"Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President" by Betty Boyd Caroli (2015, Simon and Schuster) was an eye-opener to me. I had no idea how great a woman Lady Bird Johnson was and how she held together a difficult marriage and, by extension, a presidency.
LBJ was the president from 1963 to 1969. He died in 1973 at age 64.
A good argument can be made that Johnson was a manic-depressive and as such his decisions, particularly regarding the Vietnam War, might have been irrational at times. He was described as being exceedingly secretive, paranoid and totally unable to deal with criticism. He was despised by anti-war protesters, most of whom were found on university campuses.
On one occasion, according to the author, the president dumbfounded reporters who pressed him to explain why he was escalating the war in Vietnam. "Unzipping his fly and taking out 'his substantial organ,' he shouted at them: 'This is why!' "
In hindsight, his handling of the war seems criminal and unforgivable. His wife, who could influence him in many areas foreign and domestic, could not move him on Vietnam and in fact, feeling overwhelmed, did not know what to do. The political situation at the time was, she said, "pure hell."
Although he was hated for not bringing an end to the war, he tried to create domestic policies in accordance with his Christian values. ? ?His liberal social agenda was similar to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. ?
He is considered by historians to have been a good president because of the laws he passed that affected civil rights, education, wilderness preservation and Social Security. He appointed the first black jurist, Thurgood Marshall, to the U.S. Supreme Court. He would work 20-hour days, a whirlwind of accomplishments
On on other days, when the president was too depressed to get out of bed, Lady Bird would be the only person who could rally him. In addition to always monitoring his diet and exercise, she stroked his ego, surrounded him with people he enjoyed and who supported him, and was a genius at mending all the many fences he tore down in moments of petulance and spite.
Author Caroli had access to the love letters the president and his lady wrote to one another when they were courting. These letters were released on Valentine's Day in 2013 and, she says, contain the key to their marriage. Lyndon would fulfill Bird's ambitions of being matched with a man as powerful and charismatic as her father and he would receive a ferocious, unquestioning devotion. She was essential to him.
But there was a price to pay, at least on Lady Bird's part. Her husband was a womanizer of the first order, relentless and unashamed. How did Lady Bird deal with such public humiliation? She ignored it. She had a unique ability to tune out those things she did not want to see.
The owner of Bogey's Books in Davis (from 1990 to 2007), Mark Nemmers, worked for Lady Bird at her KLBJ radio station in Austin for several years in the 1980s. He was a news reporter who attended barbecues at the LBJ Ranch and one occasion had to ask her a tough question.
"The only assignment I dreaded doing came with the release of Robert Caroís first volume (1983) of his LBJ biography," said Nemmers. "In it he revealed Lyndonís longstanding and mostly secret affair with Alice Glass, an affair that began in the 1930s. Still being the newest member of the newsroom, and seeing as nobody else on the staff wanted to do it, which was quite understandable, I was told to call up Lady Bird and get her reaction to the revelation of the affair.
"I called Liz Carpenter, Lady Birdís longtime press secretary, who was always very kind and helpful to me, and told her how apprehensive I was about the prospect of asking the Bird the question.
"Liz told me: 'Just ask her. You have nothing to be nervous about.' A few minutes later I was speaking with Lady Bird. After about 15 minutes of questions about the non-salacious parts of Caroís book, I said something like, 'Well, I think thatís about all I need to know.' Then I swallowed, 'Oh, just one more question: Do you have a reaction to Caroís claim about the Presidentís affair with Alice Glass?'
"Lady Bird barely paused before gracefully deflecting by saying something like she never saw that side of him. That she always thought of him in terms of his goodness, the great things he accomplished, what a wonderful father he was, etc." That was Lady Bird.
Nemmers also recalled seeing a special cushion in the living room of the ranch, which Caroli also described.
"To get to the bathroom, you had to walk from the pool area and patio through her living room. I remember the furnishings were anything but posh or ostentatious. But very comfortable," he said. "It was easy to imagine Lyndon sprawled on the long couch, reading a book with a couple of beers on the coffee table. On that couch I remember seeing an embroidered pillow which was in a flowery style: 'This is my ranch, and Iíll do as I damn well please.' That attitude could have applied to either Lady Bird or LBJ."
Nemmers added that his mother had a botany degree and shared Lady Birdís interest in nature and wildflowers. "Lady Bird seemed interested when I told her that, and seems to empathize when I told her of Momís frustration knowing she could never get a meaningful professional job as a botanist back in the '40s and '50s because she was a woman.
"She and Lady Bird were also the same age, their birthdays being only five months apart. I suggested Mom try writing a note to Lady Bird. She did and was so happy to get a response from her. They discussed nothing but wildflowers, the similarities and differences between those of Iowa and Texas."
Lady Bird died in 2007 at age 94. She was acknowledged by many Washington and Texan friends to be truly the power behind the throne. She was a great First Lady.
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at email@example.com
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