a position which often drove him into deep depressions. In fact, in 1964, upset about the job he had done so far, LBJ closed the blinds and crawled into bed, refusing to attend the upcoming Democratic Convention. Only Lady Bird could convince him to change his mind, imploring him not to let down his friends and hand victory to his foes. LBJ not only attended the convention and accepted his party’s nomination, but with his wife campaigning for him, he won the general election by what was then the biggest landslide in history.

In Lady Bird and Lyndon, Caroli shatters the worn-out narrative of a brash, philandering husband who married his modest, reserved wife for her money. Through unprecedented research, including her investigation into previously unpublished letters that LBJ and Lady Bird exchanged during their brief courtship, Caroli fashions a detailed and captivating portrayal of the ultimate Washington power couple: the larger-than-life president, and the woman who played the indispensable role in making him who he was.

In the annals of presidential spouses, the story of the Johnsons is one that is often misrepresented by biographers and misunderstood by the public. Caroli’s intriguing Lady Bird and Lyndon not only sets the record straight, but casts new light on the role of the power behind the throne in American politics—and how the person wielding that power can have a lasting effect on history.

 

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