Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President

  • By Betty Boyd Caroli
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 480 pp.

The story of a woman as impressive as the man she perpetually stood behind.

A plunge into Betty Boyd Caroli’s Lady Bird and Lyndon offers a fascinating portrait of a remarkable partnership. It also paints brightly the character of the extraordinarily gifted Lady Bird Johnson, revealing the behind-the-scenes power she wielded at a time when wives existed to serve husbands and their careers, and our country had not yet opened to the possibility of a female president.

The dual biography is a generous gift in yet another way, too: As we turn its pages in our reading chairs, we are posed the question: Can a great man be great alone?

LBJ’s political brilliance has been well documented; here is the deserved story of his talented helpmeet. Caroli lets us know, in her comprehensive account, that, while LBJ is a renowned born leader, Claudia Alta Taylor-cum-Lady Bird, was impressive in her own right. At the age of 34, for instance, Bird bought a two-bit Austin radio station, and, through sheer acuity, eventually turned her original investment of $17,500 into a media empire.

A powerhouse not above cleaning the radio station offices, she also managed, as a young woman, 3,000 acres of cotton and timberland in Alabama — and her business exploits mushroomed from there. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called Lady Bird “one of the most astute businesswomen in Texas…It would be difficult to find any spouse in American political history up to that time with credentials to match those of Senator Johnson’s wife in 1957.”

Known best for her highly successful program to beautify America, Lady Bird accomplished far more. For one thing, she broke the mold for first ladies. The first to hold the bible as her husband took the oath of office, she was also the first to campaign without her husband. “Rather than act the fashion icon or very private helpmate,” as did Jackie Kennedy, “Bird intended to show how a spouse can be a full collaborator.”

Bird’s unpretentious appearance could fool people, but those she met soon learned she was a spunky, bright, opinionated, and extremely well-disciplined workhorse. Katie Louchheim, a leader of Democratic women, remarked that Lady Bird didn’t have “a single good feature,” but a “charm and a leisurely paced intelligent, lacquered veneer that takes on greatness.”

Named “a human dynamo” by Newsweek in 1960, Booth Mooney, one of LBJ’s aides, described her as “a figure of steel cloaked in velvet. Both metal and fabric were genuine.” Civil rights activist Cliff Durr commented as LBJ was about to be sworn in, “We just wish Bird could be President.”

Lady Bird’s ambition was driving and her talent extraordinary, but as a woman denied the direct power she might have enjoyed in a later era, she seized her best chance: She attached herself to the crude son of a Texas legislator in whom she detected an equal lust for power — and fashioned herself into the archetypal woman behind, and living through, the great man. Always eschewing the label “feminist,” Bird once told Barbara Walters, “It was a different world then. That was your husband. You lived his life.”

According to biographer Caroli, this is the marital deal the Johnson couple struck with each other: “that Lyndon would fulfill her ambition of being matched with a man as charismatic and as comfortable with power as her father…and that Bird would provide Lyndon with a ferocious devotion equal to his mother’s and the emotional ballast he needed to achieve his ambition.”

Amazingly, this bargain paid off for both members of the couple. One can easily understand its benefits to Lyndon, but its advantages for Lady Bird are harder to fathom.

As one moves through this substantial biography, which tracks all the twists and turns of one heck of a complicated marriage, one wonders how on earth Bird managed her life with her husband and accomplished so much on her own to boot. For Lyndon Baines Johnson was, as reported here, about as impossible a man to take up with as a woman could come by.

Filled with “bottomless ambition,” he was a bully so manipulative and humiliating that his staffers labeled his behavior “the treatment.” Blatantly egotistical and self-promoting, he talked only about himself. A man who constantly issued conflicting orders and made unreasonable demands, when he traveled, he “acted like a spoiled potentate…He insisted on bringing cases of his favorite scotch, his own oversized bed, and his super shower heads.”

LBJ was himself thin-skinned and unable to support any criticism, but this didn’t stop him from humiliating and criticizing Bird. Among many insults he shot her way, LBJ insisted that Bird watch her weight and keep him informed about her breast and hip measurements. To add to the mix, he was jealous of any attention to her.

Not just arbitrary and inconsiderate, LBJ was subject to exasperating mood swings. This meant he and everyone around him lived on a seesaw. “One minute he was barking orders like a general and the next he became morose, he wanted no one near him.” Back then often called manic-depressive, he would now probably be diagnosed bipolar, or as possessing a paranoid personality due to his love of secrecy and inordinate need for control.

To top it off, Lyndon was an insecure, needy mama’s boy, always grasping for love and support. And it was Bird’s job to fill the bottomless pit of need and, with her wand, supply his every wish.

Here is a list of all the roles this wife of all wives — and arguably first lady of all first ladies — assumed, on behalf of her husband and as a service to her country. They may possibly serve as a primer for most of those who wish to be supportive partners to arrogant, powerful, over-burdened great men.

First and foremost, Lady Bird performed as a saleswoman. When she married the cocky wrangler from Johnson City, she not only vowed to love and to cherish Lyndon, but “to sell him to his worst enemy, who sometimes seemed to be Lyndon himself.” Her role as premier Lyndon-marketer necessitated the assumption of auxiliary roles, such as hostess, networker, equanimity maintainer, and fence-mender.

Lady Bird was a social genius. From the first, as the wife of a young legislator, Lady Bird devoted herself to courting Lyndon’s opponents and allies alike — and she cultivated female networks as well — to win favor with those who might one day be useful to her mate. Making her home a veritable hospitality center, she “showered everyone with generous invitations and unfailing charm.”

Unlike her grandiose husband, she was authentic, and found common ground with all, even with those set against her spouse. When the snobbish Kennedy staffers and loyalists whom President Johnson kept on board referred to her husband as “Uncle Cornpone” and to her as “Little Pork Chop,” she simply ignored the slights and wooed them through flattery and invitations.

In addition to forging bonds with Washington players, Lady Bird spent much of her time mending fences since her husband managed to insult almost everyone he ran across and caused ruptures by the minute. “Poised and sure,” and almost preternaturally calm in situations that would make other mortals cringe or lash out, “Bird kept a smile pasted on and the flattery flowing — to make up for her husband’s brashness and gaffes.” To add to her gifts, she was an ace at dealing with the press, lacing reporters to her side with her remarkable openness.

A top-drawer manager, Lady Bird looked after virtually everything in order to keep her hypersensitive, powerful husband functioning at his best in the political arena in which they both thrived. She took care of the household, bought the family homes, and orchestrated their regular moves back and forth to Texas. She managed, too, the relationships with Lyndon’s needy siblings. The only area in which she fell down was in child care. Remarks were made that she managed her daughters like her TV stations — from afar.

An avid collaborator with her husband, Lady Bird conducted opposition research, served as a sounding board, and acted as a tactful advisor. She seemed to know, by instinct, that “leading by pretending to follow is how real power is wielded,” and influenced her husband via a method she called “infiltration.” “She would listen thoughtfully to his long monologues about some problem he was facing, and then, in the softest tones, without a hint of challenge in her voice, she would tell him what she thought. It could be a tentative suggestion, such as ‘You might also consider…’ Or a gentle query: ‘Do you mean perhaps…?’ Then she would sometimes hear him recycle her position a few days later.”

Marriage to Lyndon also required that Bird be available to respond to his every plea for help — and these were incessant. Caroli writes, “Even at his most robust, Lyndon required considerable caretaking. Like a potentate with a throng of lackeys, he counted on someone always at the ready, to fetch his glasses, find him the right newspaper, take notes. On the road he depended on a secretary or female reporter to deal with personal needs — keep tabs on his supply of fresh shirts and whatever medicine he was taking….to provide ‘semi-valet’ service…and hand over the right Stetson.”

Lady Bird also was periodically called upon to nurse, coax, and pamper the sickly, over-stressed Lyndon through heart attacks and gall bladder surgery.

As if all this weren’t enough, the competent Bird was forced to assume yet another and perhaps toughest role of all: that of dealing with her husband’s womanizing. The insecure 36th president was a man who needed beautiful women constantly fawning over him to bolster his morale. LBJ cultivated a “sexual gorilla” image and, unlike JFK, flaunted and bragged about his sexual exploits.

At times, Lady Bird would walk into his room at an inopportune moment and be confronted with another woman’s undergarments strewn across the floor — to which she would respond by calmly gathering up the bras and panties and inviting the woman to dinner. This was her general approach to the matter: to hide her disappointment and befriend and learn from the women her husband couldn’t keep his hands off.

There were so many: “wives of fellow legislators and aides, family friends, journalists, and secretarial staff.” As Caroli reports, the president’s “wife could hardly avoid the women mentioned — she saw them every day — at political gatherings, in his office, in their homes or hers. Snubbing them or treating them ungraciously could have backfired, reverberating through Lyndon’s office. So she incorporated them into her day without showing an ounce of bad will.”

Caroli notes, “Although Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy differed in many respects, they were a lot alike in their thinking about men. Each idolized her own notoriously philandering father. In their impressionable early years, both women learned that the ‘manliness’ of their beloved fathers did not include monogamy, and wedding vows notwithstanding, ‘faithful’ was not part of the marriage bargain.” Bird refused to let her husband’s dalliances wreck their partnership. She simply reminded herself of what she knew with absolute conviction: that she was essential to Lyndon and he loved her best.

What are we to think of all this? Do we view Lady Bird as an abused woman and poor example to others who should have left her husband? As a foolish Pollyanna who denied what should have been confronted? As an extraordinary, gifted, warm, strong human being able to withstand abuse and sacrifice for a greater good? As a woman so hungry for power and self-realization that she would put up with anything? Or — recognizing that we can’t, any of us, do it alone, especially presidents — do we see her as a woman who created a solid, effective collaborative marriage, and offer thanks that there are people like Lady Bird who can nurture their mates to greatness, and forge remarkable marital teams such as this?

We may thank Betty Boyd Caroli and her compelling portrait of a woman and her marriage for offering us this question to ponder.

What is absolutely sure is that Lady Bird Johnson made it possible for our 36th president to become the functional, transformational leader he was. Upon closing Lady Bird and Lyndon, we may perhaps linger in our chairs struck with a sense that, in this marriage, there was not only a woman behind the great man, but the great woman behind a man.

Sara Mansfield Taber is author of Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter. She has also published Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia, and Of Many Lands: Journal of a Traveling Childhood. Her essays, travel pieces, and commentary have been published in literary magazines and newspapers such as the Washington Post and produced for public radio. 

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