Commentary Magazine


A White House Diary, by Lady Bird Johnson

Portrait of a Lady

A White House Diary.
by Lady Bird Johnson.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 791 pp. $10.95.

No longer, if ever it was, a presence in our public life, the voice of a lady is, evidently, still marked by certain authenticating notes: it is still just perceptibly chilly to one’s enemies, gracious to one’s inferiors, loyal to one’s clan. Easily the most considerable and accomplished of the ladies in the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson’s recollections testify to certain virtues which have stood the test of time and literature. When she disapproves of something she casts about, like a lady, for the mitigating good; when she recounts something loathsome to her soul, she finds, for balance, something to praise. There is no evidence that those who offended her sense of things ever deserved reclamation: but that she would have known to begin with. Merit is one of the things a lady does not take into account when distributing largesse.

When the Reverend Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis chose obliquely to attack the Vietnam war while in his church Lyndon Johnson and family were trapped in prayer, Lady Bird turned to stone. The expression on the minister’s face, it did not escape her, was unctuous. Nonetheless, Lady Bird found much to praise, several times around, in the work of the choir. As for the Reverend Pinckney Lewis: “Be it said for my husband that he shook hands briefly with a smile, while I said, ‘The choir was beautiful.’” Again, in an encounter with Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale who even then exhibited a precocious sensitivity to the prevailing winds of fashion, Mrs. Johnson could take a thoughtful measure of a man. In academia she had found herself in a dukedom as trembly as any she might have encountered on the official political circuit. The First Lady, perhaps wisely, evinced no surprise at the similarities between Yale’s president and farsighted local politicians who take good cave to make themselves scarce when an embarrassment comes visiting. No doubt the similarity was not lost upon her:

We exchanged a few words and went inside. . . . Quite soon the feeling came across to me that my presence here was really an imposition on him. His manner was absolutely correct, but if I have any antennae at all I sensed that he wished he had no part of it.

Lady Bird spoke to the crowd. There was only picketing activity in those then innocent days at Yale, but the university presidents had already had evidence of the trouble they would see. Mrs. Johnson filed, for future reference, her understanding of the breed:

When President Brewster rose to introduce me, I came to a more complete understanding of the situation. His introduction was generous, even eloquent. . . . I wish I had a copy of his speech. At any rate, the impression I received was that he was disassociating himself from President Johnson, from the administration, letting his constituency—that is, the students and faculty of Yale—know that he was with them in heart, but at the same time maintaining a gentlemanly and correct stance of hospitality to the First Lady.

Mrs. Johnson had no way of knowing, and therefore it could not have comforted her, that her reluctant host would a few years later be as shamed to countenance the courts of the land as to entertain the President’s wife; that as charter member of the New Breed of College Presidents, he would attach considerable, if undue, significance to the broadcast of his views for some years to come. She had, nevertheless, a velvet reproach for an adversary who had, at least, frozen her out gallantly, like a gentleman. That he had been chilly in his own political interest Lady Bird, above all, would understand. But her understanding, characteristically, could not be confused with forgiveness. The character of this lady was such that, having looked once upon certain violations of the spirit, their impression was everlasting. Inhospitality was such a violation.

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Her own heart was quite unpolitic in its passions. It was, on all occasions, quick to heat in defense of those she loved, among them none more than her husband, Lyndon Johnson. Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the memoirs is the indirect, revealing light cast upon the President by this First Lady, whose perspective was shaped by many hours of solitary waiting. Two A.M. feedings of cold-roast-beef-with-pimento-cheese sandwiches were often as not the only meal she shared with her lateworking husband. The most frequent glimpse of LBJ the reader is vouchsafed is of his bedtime, a rather more complicated undertaking than one would have supposed, even for Presidents.

Bedtime for LBJ was not so much the more intimate part of domestic life as it was another lap in the daily rounds of the Presidency. As though the President abed was not sufficiently busy reading himself to sleep with state papers and being roused by phone calls announcing Middle East wars and assassinations, there were the Johnson daughters. It will be recalled that Lynda Bird, in the small hours of the morning, groped her way to the Presidential bed to share with her parents the joy of her engagement to Lieutenant Robb. The President, Mrs. Johnson records thankfully, fell asleep in due time. But those nocturnal adventures were ill-designed to preserve the health of the President, and Lady Bird was above all determined to preserve it. She had noted often, observing the portrait of the haggard Woodrow Wilson, that Presidents must have their portraits done early in office. The years of governance would shatter the healthiest of men, and Lyndon Johnson was not the healthiest; she was determined to impede the process with all cunning. In the meantime, there were the demands of posterity. A sculptor struck her husband’s likeness for the Presidential medal, causing Mrs. Johnson to muse, “Lyndon, I think, has a rather magnificently shaped head.” In the end, she disapproved the medal likeness, for characteristic reasons: it was not true to the spirit of things.

The mouth I didn’t really like much. It had an almost too beneficent look, a look I have seen many times and like. But I think . . . there is another attribute more true to his life—a certain grimness or determination.

Less happily Lyndon Johnson’s portrait was finally assayed and the results, by now forgotten, were once briefly a cause célèbre. The eyes were wrong, the hands were wrong. In the course of a desperately uncomfortable hour, against which she had steeled herself for a long time, Lady Bird and the President explained to the artist, Peter Hurd, and to his angry young wife, that the portrait would not do. Lady Bird was sympathetic, but characteristically firm on elementary rules: “But there is one thing one has a right to express oneself on—and that is one’s own portrait.” Lady Bird flees as soon as she is gracefully able to (and no mistaking it, there is a rogue’s pleasure in her running off to hide from the encounter and recover by watching Gunsmoke), while the aggrieved artist and his wife flounce off to make their case known to the newspapers. But that is history.

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Some confrontations were not as painful as others. Mrs. Johnson was surely not the first President’s wife to understand that crises of the ludicrous and matters of the gravest moment would be presented equally for her consideration, with no one to breathe a hint of the difference. When, during a visit of the King and Queen of England, Eleanor Roosevelt was faced with the protocol which demanded that the King be served several seconds before anyone else, for which purpose his serving attendant carried a watch with a second hand, it was for FDR to make short shrift of matters by declaring that his serving attendant would consult no stopwatch; he and the King would be served simultaneously. Such is the serenity of the well born. Assuredly, neither of the Johnsons was bred of the aristocracy and consequently there were bad moments with the more nonsensical forms of protocol, despite the dictates of Lady Bird’s common sense. On the occasion that Robert Merrill of the Metropolitan Opera was invited to sing for Prime Minister Wilson the press claimed that Merrill’s chosen repertoire—“On the Road to Mandalay” and “Oh, I Got Plenty O’Nuthin’ ”—was an insult to the British Empire which, not fortuitously, had just pulled its troops out of Suez and devalued the pound. Lady Bird records her relief that the Prime Minister, reading of the furor, sent word that these songs were his special favorites. Mrs. Johnson describes this as the most ridiculous crisis so far. (She could not of course have known that her husband’s successor would turn the White House guard out in uniforms recalling the mythical kingdom of Fredonia.)

Altogether, Lady Bird did not suffer confrontations—or rudeness—easily, though she encountered them often enough. Clearly she was as appalled by bad behavior as by a soul’s poison. She dealt forthrightly with Eartha Kitt when that lady made a scene at a White House luncheon. She had already seen the White House Arts Festival turned into a shambles by boycotting artists and by those who could not make up their mind either way. Robert Lowell did not come. John Hersey came and lectured. Dwight Macdonald wandered around with a petition disapproving the President’s policy. Lady Bird observes with unconcealed satisfaction that there is uncertainty whether he got four or seven signatures out of three hundred guests. All of these rudenesses affected the First Lady deeply, perhaps less by virtue of their attack upon her husband, than by their gratuitous nature. They had come invited. They had betrayed hospitality.

Lyndon Johnson could scarcely have given Lady Bird cause to feel a tenth of the coolness she felt for these enemies of the polite spirit. Nonetheless, she could be severe with him. She was intolerant when he spoke long, and he spoke long often. No less than six times in the memoirs, Lady Bird records her displeasure at Lyndon’s speeches going on too long. On the other hand, she observes much the same fault upon watching Eugene McCarthy on television. As early as 1963, she had already noted that Eugene McCarthy was “a little too verbose.”

The memoirs, tape-recorded over the Johnson years (1963-69), are a full, and disturbing, replay of the nation’s troubles. These years, beginning with the first Kennedy assassination in 1963 and moving through the growing horror of the war and the urban riots to the wild year of 1968 and the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, are dark as national chronicle. They were dreadful years; they are not less dreadful now. Despite the innate good temper of her breed, the chronicler of these years, it is not surprising, left the White House for the Johnson Ranch with a grateful heart.

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