The 123 hours of audiotapes that Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson recorded during her husband’s wholly unexpected tenure in the White House capture five of the most fraught and productive years of the American presidency from a front-row vantage point. Her observations, some held sealed until as late as 2017, were a core resource for Julia Sweig’s biography Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight. Based on that book and Sweig’s subsequent podcast, Dawn Porter’s sympathetic and involving documentary furthers the argument that Lady Bird made the most of a vaguely defined role, embarking on advocacy projects that were ahead of their time while providing crucial support and counsel to LBJ.
A director who has explored the American political landscape in stand-alone docs (Gideon’s Army, John Lewis: Good Trouble) and series (Bobby Kennedy for President), Porter casts a fresh light on a well-trod period of recent history. Beyond the first lady’s recordings, with their incisive intimacy, The Lady Bird Diaries steps outside the standard repertoire of archival clips to offer a compelling visual chronicle. Porter supplements the footage and stills with recordings of LBJ’s White House phone calls — including one with Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as subtly animated watercolor-style illustrations that fill in a few blanks without feeling intrusive.
The Lady Bird Diaries
The Bottom Line
Pivotal history delivered with a keen eye and a honeyed drawl.
All of this is propelled by the central figure’s intelligence and even-keeled compassion. “I felt like I was walking onto a stage for a part I had never rehearsed,” she recalls of being thrust into the role of first lady, after the nightmare Friday in Dallas that would find her aboard Air Force One beside her shell-shocked husband and the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, in her bloodstained pink suit, for LBJ’s emergency swearing-in ceremony. It was soon afterward that Lady Bird’s press secretary, Liz Carpenter, suggested she record her thoughts about her White House experience, and offered a boxy reel-to-reel that belonged to her son and passed for “portable” in 1963.
Born in 1912, Lady Bird certainly took the traditional role of helpmeet seriously, but she was also college-educated — she studied journalism — and a keen observer of human nature with a sure grasp of political exigencies. Her comments are marked by curiosity about people, and, at times, a quiet urgency, whether she’s describing the “peculiar unease” she felt around Robert Kennedy or acknowledging the bouts of nearly paralyzing depression that, unknown to the public, afflicted her husband.
Through it all, there’s something unflappable about her, a no-nonsense solidity. “I’m just not the type for sketches and swatches,” she says of her sudden obligation to set some kind of fashion standard. It’s especially endearing to hear her describe, with a Texan lilt, a “medduh” of flowers or confess to the “self-indulgence” of “a glass of wine and Gunsmoke.” In the next breath she pierces the bright surface, characterizing such a night of TV escapism as an example of the capacity to carry on “with disaster hanging over your heads.”
The disaster she speaks of is the deepening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, a weight that LBJ felt acutely as soon as he took office. For all his reluctance to commit American soldiers to the conflict, after winning a landslide election in 1964, he followed the recommendations of his advisers — who, the American people would eventually learn, were lying. Johnson’s escalation of the conflict would be his political undoing and would cloud a legacy that includes some of the most progressive and far-reaching domestic measures ever achieved by an administration. He also appointed the first Black Cabinet member (Robert C. Weaver, for HUD) and the first Black chief executive of a major American city (Walter Washington, mayor of D.C.), and nominated the first Black Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall).
Porter is alert to the interpersonal complexities between Blacks and whites in the South — connections that can run deeper than in the ostensibly integrated North even as they’re steeped in a poisoned legacy. In the grand party-politics tradition of Democrats and Republicans pointing out each other’s hypocrisies, a few Republicans attempted to cast the Johnsons’ professed beliefs in doubt by announcing that an elderly Black tenant farmer still lived on a piece of Alabama land the first lady had inherited. Porter lets Lady Bird have the last word on the matter. And she offers the words of Zephyr Wright, a Black woman who worked as a cook for the Johnsons, attesting to LBJ’s sincerity regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of his administration’s landmark pieces of legislation.
The highway beautification program that Lady Bird spearheaded was derided by some as trivial, and she despaired at the insufficiency of the word “beautification” because it suggested something cosmetic. But it wasn’t femme-friendly busy work she was championing; she was ahead of the curve, especially within the Washington establishment, in recognizing the interconnectedness of environmental health, quality of life and social justice.
As explored in Robert Caro’s life’s work, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a political animal of uncommon complexity, and his presidency was one of profound historic significance. For all his dazzling skill, though, it was long understood by many observers how crucial Lady Bird was to his ascendancy, her refinement counterbalancing his sometimes gleeful coarseness; Johnson himself called her “the brains and money of this family.” Porter doesn’t delve into her business savvy, but she does show how easily and assuredly Lady Bird stepped into her White House responsibilities, and how she shaped the role with a strong sense of self and purpose, from her feedback on one of LBJ’s first presidential press conferences (“a good B-plus”) to the nine-page analysis of his election options for 1964. Weighing personal considerations against matters of professional responsibility and ambition, she laid out a course of action through 1968, a plan that Johnson would ultimately follow.
The Lady Bird Diaries reveals a curiosity on the first lady’s part about the New Left, a rising coalition of civil rights and antiwar activists, but also an old-school disdain for young protesters. She regards their criticisms as “a sterile thing” and not constructive. But while the doc touches on the first lady’s conflicted contradictions, it’s more interested in her courage. “I want to know what’s going on,” she says at one point, “even if to know is to suffer.”
And when a member of LBJ’s inner circle is involved in a scandal that reflects the homophobic times — an era when the words “homosexual,” “pervert” and “traitor” were somehow interchangeable — her reaction might not reflect a level of 21st century enlightenment, but it’s off the charts in terms of empathy and sensitivity. She insists that her husband and his administration express public support for their colleague rather than opting for cold-shoulder silence. “My love, my love,” she implores him. And he listens.