A fresh look at Lady Bird Johnson that upends her image as a plain Jane who was married for her money and mistreated by Lyndon. This Lady Bird worked quietly behind the scenes through every campaign, every illness, and a trying presidency as a key strategist, fundraiser, barnstormer, peacemaker, and indispensable therapist.
Lady Bird grew up the daughter of a domineering father and a cultured but fragile mother. When a tall, pushy Texan named Lyndon showed up in her life, she knew what she wanted: to leave the rural Texas of her childhood and experience the world like her mother dreamed, while climbing the mountain of ambition she inherited from her father. She married Lyndon within weeks, and the bargain they struck was tacitly agreed upon in the courtship letters they exchanged: this highly gifted politician would take her away, and she would save him from his weaknesses.
The conventional story goes that Lyndon married Lady Bird for her money, demeaned her by flaunting his many affairs, and that her legacy was protecting the nation’s wildflowers. But she was actually a full political partner throughout his ascent—the one who swooped in to make the key call to a donor, to keep the team united, to campaign in hostile territory, and to jumpstart him out of his paralyzing darkness. And while others were shocked that she put up with his womanizing, she always knew she had the upper hand.
Lady Bird began the partnership by using part of her nest egg to help finance Lyndon’s first political campaign. Over and over, she kept him from quitting, including the 1948 election when he was so immobilized with self-pity that she had to pick up the phone to solicit donations on his behalf. She was also the one who got him out of bed, when he was in a deep funk, to go to the 1964 Democratic nominating convention.
Lady Bird and Lyndon, Betty Boyd Caroli restores Lady Bird to her rightful place in history, painting a vivid portrait of a marriage with complex, but familiar and identifiable overtones.
"With a shrewd and clear eye, Betty Caroli has redefined one of the most compelling marriages of 20th century American politics. Lady Bird Johnson has always been seen as the loyal supporter of her charismatic husband Lyndon, enduring his wounding outbursts, unceasing demands, and flagrant infidelities. Now, in this absorbing study, Lady Bird finally takes center stage, showing the strength and resilience behind her soft Southern manner, and we see for the first time her political acuity and business savvy, which were essential to Lyndon’s success. Betty Caroli deeply understands the couple’s temperamental dynamic, and skillfully reveals how deftly Lady Bird worked behind the scenes: building bridges, offering wise advice, keeping her volatile husband steady during his darkest moments, and helping him turn his sweeping ambitions into action." Author: Sally Bedell Smith, author of For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House and Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House
"It''s fantastic." Author: Whoopi Goldberg
“This inside look at the marriage of Lady Bird and Lyndon provides stunningly fresh insights into the well-examined political soul of Lyndon Johnson. But the star of this story is Lady Bird, and out of Caroli’s strikingly original portrait of this strong, smart woman emerges an irresistible tale of politics, ambition, and the power of unconditional marital love." Author: David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton
“A great book. Everybody who loves politics has got to read this one.” Author: Chris Matthews, host of Hardball with Chris Matthews
Lady Bird and Lyndon, Betty Caroli takes us inside the biggest mystery there is: a 40-year political marriage. The romance, love affair and partnership between Miss Claudia Taylor and Lyndon Baines Johnson are all here for the first time--and so are their struggles and heartbreaks, a reminder that politics is complicated but family is even more so." Author: Michael Duffy & Nancy Gibbs, coauthors of The Presidents Club
"The coach, the advisor, the steady soothsayer to an erratic man—in these pages, Lady Bird Johnson bursts from history’s shadows to her rightful place at the heart of a stirring story. More important still, Betty Caroli establishes the prominence of a gripping and mysterious relationship—one of the critical intimacies of the 20th century. This is a tremendous work of scholarship and storytelling." Author: Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two
"Engrossing and perceptive. . . . Caroli shows that Mrs. Johnson played a crucial part in getting her husband to the White House and through the presidency. One of the essential studies of a modern first lady written by one of the masters of the field." Author: Lewis L. Gould, author of Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady
“Caroli redefines the First Lady as an iron fist in a white glove." Source: Vanity Fair
"Smartly written and devoid of gossip and cant. . . . Stunning." Source: Boston Globe
"The spouses of the world''s most influential movers and shakers rarely receive similar attention to their lives, regardless of the influence they may have had, but biographer Caroli bucks the trend with this enticing and fun examination of Claudia Alta Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson. . . . Johnson changed the role of First Lady forever, and Caroli''s well-researched work gives readers insight into that shift." Source: Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Betty Boyd Caroli is the author of
Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President;
First Ladies: Martha Washington to Michelle Obama;
Inside the White House; and
The Roosevelt Women. She has been a guest on
The O’Reilly Factor,
Lehrer NewsHour, Al Jazeera
, Booknotes with Brian Lamb, and many others. A graduate of Oberlin College, Caroli holds a master’s degree in Mass Communications from the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in American Civilization from New York University. She currently resides in New York City and Venice, Italy.
Lady Bird and Lyndon
AT EXACTLY 4 p.m. on December 9, 1967, Lady Bird Johnson started a slow, dignified descent down the wide stairway from the residential quarters of the White House to the State Floor, where more than six hundred guests were waiting. All of them were dressed for an evening gala, and while some lingered around the foyer at the foot of the stairs, chatting in small groups, others had already taken their places in the huge East Room, where Lady Bird was headed. In the four years of her husband’s presidency, she had walked this route dozens of times to greet heads of state and delegations of various sizes from all over the United States. But today was different. And very special. Today her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Lynda, was marrying the military aide she had begun dating that summer.
The press had avidly reported on all the prenuptial festivities leading up to this, the first White House wedding of a president’s daughter in more than fifty years, and Lady Bird was determined to deliver an event perfect down to the smallest detail. Since the August morning when she first learned of her daughter’s decision to wed Charles “Chuck” Robb, she had devoted more hours than she could count to mulling over white silks for the gown that Geoffrey Beene would design for the bride. She had composed and then revised guest lists and she had considered multiple cake recipes before deciding on the pound cake, flavored with rum and white raisins. She had even taken time to insure that the cameras recording the ceremony would be hidden, their presence indicated only by tiny slits in the white fabric backdrop behind the improvised altar.
Dedicating this much attention to her daughter was uncharacteristic of Lady Bird Johnson, who knew she did not deserve high marks for her mothering. Both her daughters had told her so, sometimes in teary-eyed sorrow or in accusatory tones. In her household, Lyndon always came first, and she had often left Lynda and the younger Luci for weeks at a time so she could appear at his side in political campaigns and cater to his every command. Even when she resolved to stay behind with her daughters, she would change her mind and go to him, unable to resist his plea that he needed her. Rather than offer some excuse for falling short, she admitted to her diary that she had “neglected” her daughters but not “enough for me to get a guilt complex.”
On the wintry afternoon of Lynda’s wedding, Lady Bird’s arrival in the East Room was the signal for the ceremony to begin. As soon as she took her place behind the velvet rope setting off a space around the altar for the wedding party, the groomsmen began filing in, followed by the bridesmaids in their Christmasy red gowns. As the Marine Band struck up “Here Comes the Bride,” it was as if a drum roll had suddenly hushed the crowd, and Lady Bird could see all eyes turn toward the door to watch Lynda enter on her daddy’s arm. Beautiful as Lynda looked in her “regal” high-necked gown, embroidered with silk flowers and seed pearls, Lady Bird’s gaze fastened not on her daughter but on Lyndon. In her account of that day, she described how she watched him “all the way” to the altar, her heart “full of tenderness” for the man whose hair suddenly looked much whiter than before.
The East Room was so packed that everyone had to remain standing, except for a handful of elderly guests who had been provided with benches. How different this glittering crowd was from the motley small gathering that witnessed Lady Bird’s wedding thirty-three years earlier in Texas. Surrounding her today were U.S. senators alongside Supreme Court justices and American ambassadors who had journeyed from posts in Europe and Asia to attend. She knew most of the six-hundred-plus by name, while at her own wedding, an impromptu event put together by a friend of Lyndon’s, the only familiar face was that of her college roommate.
Although clad for Lynda’s wedding in a costly designer outfit, Lady Bird knew there would be odious comparisons made between her and her glamorous predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy. In the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, flustered Americans meeting Lady Bird for the first time occasionally blurted out Mrs. Kennedy’s name instead of hers. Even after that stopped and Lady Bird became a household name, she understood she would never match Jackie’s “magic,” her ability to draw people to her like a “Pied Piper.” But the comparisons failed to sting. Lady Bird blithely brushed off derogatory references to her looks and provincial tastes, and when once faced with a portrait emphasizing her prominent nose, she quipped that it “looked just like my nose looks.”
When the time came for Chuck and Lynda to repeat their vows, Lady Bird warmed to the way the bridegroom answered in “firm and clear” tones. But it was Lyndon’s response to the minister’s question, “Who gives this woman in marriage?” that she thought sent a “ripple of emotion” through the crowd. Lyndon had said, “Her mother and I.”
It was a remarkable affirmation of a partnership that had caused more than a little comment during their years in public life. Lady Bird knew very well what people were saying, that Lyndon had married a plain Jane for her money after courting more beautiful women. She had registered the descriptions of her as a dish rag, subject to his bellowed orders and demeaning remarks. But it was her reaction to his womanizing that seemed to baffle everyone. Not only did she put up with it and with his talking about it—she was unfailingly polite to every woman with whom he had or was rumored to have had an affair. She invited them to the ranch and complimented them on their looks and accomplishments. Several of them were in the East Room that day. A lot of people were asking each other why.
Lady Bird knew what few others did—that Lyndon trusted her—and only her—with his most important secret—his own frailty. This big strong man, a genius at politics, could be suddenly undone and once undone had trouble getting himself back on track. When faced with a huge problem or disappointment, he would go to bed and pull the covers over his head, and that’s when she stepped in, to get him on his feet and moving again. Only she could do that. She had done it time and again, and while she realized that some of his closest staff during these last two years, years she would describe as “pure hell,” sensed that something like this was going on, only she knew, and she would never tell. It was their secret.
The fact that he had admitted his problem to her and relied on her to help him deal with it gave her the strength to take the hit. She would rather look weak herself than bring him down. She could blow off what others said about her. Those humiliating descriptions, the comparisons with Jackie, her daughters’ complaints about her lack of nurturing—they counted for nothing. She was as sure now, as when she married him, that she was the most important person in Lyndon’s life.
In just twenty minutes, the Robb ceremony was finished. As soon as the Marine Band struck up Mendelssohn’s special march and the wedding party exited, Bird took Lyndon’s arm and moved quickly through the throng of guests and back upstairs for photos. She had not permitted the press pool to witness the taking of vows, but here in the Yellow Oval Room, from which all the furniture had been removed, were dozens of reporters, armed with a “vast array of cameras.” After pictures were taken of the wedding party, the bride and groom and their parents went back downstairs to greet every single guest, in a reception line so slowed by all the hugging and kissing that it took two hours to get through it.
By that time the East Room had been converted to a dance hall, and as soon as Peter Duchin’s orchestra struck its first notes, everything became such “a swirl” that Bird could not remember who danced with whom first. What she remembered very clearly was how quickly Lyndon had cut in on her, and with one of his broadest smiles quipped how far she had come since that “purple dress” she had worn as a bride thirty-three years earlier. He didn’t leave it at that, but, in the very dearest “touches” of the day, he referred three more times to their own wedding ceremony and that “awful purple dress.” His jesting words, for her ears only, conjured up so many memories—of the day she married Lyndon and of all that had happened since.
At times like this, when Lady Bird was thinking about marriage in general and her own in particular, her thoughts went to a little metal box she had carried with her through a dozen house moves. It contained the letters she had written to Lyndon and he had written to her, when she was still “Bird” to him and all her friends. Those letters laid out the quid pro quo of their relationship, and that box, now carefully stowed in her sitting room on the second floor of the White House, contained the key to understanding what held this marriage together.
The morning after Lynda’s wedding, she took out that box and spent several hours going over the precious letters. Even in the exhilaration of her daughter’s big day, an opulent White House wedding, it was her own marriage that Bird wanted to revisit. It had been her husband, not her daughter, who captured and held her gaze in their walk down the aisle, and it had been his teasing remarks about the purple dress that had provided the strongest emotional pull. It would be those letter-reading hours that she would single out as among the very “most satisfying” hours of her time in the White House.
This is the story of that marriage.