Review of “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight” by Julia Sweig

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Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight
by Julia Sweig
560 pages
Random House
Published: March 2021

Published this past week, Julia Sweig’s “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight” promises a revealing behind-the-scenes portrait and revaluation of one of America’s notable First Ladies. Sweig is a senior research fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and has authored numerous books and policy papers on Cuba, Brazil, Latin America and U.S. foreign policy. Her eight-episode podcast about Lady Bird is available through ABC News.

As First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson is best known for her urban renewal, conservation and beautification efforts…and, for those of us with Texas roots, her Wildflower Center. But what has been revealed only recently is the degree to which LBJ relied on her for unbiased strategic advice and feedback during his political career…particularly his presidency.

At the heart of this book are fresh insights gathered by Sweig from more than 120 hours of Lady Bird’s taped diary recordings which, until recently, was available only in written – and heavily edited – form. Sweig spent several years reviewing the tapes, reconstructing Lady Bird’s activities, and analyzing the observations she memorialized during her husband’s sixty-two-month presidency.

But readers expecting a cradle-to-grave biography will be disappointed. This book leaves aside nearly all of Lady Bird’s life prior to 1934 (when she met Lyndon at the age of twenty-one) and includes very little of their lives prior 1960 (when he was JFK’s pick for vice president). And while the book promises a profound revaluation of Lady Bird’s life and legacy, the information revealed only occasionally seems provocative or extraordinary.

Surprisingly, neither Lady Bird nor Sweig have much to say about the more colorful aspects of LBJ’s persona or presidency. While the author acknowledges his infidelities, they never receive much consideration…and their impact on the Johnson’s marriage is essentially unnoticed. Readers unaware of LBJ’s affairs or his infamous vulgarity will learn little of them here.

Although this is not a traditional biography of Lady Bird, it is a penetrating exploration of her time as First Lady. And it provides significant, if somewhat inconsistent, context on that era. Sweig’s work to uncover and convey Lady Bird’s influence during these years is obvious – and the book would most appropriately be titled “Lady Bird Johnson: The White House Years.”

Excellent individual moments include a gripping review of a controversy involving Eartha Kitt at a White House luncheon, wedding planning for the youngest Johnson daughter and a chapter describing the Johnson family’s life in the White House. Also of particular note is Lady Bird’s recollection of the day JFK was assassinated and the somber flight back to Washington D.C.

The most memorable broader threads involve an interesting contrast between the JFK/Jackie relationship and the LBJ/Lady Bird relationship. Sweig also provides an interesting comparison of FDR and Eleanor’s “working” relationship and that of the Johnsons. Finally, there is a fascinating ongoing exploration of LBJ’s decision regarding whether to run for re-election in 1968.

The narrative winds down as LBJ’s presidency ends but an Epilogue follows Lady Bird through the couple’s four-year retirement (until Lyndon’s death) and then reviews her thirty-four-year widowhood – an active period for her cultural and philanthropic pursuits. But at this point the narrative’s momentum has largely dissipated and the post-White House years are only briskly covered.

Overall, Julia Sweig’s account of Lady Bird Johnson’s life – her time as First Lady, in particular – seems to promise somewhat more than it delivers. As a revelatory vehicle providing insight into Lady Bird’s White House years the book is often invaluable. As a way of rounding out the conventional image of LBJ it can be quite useful. But as a complete and penetrating account of the First Lady’s public and private lives it is regrettably incomplete.

Overall rating: 3½ stars