“Then, almost at the edge of town, on our way to the Trade Mart for the Presidential luncheon, we were rounding a curve, going down a hill, and suddenly there was a sharp, loud report. It sounded like a shot. The sound seemed to me to come from a building on the right above my shoulder. A moment passed, and then two more shots rang out in rapid succession. There had been such a gala air about the day that I thought the noise must come from firecrackers – part of the celebration. Then the Secret Service men were suddenly down in the lead car. Over the car radio system, I heard ‘Let’s get out of here!’ and our Secret Service man, Rufus Youngblood, vaulted over the front seat on top of Lyndon, threw him to the floor, and said ‘Get down.'”
Lady Bird Johnson’s White House autobiography started out with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was gripping, emotional, and all the behind-the-scenes information was interesting. Unfortunately, the rest of the First Lady’s book wasn’t nearly as engrossing.
Most of the chapters seemed to be laundry list of who’s who. She meticulously lists the guests of seemingly each and every dinner party or get-together. In fact, there appeared to be more space dedicated to the names of people, rather than about the events and climate surrounding the Johnson presidency.
Lady Bird Johnson came across as much different than the First Ladies that succeeded her. She was definitely not a political partner. She came across as more of a traditional housewife, thrust into a role of entertaining esteemed guests. In fairness to Lady Bird, perhaps it was the time. Reading this memoir in the 21st century definitely gave me unique look into the past. It was amazing to me that her husband could appoint African Americans to high posts within his administration at a time when blacks had not yet received the right to vote. That was a big deal, and yet she seemed to downplay it. Later on, when her husband signed into the law the Voting Rights Act (which gave blacks the right to vote), she missed the signing because she had been shopping. I think she did care, and understood the importance, but I believe her lack of active partnership when it came to Lyndon Johnson’s agenda, made her a little more distant to his acts as President.
She was keenly interested in her husband’s health and comfort, however. Again, I believe it was partly the times – Lady Bird Johnson felt her number one duty was to see to her husband and children. I enjoyed reading about her daughters – especially when her youngest daughter Lucy decided to become a Catholic at the age of 18. I would have liked to hear more about what led up to that decision, but this book was about Lady Bird, and not Lucy Johnson.
The end the autobiography had more feeling and struggle as Lyndon Johnson’s presidency came to an end. There was so much opposition to the war in Vietnam – riots were occurring all across the country. So too, were continued assassinations. Following JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed during President Johnson’s watch.
In light of our current economic woes and the attempts to address them, I found the Johnson administrations stance to be most interesting. Lady Bird counsels the American people to “spend less” because there are so many poor people in the United States. If she was encouraging them to use that excess cash to help others, she failed to mention it. If she thought somehow restraint in consumer spending would help the poor, she was obviously lacking in an education on economics. And then, President Johnson called for a 6% income tax surcharge on all Americans at a time when the economy was in a downturn. Needless to say, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats supported him in this.
I will say it was a challenge to finish this book because it was very long and for the most part, boring. I skimmed the guest lists and read the chapters I found interesting. As a result, I’ve nearly completed my first lady challenge, and have decided to only read biographies and not autobiographies of the earlier first ladies.
2 stars (out 5)
Published in 1970
Amazon Book Preview of “A White House Diary”