LADY BIRD AND LYNDON: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President. By Betty Boyd Carroli. Simon and Schuster. 400 pages. $29.99.
Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor and Lyndon Baines Johnson were married on Nov. 17, 1934, after being introduced some four months earlier in Austin, Texas. Like many young people before them, their haste was a product of intense sexual attraction and the biological need to nest and procreate.
But the deal may ultimately have been sealed by something that ran even deeper in both their psyches: ambition. It only took a few weeks for these two shrewd individuals to zero in on what they could do for each other, Betty Boyd Carroli writes in her book “Lady Bird and Lyndon.”
That knowledge established the foundation upon which their marriage was built.
Both Lyndon and Lady Bird had strong fathers with whom they identified and from whom they learned the uses of power. Sam Ealy Johnson was a Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives who often struggled financially, producing in Lyndon a fear of doing the same, but taught his son the importance of discerning the true needs and feelings of those from whom he wished to secure a vote.
T.J. “Boss” Taylor was a successful owner of two general stores and 15,000 acres of cotton in Karnack, Texas. Though he often displayed questionable ethics, he encouraged Lady Bird to be independent, seize opportunity and always have a clear grasp of the bottom line.
Lady Bird was a razor-sharp businesswoman her whole life, thus facilitating her husband’s movement up the political ladder and amassing significant influence of her own.
The couple also shared a desire to escape the small-town life into which they had been born. As a team, that meant reaching the heights in Washington D.C., but for Lady Bird herself, it also meant widening her horizons via constant reading and a yearning for world travel, a goal she was only able to fully pursue after Johnson’s death.
As others before her, Carroli portrays much of the marriage as a cringe-worthy combination of Johnson’s manipulative, childish, occasionally nearly abusive treatment of his wife, and Lady Bird’s apparent complete submission to his demands.
The truth was probably more subtle. It was clear to many around them that Johnson could sometimes barely function without Lady Bird’s help, especially during one of his frequent episodes of illness, both physical and emotional.
For Lady Bird, Lyndon always came first. Early on, she resented any implication that she was treated unfairly, asserting that Lyndon was “my lover, my friend, my identity.” It was only two decades after he’d passed away that she was able to concede that, “It was a different world then. That was your husband. You lived his life.”
In Carroli’s portrait, Lyndon Johnson is a very unpleasant character indeed. A first-class bully and philanderer, almost humorously domineering, there is little of the political genius present in Robert Caro’s magisterial, multi-volumed (and still ongoing) biography.
Lady Bird, on the other hand, emerges just as astute as her husband when it came to finagling both favors and votes from unwilling individuals. But she didn’t rely on a heavy hand, using instead a combination of unfailing cheerfulness, an ability to block out insults and a keen understanding of how to deploy feminine softness and pliability to achieve her goals.
The photograph on the dust cover of this book, one of Lady Bird with her hand firmly on Lyndon’s back, speaks volumes, and communicates a subtext that Carroli, author of “Inside the White House” and “The Roosevelt Women,” only gently implies.
Lady Bird Johnson was, almost from the beginning of Lyndon’s career, a full partner in his endeavors. She was frequently consulted on issues, and possessed an insight into her husband’s sometimes controversial actions, particularly the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. It was Lady Bird who convinced Lyndon to run for president that year and it was Lady Bird who decided that she was the one to do the major campaigning in an increasingly hostile South.
When, in 1992, Bill Clinton gushed that a vote for him was a “twofer,” and his wife fiercely defended him following accusations of infidelity, or appeared to ignore them, it set off a firestorm. Who was this woman who clearly thought she was equal to her husband (as did he) and would stand by him after he’d done what some believed was unforgivable? The inescapable answer was that she was just as driven as he was, and willing to compromise to help him succeed.
Thirty years before, Lady Bird Johnson had done the same. But wiser and perhaps craftier than her younger counterpart, she had hidden her rock-hard determination behind the blandest of surfaces. With this book, Carroli blows the cover off that surface and, perhaps, adds a thoughtful new dimension to this election cycle.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.