© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Hiding In Plain Sight' Corrects The Record On Lady Bird Johnson


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today, Julia Sweig, takes us inside the White House in the 1960s - a decade of civil rights marches, anti-war protests, assassinations, urban riots and an emerging women's movement. Sweig's subject is President Lyndon Johnson's wife, known to all as Lady Bird. Sweig has a new book based on 123 hours of tape-recorded diaries the first lady made documenting her five years in the White House.

Lady Bird Johnson is typically remembered as a polite Southern woman and adoring wife whose sole accomplishment as first lady was a highway beautification campaign. But Sweig says the diaries show Lady Bird to be a far more formidable figure - a savvy, indispensable political adviser to the president, a supporter of women's rights, and the author of serious efforts to protect the environment and address urban poverty and blight.

Julia Sweig is currently a senior research fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. Her new book based on the Lady Bird diaries is "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight." She's also creator and host of the podcast series from ABC News and Best Case Studios, "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson." She joins us from her home in Takoma Park, Md.

Julia Sweig, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JULIA SWEIG: I'm delighted to be with you. Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Lady Bird Johnson was married to Lyndon decades before these diaries began in, I guess, 1963. Tell us what prompted her to start recording this chronology of her life.

SWEIG: Well, Lady Bird Johnson went to The University of Texas in Austin, and she came out with two degrees in journalism and history. She had an in-her-bones predilection to record and document going way back. By the time she gets to the White House, she's already been keeping notes, although we haven't seen them because they haven't been processed yet, but she's already a keen observer. And when she experiences the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in her own words, she says, I realized I had an opportunity, and I needed to record it. I'm paraphrasing. She understood that she had a place in history as observer and participant, and because of her commitment to history and her training as a journalism major, it was natural for her to start making these recordings.

DAVIES: All right, so let's listen to a bit. I guess this is the first entry. This is her describing the day of President Kennedy's assassination. And I'll just note, this is from your podcast, so we'll hear some music mixed in to the raw tape from the diaries. This is Lady Bird describing Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, that day.


LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Exquisitely dressed and caked in blood. I asked her if I couldn't get somebody to come in to help her change, and she said, oh, no, that's all right; perhaps later. And then with an element of fierceness, she said, I want them to see what they have done to Jack.

DAVIES: That's a well-remembered phrase. Did we learn that from Lady Bird - I want them to see what they did to Jack?

SWEIG: Yes, we did. And here's something that I learned at the tail end of my writing process - and to be honest, I can't remember at the moment where I found it. She had with her always on the campaign trail and in the course of being Lyndon Johnson's political partner in his House and Senate races, then in the vice presidency, in the campaign in 1960 - she had with her these little spiral notebooks, and she kept notes in shorthand.

And she had one of those with her when they went to Dallas, so she's making notes almost in real time, actually on Air Force One, going back from Dallas to Washington to keep it fresh. And then she records that, so we know it comes from her experience meeting with Jackie on the plane. I imagine she goes and sits down and takes some notes, which is, given the trauma and the tragedy, astonishing, too. And then she made that recording eight days after the assassination.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about Lady Bird Johnson's background and where the nickname came from.

SWEIG: Lady Bird was raised on the border with Louisiana in East Texas in Karnack, primarily by her father. Her mother and father were both from Alabama, different social classes, and they basically eloped and crossed the border and moved to Karnack. And her mother and father had two sons before Lady Bird was born. But when Lady Bird was 5 years old, her mother died, so she was raised by her father and also by her caregivers who were descendants of enslaved people. And one of them gave her that name, Lady Bird, and it stuck.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. I wonder what - I guess if you're a kid, that might be an endearing name that you might embrace. As she became an adolescent and went to college, she never shed it?

SWEIG: She did not shed it. It did stick. It's quite a feminized nickname for a young girl, adolescent teenager, who was, in a way, what we would call a tomboy. You know, she wasn't - it was hard for her to get used to wearing clothes and dressing in a girly way, and that was a very girly nickname.

And I came across an entry way toward the end of her time in the White House where she says - and I can describe the anecdote to you - I wish I had been Claudia all my life. And what she meant by that was at the tail end of the presidency - after she had worked so hard to show the American public that beneath beautification, that phrase, that euphemism, she had a very ambitious environmental agenda - that she was still getting azaleas given to her, named after her, calling them Mrs. LBJ. You know, she was an independent, autonomous woman of significant power and influence, but the name itself really stuck with her, and I think it did begin to bother her.

DAVIES: So, I mean, we see in these diaries, she is a formidable, educated woman, but she's really defined - she defined much of her life in relationship to her husband, Lyndon Johnson, who was not an easy person to live with, I think, right? Tell us a bit about his emotional makeup and mindset.

SWEIG: Lyndon Johnson has a well-known set of personality traits - on the one hand, very ambitious, very charismatic, very focused in wanting to achieve what he wants to achieve, especially in the Senate and most certainly in the White House, but also, he carries around anxiety and insecurity and a rather thin skin. So that combination of anxiety and charisma, of power and insecurity, I think, gives a portrait of Lyndon Johnson the man, especially once he's in the White House.

DAVIES: Right. And he had some health issues, too, didn't he?

SWEIG: Well, he had chronic health issues going way back, the most significant of which was heart disease. In 1955, he had a very significant heart attack that actually almost killed him. He had smoking and drinking off and on in his life, overeating, kidney stones, gallstones, the kinds of health issues that plague people with stress, anxiety and bad nutrition often.

DAVIES: She married Lyndon Johnson early in his political career, right? I think they were - he was an aide working in Washington to a congressman at the time. He eventually runs for Congress, eventually wins - some would say stole (laughter) an election to the U.S. Senate, became majority leader. All this time, Lady Bird is a significant part of the Johnson political machine. Give us a sense of what she did, what her role was.

SWEIG: Well, Lady Bird grows into the role as part of the Johnson political machine. She wasn't keen to be married to such a political animal once she realized what Lyndon Johnson's ambitions were as far as politics go. But by the 1940s, she starts to travel and campaign with him and for him. She's a - we're talking about her journalism. She's a videographer. She captures experiences on the campaign trail with her video camera. By the 1950s, once he's in the Senate, she's raising two young girls at home. So I think of her as, absolutely, the ultimate in multitasker.

She's very much a part of the political operation. That even, actually, if I go back for a minute, goes back to his congressional office, when she really runs it, when he's off during World War II for a brief period of time in California and in the Pacific. Bumping back up to the Senate, Lady Bird, especially once Lyndon becomes Senate majority leader, is the queen of the Senate spouses. And the world of Senate spouses, congressional wives, in the 1950s is very important. And so she is acquiring intelligence for Lyndon. She's probably spreading some. She's got her ears and eyes open. And she's in and out of his office all the time, very much part of his operation, part of his constituent development, part of his fundraising operation. She's really a core member of his political team.

DAVIES: Yeah, there's this little description that appears somewhere in the book of Lyndon on the phone. You know, he's always on the phone talking, you know, building relationships, thanking people (laughter), you know, manipulating people - whatever. And then sometimes he would just hand the phone to his wife, Lady Bird, without a word.

SWEIG: Back and forth all the time. In fact, there's a photograph, which I love, that's in the insert of the book that shows Lyndon sitting down in the chair and Lady Bird standing up. And she's wearing a sweater that shows the queen of hearts. And she and - she's on the telephone. He's looking at her. And she's sort of in the dominant position. They shared their political operation. And he relied on her, of course, because he knew that she had her own version of the Johnson treatment, I would say - the Johnson treatment being that ability to twist arms and charm and manipulate and guide. Lady Bird was expert at that. In fact, I'm wondering who learned it from whom in that pair.


DAVIES: Well, boy, he certainly was known for that. I mean, leaning in on people, putting the arm around them, just kind of a master, cajoler and manipulator.

SWEIG: The difference, of course, is that Lady Bird, as one of her granddaughters says, was able to let people think that their - that they had come up with the idea. She was a collaborative deployer of power. She let people feel that they had some sense of ownership. She didn't need to take the credit - a very different approach, in a way.

DAVIES: One of the remarkable things that you reveal in this book is a political strategy memo that Lady Bird Johnson wrote to her husband in - this was - would have been 1964. Set the context. What was the issue that they were addressing?

SWEIG: Lyndon Johnson is in Washington, D.C., and in May of 1964, civil rights was stuck in the U.S. Congress, and LBJ was feeling a great deal of pressure from the war council that he kept on from JFK to become more and more deeply involved in Vietnam. Those two elements, which would come to define the LBJ presidency, are pressing on both Johnsons. And the other huge question for LBJ is whether he is going to run in the 1964 election for a term in his own right. That's coming up in November.

He is at this point off the charts in terms of his approval rating, and yet he has a lot of doubt about whether he can continue to keep the country unified and achieve the political ambitions at home, civil rights and the Great Society programs of massive social services and government programs for the country's most needy. He doubts himself. And he and Lady Bird have been talking about whether he can sustain a presidency if elected in his own right.

DAVIES: So what advice does she give him, and how does she present it?

SWEIG: Well, here, instead of shorthand, she writes out in longhand nine pages of stenographic notebook, in outline form, the pros and the cons. And on the con side of not running - that is, if you - what she first does is she writes out a draft of a statement that he would read to the country, announcing his decision not to run. And she does that so that he can feel what it would feel like to actually take that step. It's a very brilliant piece of psychology, I think. And then she lays out how he would feel were he to go back to the ranch, how their friends and their allies would see such a decision, and she really paints a quite negative picture for him if he were to step out of politics so soon.

Then on the pro side, she lays out the vision for running in November, being elected - most certainly - and although facing certain amounts of criticism that they can't anticipate, especially over Vietnam, which she talks about explicitly, she says, you should run again, and then in February or March of 1968, you can announce that you won't be running for an additional term. And of course, that's precisely what he does.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Julia Sweig. Her new book is "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight," drawn from audio diaries the first lady recorded of her years in the White House. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Julia Sweig. She has a new book called "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight." It's drawn from audio diaries the first lady recorded of her years in the White House with her husband, Lyndon Johnson. Sweig is also the creator and host of a podcast series based on the recordings called "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson."

The other thing we know is that she had to deal with his occasional depression. And we have one excerpt that I wanted to hear from her diaries. This is from October 1965. You want to just set some context, tell us what was happening then?

SWEIG: Sure. In October 1965, the - both the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have passed. The Johnsons are still very, very popular, and their Great Society programs are being funded and supported in Congress by both political parties and with national support. Lyndon Johnson has a gallstone attack over Labor Day in September, and so he has to go in for surgery to Bethesda Naval Hospital, which he schedules for October of 1965. It's a two-week stay. And Lady Bird moves into the hospital with him. And over the course of the two weeks, she's - he's running the country out of the hospital. He even signs 13 legislative bills.

She comes back from her day at the White House, back to the hospital, discovers him in his hospital room, asking Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas to write out a statement of his resignation. He's so depressed from the - feeling buried by work that he's actually talking about stepping aside.

DAVIES: So let's listen to this. This is, again, from the podcast that you are hosting, so we'll hear some music underneath Lady Bird's words. This is from Lady Bird's audio diary. And she begins by saying - by describing Lyndon Johnson's mood, then we hear her paraphrasing some things she's hearing him saying. She also refers to Hubert - that is, of course, the vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Let's listen.


JOHNSON: He was like a man whom an avalanche had suddenly fallen on. It was a trapped feeling. I want to go to the ranch. I don't want Hubert to be even able to call me. They may demand that I resign. They may even want to impeach me. So here is the black beast of depression back in our lives.

DAVIES: Again, Lady Bird Johnson talking about her husband, Lyndon Johnson, in October 1965, when he was dealing with depression. You know, this is not easy, dealing with depression. What do we know about how she would help him?

SWEIG: You know, there is a long history, and it isn't easy. She helped him by being present. She helped him by being patient. She had some experience going back to his recovery in 1955 from the heart attack of this kind of post-operative experience of incredible mood swings. That's not unique to Lyndon Johnson. But, you know, at a certain point, this is a long-standing marriage, Dave, and my sense is that, you know, she understood very well that at times he could feel absolutely buried and oppressed by the amount of work, but she also knew that work was his salvation, as it often is for people with depression.

DAVIES: There's also the delicate matter of Lyndon Johnson's infidelities, which dated back decades before he entered the White House. What do we know of how much Lady Bird knew about them and how she handled it?

SWEIG: You know, the question of his infidelities is one that's been swirling around the Johnsons, of course, for decades, as you say. In her diaries, Lady Bird says almost nothing about them. My take on that question is to respect her decision because, in the end, all of that talk of the - the salacious talk and the rumors and the gossip diminish her and turn her into his victim and deprive Lady Bird of substance.

Now, having said that, what I infer from reading a great deal about the Johnsons in all of the secondary literature and her diary as well and many other - much other material, is that she, for the most part, chose not to see his behavior, but in some cases, she saw it clearly and knew about it. So I think we have to respect what Lady Bird is saying and see her choice to - and her obvious love for Lyndon as part of a very complicated long-term marriage.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Julia Sweig. Her new book is "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight." It's drawn from audio diaries the first lady recorded of her years in the White House. Sweig is also the creator and host of a podcast series based on the recordings called "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Julia Sweig. She has a new book about Lady Bird Johnson based on audio diaries that the first lady kept, as well as a host of other archival material. Her book is called "Hiding In Plain Sight." She's also the creator and host of a podcast series which includes some excerpts of those recordings. It's called "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson."

So Lady Bird in the White House wanted to get some things done. And it's interesting. It didn't occur to me until I read your book that from the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963 through the next year and a half or so, there was no vice president in office, was there? (Laughter) Was she, in effect, kind of the stand-in?

SWEIG: You know, it didn't occur to me either, but yes, in fact, she was. And even on the political trail, for example, when she is campaigning to support the Great Society programs and the war on poverty, the traveling press corps starts referring to her as Mrs. Vice President. This is a kind of indicator, kind of said with a wink in a jokey way, but it has some truth to it because there is no vice president. And Lady Bird is even sending Lyndon Johnson notes, comments on speeches and other notes during the day written on office of the vice president stationery, which, of course, Lyndon Johnson was the vice president.

But she has a - she is a political surrogate on the campaign trail, at the White House, in meetings with business leaders and trade unionists. And she has an operational role helping to draft speeches and participating and giving him feedback. And she's just as much a part of the political operation as she always was, but more so now without a vice president.

DAVIES: Yeah. I guess we should note that after that extended vacancy of that office, the Congress enacted the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for a clearer line of succession, right? Do I have this right?

SWEIG: That's correct. Not until 1967.

DAVIES: Right. So she gets into the White House, and there's plenty of ceremonial stuff to do. And she has to plan state dinners, et cetera, et cetera. But she wants to build a serious policy shop - right? - in the East Wing. This was not typical of most first ladies, was it?

SWEIG: No. This is where Lady Bird Johnson's very, very different self and identity from Jackie Kennedy kind of liberates her to think about that blank canvas of being first lady, of having an opportunity and a platform and invent something that suits her own appetites and interests. She's totally devoted to reinforcing LBJ's own policy priorities, but she wants something for her own. And in 1964, before he is elected in his own right, she kind of dabbles. And that's where she begins to - and I'd never seen it before until I started looking - to speak a little bit about women's rights.

This is, of course, one year after Betty Friedan has published "The Feminine Mystique." It's two years after Rachel Carson on the environmental side has published "Silent Spring." But in 1964, we see Lady Bird traveling around and also hosting at - back at the White House events that focus on women as professionals.

She gives what to my mind is an incredibly forward-looking speech at a commencement ceremony at Radcliffe, where she basically tells - in June of 1964 - the graduating class that they can have it all, that they can become the total woman. I mean, it's downright Helen Gurley Brown-ish from Cosmo, but 20 years earlier. And yet she does it in this - in that East Texas accent and in that first lady quaffed delivery that it's kind of missed because she's not a bra burner, but there she is, impressing upon young women that they have the duty to have civic life, professional life and family life and that they can and must have it all.

DAVIES: Lady Bird Johnson is, I guess, remembered most of all as the champion of beautification, specifically highway beautification. She hated this moniker, you make it clear.

SWEIG: She made it clear, too.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, tell us more about her real agenda. It was - it went far beyond beautifying highways, right?

SWEIG: Yes. Her beautification agenda starts - let's say it starts small in the sense that it starts with that ornamental idea that we associate with Lady Bird Johnson of planting flowers and shrubs and literally beautifying public spaces, especially in Washington, D.C., and especially places in white Washington and in touristy and monument Washington. But she's criticized very quickly for this and is personally quite uncomfortable with the idea that she's going to be just a first lady associated with planting flowers, even just a first lady associated with that 1965 bill, the highway beautification bill.

What she's interested in - because it's so much part of her own background - is bringing access to nature in American cities, especially to residents of American cities who are the most underserved. Remember, she's in Washington, D.C. And Washington, D.C., is, at the time - well, and still - doesn't have representation as a state and has a large Black population and has very, very limited access to parks and swimming pools and recreation and access to nature, despite the abundant nature in Washington, D.C. So she's very devoted to trying to figure out how to increase access to nature for mostly Americans of color in American cities.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, this is all - much of it consistent with the Great Society programs, that she sees urban poverty and urban blight as a real priority. She specifically focuses on Washington, D.C. And there's quite a story that you tell in the book about her pulling together architects and philanthropists and, you know, policy gurus and a lot of people with ideas and clout. And some big plans get underway for Washington, D.C. I mean, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions, I guess. How far does it get?

SWEIG: The Washington, D.C., story is one of my favorite because it's so unknown. And there's a part of Washington, D.C., along the Anacostia River - I think a lot of people are familiar with the Potomac River, but there are two rivers in Washington, D.C., and they meet. And the Anacostia River and the area around Anacostia River by the 1960s is both home to a lot of open space, green space that the National Park Service under the Department of Interior has control over, but is also very, very segregated, very, very poor. And so she brings together this constellation of individuals, the most important of whom is a landscape architect named Lawrence Halprin, who actually wound up designing the FDR monument that's in Washington, D.C., today. And Halprin - again, the East Wing doesn't have a budget, so she raises money from some New York philanthropists who are civil rights activists themselves to finance Halprin to come and develop what he calls a master plan for Washington, D.C., which is focused and increases in focus over time as riots around the country spark over and over again, which increases its focus on developing a huge public recreation space that would be desegregated and open to all Washingtonians - not primarily for the tourists, but for D.C. residents.

The plan, which is, as you say, would take several years and several hundred million dollars to develop, ultimately, like so much of the Johnson presidency, doesn't get fully realized. The Johnsons leave office, and the momentum behind the plan falls apart. But her ambition around this, I think, is really tremendous, that she's so focused on bringing nature, recreation, community services to Washingtonians who have been completely marginalized for literally centuries.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Julia Sweig. Her new book is "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight." It's drawn from a host of archival material and from audio diaries the first lady recorded of her years in the White House. Sweig is also the creator and host of a podcast series that includes excerpts of those recordings. It's called "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Julia Sweig. Her new book is "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight," drawn from archival research and from audio diaries that the first lady recorded of her years in the White House. Sweig is also the creator and host of a podcast series that includes excerpts of those recordings. It's called "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson."

Of course, the Johnson presidency accomplished a lot in the way of domestic policy, but it was defined in the minds of many at the time by the Vietnam War. You know, Johnson himself was always skeptical about putting more troops into Vietnam, but he really felt trapped politically by this, didn't he?

SWEIG: Yes. LBJ felt trapped from the very beginning by the choices, as he saw them, in terms of Vietnam. By the beginning of 1964, we already had, I believe, 16,000 American troops - they were called advisers - in Vietnam. And over the course of 1963, some 300 Americans had already died. And when he came in, you know, he was insecure about his foreign policy chops. On domestic policy, as you say, Dave, he was quite confident and had a clear vision and saw where he needed to go and felt that he had the legislative experience and votes to get there. But on Vietnam, he felt a great deal of pressure from people like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, the members of the Kennedy War Council, who he purposely kept on board.

In May of 1964 - you know, we were talking about that Portland strategy memo - McNamara has just come back from Vietnam, and he's putting out memorandum after memoranda pushing the president to escalate. And, of course, World War II for Lady Bird and for Lyndon is their frame of reference. He says frequently he doesn't want to be seen as the first American to lose a foreign war, but also, he's got in his mind the idea of betrayal, this notion that somehow the United States is responsible for supporting its allies. Saigon in South Vietnam was not the strongest ally, but yet in the world of Cold War geopolitics, he also felt that this idea that communism could spread was real. We look at that now and scoff at it, but it really did sit with him. And he also felt that in order to keep the political coalition together at home, that he needed for civil rights and Great Society and other social programs, he would have to satisfy the hawks who were also pushing for a stronger stance in Vietnam.

DAVIES: As time wears on, opposition to the war grows. And, you know, there are riots in African American communities at some point, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. A lot of African American leaders criticized the war. How did all this affect Lady Bird's public appearances? I mean, she must have run into this.

SWEIG: She starts running into anti-war protesters by the end of 1966, when she's out doing her own events. The anti-war protests start before that, but it really starts to get into her gray matter by the second half of 1966. And we see it when she goes out to California. We see it especially as the anti-war movement on college campuses picks up. By the fall of 1967 - and here's, I think, a really important turning point for her - she's invited to go to Williams College and to Yale to inaugurate two brand-new environmental studies programs at each school. And this is now an issue. She's begun to shed the beautification moniker, and she's seen as a much more comprehensive environmentalist and sees herself that way. And she goes to participate in these events and is totally drowned out by anti-war protest.

That's in the fall of 1967, at the very same time that her daughters are - well, her younger daughter is already married, and her older daughter is about to get married. And both the fiance of the latter and the spouse of the former are preparing to deploy to Vietnam. And she and her daughter Lynda start to host wounded vets privately at the White House. She begins through this personal experience and through the drowning out of her environmental message on college campuses and, overall, the intensity of American protest to feel that she's been rather isolated and living in a bubble and that that can't be. But at the same time, it sinks in with her that it's really tarnishing Lyndon's presidency.

DAVIES: And so if we come to 1968, the year in which Lyndon Johnson was expected to run for a second term, and then he shocks the nation on the last day of March - right? - by announcing in a televised speech about Vietnam, at the end suddenly that he is withdrawing. He will not seek or accept the nomination of his party for president. So Johnson gets out of the race. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated over the summer. It's a horrific year. Richard Nixon ultimately wins the White House. Johnson dies in 1973 - what? - just a few years later. Lady Bird outlived him by 34 years. Didn't remarry, right? What did she do with her life thereafter?

SWEIG: She lived as long after his death as they had been married. So it's a really extraordinary post-presidency for her. And she became a bit less of a public figure, but not so much. She was quite devoted to building, as an institution, the LBJ Library and Museum, the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She created something called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which is actually a beautiful place that, yes, focuses on native plants and wildflowers but has a significant environmental educational component to it outside of Austin. And she traveled around the world with her kids and grandkids.

She had much more of a private life than she had had for all of those years with LBJ. She served on boards. She was on the board of the National Geographic Society, on the board of regents of The University of Texas. She was extremely active, but I think a bit less busy.

DAVIES: You know, you were doing this research and writing about the first lady as we were experiencing a presidency unlike any other in the nation's history and a first family also like any other. As you were watching that unfold while you were immersed in this White House family of a different era, I don't know, did any particular thoughts or observations occur to you about what we were seeing?

SWEIG: Well, I was grateful to Lady Bird Johnson for giving - leaving so much material behind that allowed me to, essentially, keep my head down and absorb myself in the 1960s and in the Johnson presidency. Of course, the political partnership that I learned about in writing about and researching Lady Bird's role in the Johnson presidency didn't exist in the last five years that I could see. Who knows? Maybe Melania Trump left a record.

But, you know, the other thing that I think is instructive is - and sad, really - is that the political polarization and the racial reckoning that the United States has undergone in the last half-a-decade feels so similar to what the country was going through in the 1960s. And that's very humbling to see that the best intentions of reform and social change that the Johnsons brought to the White House really were working against a set of deeply structural and difficult issues that our country is still reckoning with.

DAVIES: Well, Julia Sweig, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SWEIG: Well, thank you. It's been a delight to talk with you, Dave.

DAVIES: Julia Sweig's new book is "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight." It's drawn from archival materials, including audio diaries the first lady recorded of her years in the White House. Sweig is also the creator and host of a podcast series based on the recordings called "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!