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; after coffee, there was a performance of Guys and Dolls and immediately thereafter, the President left on an eighteen-hour flight to Guam.
Mrs. Johnson went to bed happy in the knowledge that she was leaving the next morning for the Virgin Islands; but on St. John, she would not stay put long enough to let the tropics catch her napping: she would swim and snorkel and island-hop in a catamaran in tempestuous seas, and go on foot over a harsh terrain and under a hot sun to look at sugarmill ruins; scrutinize the frangi-pangi, the angelfish, and the mongoose; discuss island politics, education, ecology, race relations, and shake hands and collect statistics and smile.
On holidays and occasional weekends at Camp David or at the LBJ ranch, she played bridge, bowled, took long walks, swam, lodged and fed her kin and her husband’s kin and her daughters’ suitors and their kin; she worked at needlepoint, consulted architects and gardeners, put on square dances, chatted with the hands.
It is a restful moment when Lady Bird is in the dentist’s chair down in the White House cellar.
If she had not been born with this prodigious energy and stamina, surely her marriage could not have been the idyl it quite evidently was and is. On the infrequent evenings when there were no kings or queens or diplomats or businessmen or stars of stage and screen to be wined and dined, it was not uncommon for LBJ to come to the family dining room for dinner at 2 A.M. If he managed to arrive by eleven or midnight, he then spent several hours reading and making notes and wrestling with problems of state; he slept a little then to prepare for the next day’s stretch at hard labor. Often the telephone rang in the middle of the night with disastrous news.
In December of 1967, LBJ circumnavigated the globe in four and a half days and when he got home at 4:30 in the morning of the day before Christmas (he had set forth from Thailand at sunrise) he talked at length about his trip until seven, when he went to mass with Luci and Pat; directly after the Last Gospel, he went to his office.
Although she was girlishly excited by her role (of her suite at the Carlyle she writes, “I think of it as the tower of the Fairy Princess,” and she asked especially exalted lions to autograph her menu), Lady Bird was never altogether at home in the White House and long before the end of her husband’s administration, she was making plans for the expansion and renovation of the Texas ranch and looking forward, with real wistfulness, to retirement and to the end of the cruel humiliations of public life. She does not dwell at length on it, but it is evident that she was very badly shaken by the Arts Festival fiasco, and while she is scrupulously discreet on the subject of her predecessor, it is plain that Mrs. Kennedy made her feel a bumpkin.
Like a good Texan and an orderly but enthusiastic hedonist, she rode high, wide, and handsome, rejoicing in food (there are mountains of pinto beans in this book and seas of chili), thrilling to celebrities and to new landscapes, to Monticello and historic documents and historic gardens. She is revealed as superlatively capable in every womanly office, a dedicated wife, a loving mother and grandmother, a cordial hostess, a benevolent chatelaine (it does not seem possible that her servants would have any tales to tell out of school).
She is at her most vulnerable when she is genuflecting to Culture: bowled over by After the Fall, she wrote, “There was a line that I loved, about holding the future in your hands like a vase. There were any number of gripping phrases—hammer and rapier use of the language.” And she is at her most attractive when she is roving rural regions—going to a catfish fry on the banks of the Colorado (after the fish and black-eyed peas, Miss Ima Hogg took her through a stagecoach inn which she had restored), or bravely visiting backwater communities of appalling poverty where she is struck by the courage and integrity of the inhabitants: in the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky,
Thin, wiry gaunt-faced Arthur Robertson was easy to talk to and full of ginger, although he looked as if he hadn’t had a square meal most of his thirty-six years…. Tobacco is his only cash crop, but he has a few chickens and a Poland China hog…and the most marvelous garden—the potatoes were coming along fine.
Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson’s former press secretary, calls the diary “a beautiful literary work.” Miss Carpenter’s loyalty is commendable but her critical judgment is rambunctiously amateur. It would have suited me down to the ground if Lady Bird had stuck to her homey colloquialisms (she admires the quality of “get-up-and-get”; still a college girl at heart she dresses “in a long formal”), but she has picked up a lubberly vocabulary (common, alas, to present-day officialdom) and is capable of such bosh as, “Of all the talents I wish I possessed, and the one I most envy, is the ability to make words march and sing and cannonade and speak with the cool voice of reason.”
The importance of her book is questionable; the political troubles that made the history of the Johnson years are handled without particularity; she is inept at the delineation of personality; she is too kind and too cautious to gossip; she responds with delight to anecdotes told her by others but she cannot compose any of her own. It is a harmless book, but it is very long.
Mrs. Hershan’s salute to Eleanor Roosevelt in A Woman of Quality is earnest and unoriginal and probably the writing of it gave the author pleasure. She met Mrs. Roosevelt only once and, while the conversation between the two is of no possible interest to the reader, she feels that it altered the course of her life. She has culled her information from New York taxicab drivers, people connected with the Wiltwyck School, war refugees, salesgirls at Mark Cross, journalists on grassroots newspapers, and others whose encounters with Mrs. Roosevelt were as perfunctory as her own but who, like her, felt mysteriously ennobled.
If Mrs. Roosevelt’s speed record fell below Mrs. Johnson’s, the only reason is that she did her racing before the age of jets, and before the widespread use of helicopters. But she was equally peripatetic and she was even better at doing good deeds. In her day, the cuisine at Pennsylvania Avenue was, so one has heard, mediocre when it was not infamous; and she was no clotheshorse. Fannie Hurst in her autobiography reported a lunch party at the White House when “Anna adjusted her mother’s blouse. ‘There is sometimes a hopeless discrepancy between my mother and her clothes,’ she said….” It was more mannerly of Mrs. Johnson to rig herself out in a “mint-green alaskine dress” or a “peach theater suit” or an “American beauty ensemble,” but it was more dashing of Mrs. Roosevelt to say, when she was asked how she chose a hat, that she always inquired, “Can I sleep in it?”
December 3, 1970