Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a PresidentLady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President by Betty Caroli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was way too young to know anything about Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson when they were in the White House and much of the scant knowledge I had of Lyndon Johnson – which left me with a negative impression of him both as a person and as someone in a leadership position – before reading this book has been acquired through my extensive study of the long history of war, beginning with the French in the 1950’s, in Vietnam.

This book is a real eye-opener into both Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson as people, as life partners, and as politicians. There is no way you can do anything but continually shake your head at the incomprehensible, in many ways, life and choices these two people carved out and made in their time on this earth.

As I began the book and Lyndon Johnson from his earliest life onward was unveiled, I kept thinking “this is textbook bipolar behavior.” He had the highest highs and the lowest lows, often going from one to another on the turn of a dime, throughout his life. In Lyndon’s White House years, the addition of extreme paranoia, which would follow him the rest of his life, emerged.

Lyndon’s mood swings were legendary and extreme.

When he was in a manic phase, Lyndon was unstoppable in getting things done (but he was also at his peak in his philandering and cheating on his wife – who knew about it, accepted it, and often included his long line of mistresses in their inner circle, ensuring that Lyndon was surrounded by them when he skidded into the lows).

When he was in a depressed phase, Lyndon fell apart. He raged at everyone around him, including his wife. He drank heavily. And he spent most of his time in bed.

Lady Bird was Lyndon’s enabler and rescuer. She put his needs before anyone else’s, including their children’s, at all times. Both daughters were virtually ignored by both their parents during their formative years and both daughters resented it deeply (these breaches were somewhat mended after the Johnson’s left the White House, and, even more, by Lady Bird after Lyndon’s death, but I suspect they were never fully repaired).

Lyndon Johnson was fully responsible for American troops being sent as boots on the ground – and instituting the military draft that became one of the flash points for the massive student protests that began in the late 1960’s – into Vietnam.

Until his presidency, the U.S. military and intelligence services had a fairly small contingent of advisors in South Vietnam to come up with new technology (much of this is detailed in a book I highly recommend: The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot) to assist South Vietnam in their war against North Vietnam, which was Communist.

This was during the Cold War era, so America (mainly through the CIA, but often, in conjunction with the Pentagon and military) was constantly and stealthily involving itself throughout the world wherever the threat of Communism seemed great and imminent.

Lyndon Johnson made the fateful decision to bring the government’s involvement with South Vietnam out into the open and then commit the U.S. military to fighting a ground war in the country.

Lyndon was in a manic phase when he made this decision. As his mental illness intensified during his presidency, many of the bad and unpopular decisions that Lyndon made were during his manic phases.

The manic phases quickly dissipated into severe depressive phases, where Lyndon spent the hours he was supposed in the Oval Office working, in bed or on a couch, with his head under the covers sleeping.

It was a chaotic White House, with aides and staff – and Lady Bird – trying to mitigate and smooth over the damage that Lyndon’s mania left in its wake. It was during a particularly paranoid and depressive episode that the decision was made, not by Lyndon, but by Lady Bird, that Lyndon would not run for a second term as president.

After leaving the White House, Lyndon further descended into paranoia and his bipolar behavior worsened, as did his drinking and other destructive behaviors. Photos of his last couple of years of life show a broken man in every sense of the word.

Lady Bird outlived her husband by 34 years and did her best, as she did while he was alive, to clean up Lyndon’s legacy and keep the worst of his behavior and character under wraps.

One of the questions this book raises (and tries to answer, unsuccessfully, in my view) is why Lady Bird put up with Lyndon, covering for him, making excuses for him, enabling him, and spending an inordinate amount of time pulling him up out the deep recesses of depression over and over again.

The book’s answer is Lady Bird did it because Lyndon’s behavior was like the behavior of Lady Bird’s father and she believed that was okay and normal.

That seems entirely implausible to me, because there were too many other people – the majority, in fact – in Lyndon’s and Lady Bird’s life who didn’t exhibit this kind of behavior, nor would accept it under any circumstances.

So the real reason – and motivation, because Lady Bird was an intelligent and knowledgeable lady – is, for now, unknown and unknowable.

This is just one of the mysteries of Lyndon and Lady Bird’s life together that you’ll find yourself grappling with as you read this book, but it is worth reading for this history it reveals and for the full-blown display of paranoid and bipolar illness that is described in great detail and which, uncontrolled and unleashed, affected the United States in ways that still haunt the country even today.

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Comments
  1. iammarchhare says:

    Well, if my dad was still alive, he would no doubt said it was all about the money. According to him, Lady Bird owned dozens of companies that profited off of both wars. He once made the statement that at one time half of Hamilton (the county seat where I grew up) worked for Lady Bird.

    He didn’t have a high opinion of politicians in general, but the corruption that occurred under the Johnsons particularly disgusted him. Countless times, he told the story about working in a factory that made some type of gun for tanks. I assume now he was talking about 50 cals, but I didn’t know how to ask in those days. Anyhow, they needed to make the order, and they got a visit from the inspector. So, they wined and dined him until he couldn’t even stand, got his signature, poured him into his car and then shipped the parts.

    I only have his word on it, but I know Hamilton was once known as “Little Chicago” because the trains connected them directly, so I can believe it.

    • Money was indeed a factor in their lives, John, but Lady Bird came into the marriage with money and invested it well way before Lyndon was ever president (Lyndon came from a family of poverty, mostly self-inflicted because of alcoholism, which permeated the family line, including Lyndon’s dad and two of his siblings).

      She invested in radio stations and tv stations (and there is plenty of evidence that Lady Bird got advantages in sole sourcing in both of these at a time when both mediums were about to explode – during the presidency, her companies were put in a nominal blind trust to try to superficially remove any conflicts of interest, but both Lyndon and Lady Bird were deeply involved in the day-to-day management of their companies and holdings).

      And the issue of money – and I guarantee you, your dad was right in much of his assessment of money driving wars (it is pretty much a given in history that when times are hard economically, a big war seems to be the cure in the short-term, even if its long-term results – as is the case with every war – are disastrous) – isn’t an explanation for why Lady Bird was willing to do what she did with and for Lyndon.

      Since she was independently wealthy before their marriage, it was her money that she used to buy the companies they owned – many of them either acquired before WWII or after WWII, but I didn’t any evidence of any purchases during WWII and certainly not during the Korean War or the Vietnam War.

      BTW, excellent post last week…it’s still very much in my thoughts.

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