Claire Underwood Could Learn a Lot From Lady Bird Johnson
Lyndon Johnson has long held the reputation as the premier wheeler dealer in American politics, but a new biography of their marriage gives his wily wife a lot of the credit for his coups.
Lyndon Johnson has had good press the past few years. Fiftieth anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 have prompted several histories spotlighting the political genius who shepherded those bills and a raft of other liberal legislation through Congress. But the secretive, deceptive Cold Warrior who prosecuted the Vietnam War and did his vindictive best to torpedo any opponent who questioned its wisdom returns in Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President. Betty Boyd Caroli not only brings back the less-than-politically-admirable LBJ, she paints an alarming picture of Johnson as subject to bouts of paranoia and mood swings so extreme several psychologists have posthumously diagnosed him as bipolar.
This warts-and-all portrait is an essential component of Caroli’s primary mission: to refute the conventional wisdom that LBJ’s wife, Claudia Taylor Johnson, was a dowdy nonentity he married for her money and humiliated with his unrepentant womanizing. On the contrary, Caroli argues persuasively, Lady Bird—as she was called from childhood—was a tough, smart political operator who understood and accepted the bargain she struck with the brash congressional aide who asked her to marry him the day after they met in 1934. He would get her out of provincial Karnack, Texas, and into the exciting ferment of New Deal Washington. She would smooth his rough edges, placate those he alienated, and nurse him through the emotional storms that might otherwise hobble his political ascent.
It’s refreshing to see Lady Bird given her due, and salutary to be reminded that 80 years ago an ambitious young woman’s most viable path to power was marriage to an ambitious young man. But Caroli’s insights into the Johnsons’ relationship could have been conveyed in a magazine article. Stretched over the course of full-length text, they are repetitious and, after a while, numbing. Once again she pulls him out of the bed he’s retreated to in the grip of disabling depression and chivvies him back to work. One more time she closes her eyes to a flagrant affair, telling herself he loves her best and relies on her always. He is perpetually proud of her brains and abilities, perpetually resentful when she displays them too openly. She manages him in covert ways that may have worked but appear demeaning to both spouses.
Caroli does better with Lady Bird’s personal projects, providing fresh information about such familiar topics as her “beautification” campaign. It wasn’t just about removing billboards from America’s highways, Caroli demonstrates: She made sure that plantings of flowers and trees in Washington’s African-American communities were part of her wide-ranging project. In the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, when rioters set fire to swaths of D.C., black neighborhoods spruced up by beautification went largely unscathed.
Caroli also makes a convincing case for Lady Bird as a shrewd businesswoman. She bought her first radio station in 1943 and moved into television in 1951. “Well, it’s your money,” said LBJ, who thought TV a risky investment. His matter-of-fact comment rebuts the notion that he took over her finances after they married; they didn’t even have a joint checking account. If Senator Johnson’s position on the Commerce Committee played a role in the profitability of Mrs. Johnson’s TV stations—ensuring, for example, that she got the only VHF license in Austin—that would hardly have shocked the daughter of T.J. Taylor, whose rough-and-tumble business tactics “made her comfortable with the idea of raw power, even if questionably achieved,” in Caroli’s assessment.
Their marriage was a genuine partnership, but LBJ’s needs always came first. The book’s freshest pages show Lady Bird growing into her role as his mainstay during Johnson’s years in the House and Senate. She learned not to drink too much in bibulous Washington (a lesson LBJ never mastered). She cultivated powerful men who could help her husband by keeping a perpetual open house and charming them over meals with her warm manner. It masked an essential detachment that allowed her to disassociate if a person or cause became politically inconvenient.
By the time Johnson became president, their conjugal modus operandi was firmly set. It would be unfair to blame Caroli for viewing LBJ’s career entirely through the prism of Lady Bird’s involvement in it, but it is fair to note that this approach gives a very partial view. Neither his political successes nor his failures come into as clear focus as his domineering yet needy personality; Bird’s total commitment to him is palpable, but difficult to empathize with. Caroli valiantly strives to give her an independent legacy, arguing that her beautification program prompted all subsequent first ladies to make sure they had a cause to promote apart from their husband’s agenda and to write their own post-presidential memoirs in emulation of Lady Bird’s bestselling White House Diary. Given the rise of second-wave feminism, these seem like inevitable developments, and Caroli scants the pioneering example of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Johnson’s retirement and Lady Bird’s years as a widow are wrapped up in a swift 34 pages; his death in 1973 set her free to travel and grow closer to their daughters. At her funeral service in 2007, Caroli notes, “Lyndon’s name was barely mentioned.” It’s the book’s final sentence, and that abrupt cutoff is regrettably typical of this well-intentioned but frustrating work. Caroli’s effort to rehabilitate a first lady minimized by history lacks the nuance or depth needed to make it more than a mildly interesting piece of special pleading. Given her intensely private subject, it may have been impossible for Caroli to plumb further into Lady Bird’s character—all the more reason why she might profitably have confined her story to a magazine article.