A White House Diary
by Lady Bird Johnson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 864 pp., $10.95
A Woman of Quality: Eleanor Roosevelt
by Stella K. Hershan
Crown, 256 pp., $5.95
Lady Bird Johnson’s primary reason for keeping a diary for more than five years was that, as she says in her prefatory note, she wanted her descendants to share through her eyes her “unique position, as wife of the president of the United States.” But the exercise was disciplinary as well, like a daily walk of four miles no matter what the weather, or half an hour of the Old Testament the last thing at night. And, besides, she says, “I like writing—fearful labor though I sometimes find it—I like words.” She spoke into a tape recorder, chronicling official dinners, family get-togethers, trips abroad, the weddings and accouchements of her daughters, barbecues with multitudes, an occasional solitary evening of television, the doubts and decisions and physical distempers of her husband, the greatest man on earth.
By the time she left the White House in January of 1969, she had accumulated 1,750,000 words; she has pruned this crop to one-seventh, which she offers the public as “a sampler.” She has selected, she says, “hopefully significant days, but some quiet days.” Besides “hopefully” which she iteratively and steadfastly misuses (as, indeed, do most of her compatriots who have been assiduously benighted by “the media”), she is fond of “montage” and of “vignette” and often the words appear in tandem: “The whole scene melts into a montage…. The vignettes I remember….”
Because the montage before the reader’s dazed eye is projected on a screen that circles the globe, it is not easy to focus on many vignettes: a state dinner for the Shah of Iran is superimposed on an anniversary party for the cast of Hello Dolly!; the spring wildflowers of Central Texas have scarcely bloomed before the maple leaves are turning in New England; “the Woman Do-er’s luncheon, the one that is the kick-off of the beautification program” is followed a few days later by a weekend at Camp David with the John Steinbecks and the Billy Grahams as house-guests, an assortment of bedfellows so unusual that one could wish for a lot of vignettes, close up.
The velocity at which Mrs. Johnson flew makes the hardiest Bird-watcher giddy. In a single day, she could go to New York in the morning, try on clothes for several hours, visit a few museums, attend a meeting or two (to discuss Head Start, the environment, art for the White House), go to lunch with thirty people, and be back in Washington in time to change her dress and entertain at dinner. One Saturday in March of 1967, she met a group of students from Texas at brunch; then she went with busloads of governors’ wives to plant dogwoods along the Potomac (it was 29°, the mud was deep, the trees were set a good distance apart) and subsequently had lunch with the ladies at the State Department. The President had been in conference with the governors all day and at seven, the whole group convened for dinner …