Lady Bird Johnson Critiques the President

Lady Bird Johnson Critiques the President

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President Lyndon B. Johnson holds a press conference on March 7, 1964, and takes questions on a range of topics, from the pending civil rights bill to the war in Vietnam. Afterward, in a recorded conversation with the president, Lady Bird Johnson evaluates her husband’s performance and awards him a “B+.”

'History With The Bark Off': LBJ Presidential Library Celebrates 50 Years

On May 22, 1971 – 50 years ago this Saturday – a high-powered audience of politicians, religious leaders, educators and even Hollywood stars, gathered for the dedication of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. Then-President Richard Nixon led the honors for his predecessor’s project.

Lyndon Baines Johnson’s would be the first presidential library located in Texas – the George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush libraries are in Dallas and College Station. The LBJ Library commemorate one of the most turbulent, consequential presidencies of the 20th century, and, in the mold of its namesake, it was the first really big, grand facility of its kind to be built.

The 1971 dedication took place on an outdoor platform, just south of the new library.

"President Nixon was there. President Johnson's cabinet was there. Gov. John Connally was there. Dr. Billy Graham was there,” said Ben Barnes, who was Texas' lieutenant governor at the time He’s now vice chair of the LBJ Foundation.

Nixon spoke first, accepting the new library on behalf of the American people – presidential libraries are built with private funds, but operated by the National Archives, Johnson rose to acknowledge his achievement – a massive 10-story structure that then held 31 million pages of archives – it's up to 45 million pages, today, including papers given by Johnson associates and members of his government.

As the dignitaries celebrated the library, some 2.000 protesters – according to the New York Times – chanted and banged trash can lids, kept several blocks away by police. The Vietnam War, which escalated dramatically during Johnson’s time in office, was still raging, and in May 1971, many were in no mood to join the in celebrating LBJ’s legacy.

But on the grounds of the new LBJ Library, a cross-section of American political leaders paid tribute, including Barry Goldwater – the man Johnson had defeated in 1964.

On the platform, Johnson cut a striking figure.

“We all had on dark suits. But President Johnson, and I always remember, wore a tan cotton suit. But he does stand out on the platform because he was the only person in that light colored suit,” Barnes said.

Johnson’s remarks at the dedication were brief. He offered a vision for the ways in which the library would educate and inform future generations. And he made a commitment to openness and transparency. "History, with the bark off," he called it, as the sounds of protest remained audible in the distance.

“There is no record of a mistake, or an unpleasantness, or a criticism that is not included in the files here,” Johnson said. “We have papers from 40, some very turbulent, years of public service, and we put them all here in one place, for friends and foes to judge.”

Indeed, the library has provided some of the most remarkable historical artifacts of any presidency – hours of recordings Johnson made of his Oval Office telephone conversations. The tapes feature Johnson cajoling, bullying and sharing confidences with everyone from uncooperative senators to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In August 1965, King warned Johnson in a phone call that police violence and hopelessness among Black Americans could spark a "full scale race war" following the bloody Watts riots in Los Angeles. During the call, Johnson emphasized the need to fight poverty, and the political challenges he faced trying to do it.

"We've got to have some of these housing programs, and we've got to get rid of some of these ghettos, and we've got to get these children out of where the rats eat on them at night, and we've got to get em some jobs,” he said.

LBJ, who died in 1973, had hoped his White House recordings would not be made public for 50 years. But once their existence became known, the library began releasing them, parceling them out over a fifteen year period.

“In the early 1990s, Mrs. Johnson, who was still very vigorous and very much part of daily life at the LBJ Library, made a decision, along with the administration of the library at that time to go ahead and start processing and releasing the LBJ phone recordings, so they wound up being released well ahead of the schedule that LBJ himself had imagined," Said Mark Lawrence, who has been the director of the LBJ Library since January 2020.

Recently, audio diaries made by Lady Bird Johnson have added to what we know about the first lady's role in LBJ's life and work. The diaries are now the source for a new biography and podcast that also illuminate her role as a witness to history, including the day in Dallas when President John F- Kennedy was assassinated.

"Friday, November 22nd. It all began so beautifully. The streets were lined with people. Lots and lots of children, all smiling, placards, confetti, people waving from windows. Suddenly, there was a sharp, loud shot,” Lady Bird Johnson said in her audio diary.

The tapes also show that Lady Bird Johnson played a major role in the creation of the library.

"Mrs. Johnson was undoubtedly really important,” said library director Mark Lawrence. “She, after all, was the UT alum. And she played a really important role in the design, in creating the festivities, of course, around the opening of the library. And then she would go on to be such a central fixture to the library and its programs for many, many years thereafter until she passed away in 2007.”

It was Lady Bird Johnson who identified a building whose architectural style she thought would be a match for her husband’s vision. She was inspired by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Beinecke’s architect, Gordon Bunshaft, was hired to design the LBJ library. Once the University of Texas made clear that it wanted the building on its campus, the pieces began to fall into place. After LBJ’s term ended in 1969, the Johnsons took an increasingly active role.

"There are many wonderful pictures of President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson on the grounds, looking at the building as it's under construction. They had their picture taken at just about every angle of the building," Lawrence said.

The library sits near the northeast corner of UT’s Austin campus. The land is also home to the LBJ School of Public Affairs, which opened a year before the library and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. But the library dominates. Lawrence says Johnson wanted something big all along.

"I think he wanted to convey grandeur – the importance of the presidency, the importance of the presidency, and his own contributions to American life," he said.

And the institution’s first purpose, housing the physical records of the Johnson presidency, was visually apparent to visitors in 1971, as it is today. Row upon row of red archive boxes stored on the upper floors – their presidential seals facing forward – are visible from the ground level.

Lady Bird Johnson got the idea to put the archives front and center when she visited the Harry Truman Presidential Library and found his papers were less prominent.

“Some more dramatic use ought to be made of them – those papers,” she recorded in her audio diary. “They could still be secure, behind glass partitions. Some use could be made of color. There could be some displays, highlight the outstanding achievements of a president’s year.”

Over the past five decades, millions of visitors have passed through the library’s permanent museum exhibits, which chronicle civil rights, voting rights, Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and the Vietnam War.

"We try our best to capture the sources of LBJ's big ideas, the sources of his effectiveness as a politician that grows out of his early career,” Lawrence said. “And then, of course, the heavy emphasis is on the presidency itself. And then another important mission for the museum is to convey the lasting impact – the legacies of the Johnson presidency."

The library has also played host to an array of public programs, speakers and special events over the years, including a 2014 civil rights summit, with President Barack Obama in attendance.

"I would say that the LBJ Library was really the first to attach a high priority to this kind of programming, to the goal of being an active voice in public debate, going well beyond the period of the presidency itself,” Lawrence said.

LBJ’s outsized personality is part of the museum, too – from his Central Texas boyhood, to an almost life-sized replica of Johnson’s Oval Office that features original furnishings, along with the three televisions he used to keep a constant eye on what network news anchors were saying about him. There's even an animatronic version of the 36th president – a replica that moves and speaks. Passersby hear LBJ tell a series of homespun "after dinner" stories.

On its 50th anniversary, the LBJ Library remains closed to the public, as pandemic precautions continue. Library director Lawrence says the building will reopen gradually, beginning this summer.

For now, visitors can view a new web site featuring the "greatest hits" as Lawrence says, of the Johnson phone recordings, along with the documents and photos the contextualize the tapes.

Even at a Funeral, LBJ and Lady Bird Couldn’t Make Their Peace With the Kennedys

This exclusive excerpt from a new biography of the late first lady chronicles an emotionally fraught experience in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Julia Sweig&rsquos just-published Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight (Random House) is the most significant biography of the late first lady to appear in more than two decades. For the book and her new ABC News podcast In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson, Sweig, a nonresident senior research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin&rsquos Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, drew on audio diaries that Lady Bird kept during her White House years. The 123 hours of tape, which had been &ldquohiding in plain sight&rdquo for years (a heavily redacted selection was published in 1970 under the title A White House Diary), portray Lady Bird as a far more active and influential participant in the LBJ presidency than most observers have thought. They also offer a vivid and up-close narrative of American political life during the sixties, featuring a cast of characters that includes Martin Luther King Jr., Jacqueline Kennedy, and Richard Nixon.

In this excerpt, the first couple attends Robert F. Kennedy&rsquos 1968 funeral in New York City. The Johnsons were as shattered as the rest of the country by RFK&rsquos assassination, but their strained relationship with the Kennedy clan made the event a difficult one for them to navigate, as Sweig and Lady Bird make clear.

The morning of Robert F. Kennedy&rsquos funeral, Lyndon and Lady Bird turned to their usual review of newspapers, finding them &ldquodrenched with every aspect of the story,&rdquo as she recorded in her diary. The relentless media exposure of the violent details of Kennedy&rsquos assassination on June 5, 1968, and the painful displays of family and national mourning had exhausted the country and the Johnsons. It would be a long day: attending the funeral at St. Patrick&rsquos Cathedral, in New York City, receiving the train carrying RFK&rsquos coffin and entourage later that afternoon back in Washington, joining the procession through the capital to the burial site at Arlington Cemetery.

During LBJ&rsquos last trip to St. Patrick&rsquos two months earlier for the ordination of the new archbishop of New York, the crowds had greeted the president with a measure of respect and relief, reassured and impressed by the statesmanship of his withdrawal from the presidential race four days earlier. But the tectonic political and emotional shift of a country wrestling with the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King Jr.&mdasha country whose maladies LBJ had come to personify at home and abroad&mdashwas now palpable in the crowd inside and outside St. Patrick&rsquos.

On the Saturday morning of June 8, &ldquoNew York was a strange sight,&rdquo Lady Bird recounted. &ldquoThe streets were lined with people who stood silent, motionless . . . the voiceless chorus&rdquo of a Greek tragedy. St. Patrick&rsquos was filled to overflow with four thousand people. Inside, an &ldquoabsolutely stricken&rdquo Pierre Salinger, RFK&rsquos campaign manager, escorted the Johnsons up the nave. They paused briefly as they passed Bobby&rsquos flag-covered coffin, before taking their seats in the front row, on the left side of the aisle.

Just as they moved into their pew, the congregation &ldquosilently, and without signal,&rdquo rose to its feet. Lady Bird&rsquos predecessor, Jackie Kennedy, &ldquoin black and veiled,&rdquo had entered, along with John Jr. and Caroline. JFK&rsquos widow and children walked past the Johnsons to take their seats in the front row on the right side of the aisle, the Kennedy family side. Bobby&rsquos widow, Ethel, and her ten children, who ranged in age from one to sixteen, sat to the right. A third widow, Coretta Scott King, sat a few rows back&mdashalso, Lady Bird noticed, on the Kennedy family side of the aisle.

Under the cathedral&rsquos vaulted ceilings mourned members of Congress, current and former Kennedy and Johnson cabinet members&mdashthe Goldbergs, the McNamaras, the Rusks, the Dillons, the Harrimans&mdashmilitary brass, New York&rsquos scions of philanthropy, and the country&rsquos leading journalists, artists, and intellectuals. The pews were filled with campaign and policy advisers who just two days earlier had imagined themselves staffing an RFK White House, and with the leaders of the new American political coalition RFK had begun to stitch together during the primaries, including activists César Chávez, John Lewis, and Dolores Huerta. Other than George Wallace and Dick Gregory, every 1968 presidential candidate sat among the mourners.

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And so, too, did each of Lady Bird&rsquos potential successors: Muriel Humphrey, Abigail McCarthy, Happy Rockefeller, and Pat Nixon. Lady Bird could see Leonard Bernstein only from behind, but as he conducted a painfully beautiful rendition of Mahler&rsquos &ldquoAdagietto&rdquo from Symphony No. 5, she saw in him &ldquoan expression of the utmost of passion, of torment and talent,&rdquo words Lady Bird may well have reserved for Bobby himself. In some ways, the gathering felt like a requiem not just for Bobby Kennedy but for the Democratic party&mdashor for the Johnson chapter in American political history.

Robert F. Kennedy&rsquos funeral at St. Patrick&rsquos Cathedral, in New York City, on June 8, 1968. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Senator Ted Kennedy&rsquos &ldquomost beautiful eulogy&rdquo equally moved the first lady. Well practiced in scrutinizing how public figures delivered their messages and connected with their audiences, Lady Bird captured the moment: &ldquoPartway through, his voice began to quiver but then came under control and ended calmly.&rdquo Teddy&rsquos eulogy included a composite of a number of speeches his brother had given&mdashin South Africa, in Mississippi. His eyes &ldquored-rimmed,&rdquo Teddy &ldquoasked that his brother be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it,&rdquo she recorded. Another line of &ldquosheer poetry&rdquo from George Bernard Shaw that Bobby had often paraphrased, although the first lady didn&rsquot know its provenance, was also memorable: &ldquoSome men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.&rdquo At that moment, the purity of grief had transcended the resentments that had built up between the Johnsons and the Kennedys over the years.

The president and the first lady were the first to exit the cathedral after the funeral. On their way, they walked over to the Kennedy family. The patriarch, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., who in 1955 had offered to back an LBJ presidential bid if he would make Jack his running mate, had been unable to travel to his son&rsquos funeral, his health severely diminished by a stroke. But LBJ shook hands and spoke briefly with Teddy, and Lady Bird grasped Teddy&rsquos hand too. They stopped to speak with Ethel, Bobby&rsquos greatest advocate and protector, her face &ldquobeautiful, sad, composed.&rdquo

They spoke to several of her children and also to Rose Kennedy, the matriarch, whom Lady Bird had admired when they first met at the Kennedy family&rsquos Hyannis Port compound in August 1960. During that visit&mdashjust after the Democratic convention, when the Johnsons accepted the vice presidency and threw their lot in with the Massachusetts clan&mdashJack and Jackie had gone out of their way to make the Johnsons comfortable, hiding their own toothbrushes, emptying their drawers, and squeezing into a twin bed in a guest room so the Johnsons could spend the night in their room.

It was also, apparently, when Jackie began to develop her first impression of Lady Bird, whose habit of taking notes whenever her husband spoke reminded Jackie of &ldquoa trained hunting dog.&rdquo That was a severe misjudgment of Lady Bird&rsquos ability to deploy her 360-degree powers of observation and encyclopedic recall in the service of Lyndon&rsquos and her own sizable ambitions.

It had been almost eight years since that visit, when a pregnant Jackie had asked Lady Bird&rsquos advice on how best to help her husband&rsquos candidacy while sitting on the sidelines, minding her womb. And it had been almost five years since Jackie and Lady Bird navigated, together and separately, the brutal reality of Jack&rsquos assassination and the fourteen excruciating days of transition that followed.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy attend a dinner at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., along with Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda and his wife, Mitsue, on June 21, 1961. Darren McCollester/Kennedy Library Archives

In the early weeks and months after Jackie&rsquos exit from the White House and then her departure from Washington, the Johnsons had stayed in touch with her with letters and with invitations, all declined. They renamed the White House&rsquos redesigned East Garden the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. Even as Lady Bird finally felt she had gotten out from under Jackie&rsquos shadow, she built on Jackie&rsquos initiative to fill the White House with notable works of art and continued with her historical preservation projects. But there was only so much Lady Bird could do to heal the wounds of November 1963. By June 1968, Jackie had been living on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for four years and had begun to date Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate, far older and shorter than the multilingual equestrian debutante.

After the warm exchange with Ted, Ethel, and Rose, Lady Bird perhaps expected to find a similar display of manners from the wounded yet ultracareful Jackie, the one Kennedy with whom she shared the most history. Not so. &ldquoAnd then,&rdquo Lady Bird recorded, sounding a bit perplexed, &ldquoI found myself in front of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy. I called her name and put out my hand. I hardly know how to describe the next few moments of time. She looked at me as though from a great distance, as though I were an aberration. I felt extreme hostility. Was it because I was alive? At last, without a flicker of expression, she extended her hand very slightly. I took it with some murmured words of sorrow and walked on quickly. It was somehow shocking. Never in any contact with her before had I experienced this.&rdquo

Jackie&rsquos losses had again mounted. Two infants. One husband. Now a beloved brother-in-law. Defying the mythology of Kennedy stoicism in the face of tragedy, she had practically collapsed at one point during the ceremony. Making Lady Bird feel at ease, a skill Jackie had mastered between 1960 and 1963, was perhaps not her highest priority in 1968. Was it a measure of survivor&rsquos guilt that Lady Bird had projected onto this potent encounter? She had every reason to feel it. Her husband was still alive, even if his presidency was politically moribund.

As Jackie, Coretta, and Ethel mourned their fallen husbands, Lady Bird felt especially helpless and purposeless. &ldquoOnce again, the country is being revived by the sight of a Kennedy wife, behaving with perfect nobility,&rdquo the journalist Mary McGrory wrote of Ethel&rsquos grace at the funeral. Perhaps the hardest truth was that there was nothing Lady Bird, in her capacity as first lady, could do to provide comfort to the three widows or to a mourning nation.


Between November 30, 1963, and January 31, 1969, Lady Bird recorded 850 diary entries.

After Lady Bird returned to Washington, she spent the rest of the day unable to concentrate on work she played bridge with her daughters, &ldquohung in this interval of time between the funeral and the burial with everyone in a sort of emotional trance.&rdquo After a family dinner with Reverend Billy Graham, now a regular at the White House, the Johnsons were finally summoned to Union Station, where the train carrying Bobby&rsquos body, Ethel and the Kennedy clan, and hundreds of friends, journalists, and political allies would shortly arrive. From there, the president and first lady would accompany the funeral cortege to the burial at Arlington Cemetery.

Inside the huge concourse, the vaulted doorways were draped in black, as the White House had been in 1963. The last time Lady Bird had been at Union Station as part of a funeral was for General Douglas MacArthur in April 1964. She stood then with Bobby Kennedy, still the attorney general, waiting for MacArthur&rsquos train to arrive from New York. Bobby turned to her and said, &ldquoYou&rsquore doing a wonderful job.&rdquo He paused and added, &ldquoAnd so is your husband.&rdquo It was a single kind moment in an otherwise fraught relationship.

Overcome by Rose Kennedy&rsquos suffering and also by her strength in the face of so much tragedy, Lyndon welled up with tears during the rainy ride to the station. Lady Bird tenderly touched his arm. When they arrived, they found Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his wife, Muriel, waiting, and invited them into the presidential limousine. &ldquoThe ever ebullient&rdquo Hubert, then in the midst of what would turn out to be a successful run for the Democratic nomination, &ldquolooked for once drained and empty.&rdquo

The 21-car train that finally arrived carried what only a few days before was the nascent RFK administration. The Johnsons&rsquo limousine followed fourteen cars behind RFK&rsquos hearse. The motorcade&rsquos route traveled from Union Station along First Street turned west along Constitution Avenue, where it paused at the Justice Department, where Bobby had served as attorney general and then west to the Lincoln Memorial, past Resurrection City, an encampment on the National Mall established in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.&rsquos assassination to highlight the indignities of poverty in America. There, under a bright moon, the cortege stopped.

Onlookers, at times six people deep, lined the lawns and sidewalks nearby. From Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, some from the South, others from across the country, they&rsquod been waiting all day. The raised fists of the crowd at Resurrection City cut a dramatic contrast with the Cadillacs and National Guardsmen posted nearby. The Marine Corps brass ensemble accompanied two local choirs to perform &ldquoBattle Hymn of the Republic.&rdquo But the Secret Service cautioned Lady Bird against lowering her window to listen to the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe&rsquos classic of the American songbook.

People, more people, candles in hand, lined Memorial Bridge across the Potomac to Arlington Cemetery. There, too, Americans had been waiting for hours to see the cortege pass. Inside the gates of the cemetery, more candles still. The Kennedy family friend Bunny Mellon had selected the grave site, on a slope shaded by two magnolia trees, &ldquoright close to President Kennedy&rsquos tomb,&rdquo Lady Bird recorded.

Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on the White House lawn on August 18, 1964. Charles Tasnadi/AP

Joe Califano, one of LBJ&rsquos top aides, had negotiated every detail of the Johnsons&rsquo role for that day. Going over the choreography, Califano had told the president that when the flag came off the casket, &ldquothey want you to present it to Mrs. Kennedy,&rdquo to Ethel. &ldquoI&rsquoll be glad to do it, but I want you to make sure that this is what the family wants,&rdquo LBJ replied. Califano reassured him. &ldquoYes, sir,&rdquo he said, &ldquowe have asked them three times.&rdquo LBJ said later that he was glad his last meeting with Bobby, a couple of months earlier, the day before MLK&rsquos assassination, had been at least outwardly friendly. The day after RFK&rsquos funeral, New York Times journalist Max Frankel captured the two men&rsquos &ldquobraided&rdquo fates:

&ldquoLyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy thought of each other as unruly detractor and unqualified usurper and their thoughts of each other could provoke them to private profanity. Yet they fought by the proper processes and peculiarly respected even what they resented. For a decade their lives were tautly intertwined, and as they pulled apart politically, they managed only to strangle one another.&rdquo

Lyndon was confounded by his inability to read the Kennedy clan and deeply frustrated by their rejection of his talents during his years in the White House.

In the end, after a brief ceremony, the Johnsons hung back. They stood when the family stood, kneeled when the family kneeled, and watched as one of the pallbearers, astronaut John Glenn, folded the flag with military precision and handed it to Teddy Kennedy&mdashand Teddy, not LBJ, carried it to Ethel. &ldquoThis was,&rdquo Lady Bird recorded, &ldquoas it should be.&rdquo Knowing the family&rsquos wish to &ldquolinger alone,&rdquo the president and first lady said their goodbyes to Ethel and walked down the slope, Washington&rsquos monuments and the Capitol dome illuminated ahead of them. &ldquoThere was a great white moon riding high in the sky&mdasha beautiful night,&rdquo Lady Bird recalled. &ldquoThis is the only night funeral I ever remember, but then this is the only [such] time in the life of our country&mdashan incredible, unbelievable, cruel, wrenching time.&rdquo

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline &ldquoAlone in a Crowd.&rdquo Subscribe today.

First Lady Lit

Laura Bush has made it to about Mile 25 in the political memoir marathon — past the mega advance, past the leaked details, past the saturation-point publicity, all the way to No. 1 on The New York Times’s best-seller list. If she needs a boost for the final stretch, she might remind herself of Lady Bird Johnson’s experience more than 40 years ago.

In the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lady Bird decided that, as the president’s wife, she owed history an archive. So most nights around 7, she would retreat to her White House dressing room-office, hang a small pillow on the door (“I Want to Be Alone”) and talk to her tape recorder. She also saved lunch menus, guest lists, anything to aid her memory, and when the Johnsons were getting ready to leave the White House she began cutting and revising what had become about two million words of material. By December 1968, New York’s publishing elite were filing in to a secure “reading room” to examine the manuscript. Holt, Rinehart & Winston ended up publishing “A White House Diary” in 1970, to effusive reviews. Appearances by Lady Bird on radio and television (including “The David Frost Show”) and a book tour soon followed, and the memoir spent 13 weeks on The Times’s best-seller list. Every first lady since, with the exception of Pat Nixon, has written a memoir.

Lady Bird Johnson may have been the first first lady to get the full modern book rollout, but she was hardly the first whose White House experiences made it into a book. As early as 1840, readers were devouring Abigail Adams’s “Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams,” and Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law of Abigail, made several attempts at an autobiography. (She titled her final try “The Adventures of a Nobody.”) While Louisa never intended to publish her memoirs, Julia Grant certainly did. In 1899, she told a reporter that “I never anticipated writing a book and don’t believe, in fact, that I am gifted with any talent of that kind.” “But memoirs,” she added, “are different.” Still, even after leaning on Mark Twain, who had helped Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs become an enormous success, Julia couldn’t find a publisher. “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant” didn’t appear until 1975.

The first first lady to see her memoirs published in her lifetime was Helen Taft, whose “Recollections of Full Years” appeared in 1914. “I should like to say here,” she wrote in an aside, “that I am not trying in this narrative to pose as a woman endowed with an especial comprehension of such problems of state as men alone have been trained to deal with.” Readers took Helen at her word, treating her book as a welcome curiosity. It was praised in much the same terms as the next first lady memoir, Edith Wilson’s “My Memoir” (1939), which The New York Times Book Review applauded for its “intimate characterization of President Wilson and the faithful description of social life in the White House.” But the Book Review also criticized the memoir for its “anxious interest in matters that are personal and even trivial.” Wilson described a White House dinner, for example, where she and two other wives arrived in similar velvet dresses. (“Fortunately,” Edith writes, “the colors were different.”)

Publishers of first lady memoirs generally didn’t mind such criticism, since they marketed these books not as political literature but as women’s literature, to be serialized in magazines like McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal. Eleanor Roosevelt, whose political advocacy and numerous books make her something of an outlier among presidents’ wives, saw her own first lady memoir, “This I Remember” (1949), treated as a book for women. Even the advertisements for Lady Bird’s memoir promised “the story of a concerned wife and mother managing the busiest household in the world — the White House.”

But Lady Bird had to neglect that household in order to keep up her diary. Luci, the Johnsons’ younger daughter, recalled having “despised” her mother’s “I Want to Be Alone” pillow, and this gets at the increasingly complex and contradictory role of the modern first lady. The same cultural forces that allowed the first lady memoir to become an actual, individualized story also made it a much harder book to write than a presidential memoir. Presidents need to show where they shaped history first ladies need to show where they didn’t. Sometimes, however, a domestic perspective can reveal more about the White House. After reading a draft of Rosalynn Carter’s “First Lady From Plains” (1984), Jimmy Carter asked her: “Do you want to write in your book that you cried? It’ll make you sound weak.” Rosalynn kept in the tears. And while both Carters mention Pope John Paul II in their memoirs, only Rosalynn reveals that, after the pope’s White House visit, the first couple watched a Bo Derek movie.

These days, first lady memoirs can get nasty, as in Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn” (1989) — a book whose vengeful tone earned it the nickname “My Burn” — and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton’s “Living History” (2003), with its jabs at her and her husband’s political enemies. Of course, “Living History” was not only a first lady memoir, but also a campaign auto­biography. Yet you won’t find similar moments in Barbara Bush’s “Memoir” (1994) or Laura Bush’s Spoken From the Heart (Scribner, $30).

In the end, what first lady memoirs may have most in common is popularity. Every such book in the 20th and 21st centuries has hit the best-seller lists. Indeed, following Lady Bird’s lead, Rosalynn, Nancy and Barbara all outsold their husbands. The best example of this is Betty Ford’s “Times of My Life” (1978). When the Fords signed a joint book deal for $1 million — the only such his-and-hers contract to date — the publishing insiders who had predicted that Betty’s book would land an advance three times the size of her husband’s quickly spun the deal as one that “places their experiences as public figures on an equal basis.” But if anything, the deal helped President Ford save face — though not for long, since Betty’s book received a record amount for its serial rights and an additional million for its paperback rights, all while Gerald’s “Time to Heal” (1979) struggled to muster even a paper­back deal.

Betty realized this for Gerald’s 64th birthday in 1977, she gave him a T-shirt that said “I bet my book outsells yours.” Yet the publishing industry continues to insist on bailing out our presidents. Even after a wave of predictions that the still popular Laura Bush would get as much as $5 million for her memoir — or, at the very least, more than her husband — she reportedly received an advance of less than $2 million against his $7 million. It’s as good an argument as any that publishers sign up presidents more for the face time and prestige than for any chance at a profit. But it’s an indication, too, that the history of the first lady memoir is also a history of unequal pay for equal work.

In Lady Bird Johnson’s Secret Diaries, a Despairing President and a Crucial Spouse

A new book reveals how the former first lady not only provided a spouse’s emotional ballast but also served as an unrivaled counselor who helped persuade Lyndon B. Johnson to stay in office.

WASHINGTON — He had been president for only two years, but that night in fall 1965 he had had enough. Lyndon B. Johnson had spiraled into depression, and from his hospital bed after gallbladder surgery, he talked of throwing it all away and retreating into seclusion back home in Texas.

To a visiting Supreme Court justice, he dictated thoughts for a statement announcing he was indefinitely turning over his duties to Vice President Hubert Humphrey while recovering from fatigue. “I want to go to the ranch. I don’t want even Hubert to be able to call me,” he told his wife, Lady Bird Johnson. “They may demand that I resign. They may even want to impeach me.”

Eventually, Mrs. Johnson coaxed him through that period of doubt and despair, enabling him to complete the final three years of his term. The episode was hidden from the public, and although Mrs. Johnson documented it in her diary, she ordered the entry kept secret for years after her death. But a new book reveals the full scope of those once-shrouded diaries as never before, shedding fresh light on the former first lady and her partnership with the 36th president.

The diaries reveal how central Mrs. Johnson was to her husband’s presidency. She not only provided a spouse’s emotional ballast but also served as an unrivaled counselor who helped persuade him to stay in office at critical junctures, advised him on how to use the office to achieve their mutual goals, guided him during the most arduous moments and helped chart his decision to give up power years later.

While she is remembered largely as a political wife and businesswoman with impeccable manners, an easy laugh, a soft Texas lilt and a quintessentially first-lady-like White House portfolio promoting “beautification” efforts, the diaries make clear that Mrs. Johnson behind the scenes was also a canny political operator and shrewd judge of people.

“The pre-existing image is one of two-dimensionality and stiff-upper-lipness and not a hair out of place,” said Julia Sweig, who spent five years researching the diaries for the biography “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight,” set to be published by Random House on Tuesday. “But when you get into this material, you see what a rounded, multidimensional human being she is.”

Mrs. Johnson began her diary shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy vaulted her husband to the presidency in November 1963, and she dutifully kept it up through the end of their time in the White House in January 1969. She released carefully edited excerpts in a 1970 book titled “A White House Diary,” but some portions remained sealed until long after her death in 2007 at age 94.

Ms. Sweig, a longtime Washington scholar, learned about the diaries from a friend and became captivated when she visited the Johnson presidential museum in Austin, Texas, and stepped into an exhibit that featured Mrs. Johnson’s voice from the taped diaries describing the day of the Kennedy assassination. The first lady’s voice was activated by a motion detector, so Ms. Sweig repeatedly stepped in and out of the museum room to hear the diary entry over and over.

She then embarked on a project examining all 123 hours of tapes and transcripts, the last of which were not released until 2017, combined with other research to produce the biography and an accompanying eight-part podcast, “In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson,” produced by ABC News, that features Mrs. Johnson’s voice narrating her time in the White House. (The fourth episode airs on Monday.)

“It’s very unusual to find such an unexcavated and contemporary record of such a recent period of history that we thought we knew and understood about a presidency that we thought we knew and understood,” Ms. Sweig said.

Johnson scholars said Ms. Sweig’s examination of the diaries fleshes out the popular understanding of that era. “She fills out this picture now that we have of the Johnson presidency,” said the historian Robert Dallek, who spent 14 years researching two books on Lyndon Johnson.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor in a small East Texas town, Mrs. Johnson was a force in her husband’s political career from Congress to the White House. She advised him through the civil rights movement, the enactment of the Great Society program and the Vietnam War, and she helped figure out how to handle the arrest of a close aide and used her beautification program to promote an environmental and social justice agenda.

Perhaps most consequentially, she steered her husband through his inner turmoil. As early as May 1964, six months after taking office, he contemplated his departure by not running for election in his own right that fall. Mrs. Johnson drew up a seven-page strategy memo as well as a draft letter forgoing election to show him what it would look like. But she told her diary, “I hope he won’t use it,” and encouraged him to stay the course, which he did.

At the same time, her strategy memo presciently outlined his eventual course, suggesting he run for election but serve just one full term, then announce in March 1968 that he would not run again.

There were moments when he almost upended the plan, as in October 1965, after his gallbladder surgery. There was no particular precipitating event, and he was arguably at the height of his presidency, having passed major civil rights legislation while not yet mired in the worst of the Vietnam War. Indeed, he signed 13 domestic policy bills from his bed during a two-week convalescence at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Yet for whatever reason, he became overwhelmed with the stress of the job one night as Abe Fortas, the longtime ally he had just appointed to the Supreme Court, sat at his bedside. The beleaguered president told his wife and the justice that he could handle “not one more piece of paper, not one more problem,” and he dictated thoughts about how he could escape the burdens of the presidency to Fortas, who wrote them out longhand.

“He was like a man on whom an avalanche had suddenly fallen,” Mrs. Johnson recorded. She knew his drastic mood swings better than anyone but had missed this one coming. “So here is the black beast of depression back in our lives,” she told her diary in a section she marked “close for 10 years, and review then.”

The diary entry reinforced how important she was to keeping her husband centered. “L.B.J. often let his demons roam with her, knowing that she would quietly ward them off by appealing to his better angels,” said Mark K. Updegrove, the president of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation and the author of “Indomitable Will” about the Johnson presidency. “He used her not only as a sounding board but revealed his subconscious to her, including expressing his darkest thoughts that he was trying to work through. She helped to work them out — or exorcise them.”

Mrs. Johnson helped exorcise them that fall, but by 1968, she, too, thought it might be time for him to move on. He had a secret ending drafted for his State of the Union address in January announcing that he would not run for re-election, but he was uncertain whether he would deliver it. Before he left for the Capitol, Mrs. Johnson noticed that he had left the secret draft behind, so she rushed over to tuck it in his suit pocket.

She then watched from the House gallery as he delivered his speech, not knowing herself whether he would use the secret ending or not. He did not. But then, when it came time for an address to the nation announcing a de-escalation in bombing North Vietnam, he finally issued the surprise declaration. That was in March 1968 — exactly according to the timetable Mrs. Johnson had outlined four years earlier.

BROADWAY REVIEW: ‘The Great Society’ has lots of history, not enough bite in play about LBJ’s last years as president

That “lady” was “The Great Society,” LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan and now the title of the new Robert Schenkkan play starring Brian Cox — shorthand for Johnson’s profound vision to end the pesky problems that plague America to this day: Poverty, health care, crime, education, racism and the fouled-up environment.

In essence, this epic follow-up to Schenkkan’s “All The Way," which starred Bryan Cranston and covered the early years of LBJ, charts how all of those high ideals ultimately were squelched by a pair of gut-wrenching wars that erupted under his presidential watch, or his lack thereof.

One was the war in Vietnam, a killing field that sapped America’s governmental resources even as it took its young and devastated its families. The other took place at home as Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman) waged battles against the likes of Alabama Gov. George Wallace (David Garrison), with LBJ trying and failing to act as an honest broker, hoping to convince the activists of the merits of incremental change — and to reign in the segregationists of the South while trying to hold on to the teetering support of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley (Mark Kudisch) and his regressive Democratic machine.

Reflections: A Secret Garden

Tucked away on the South Lawn, behind a tall hedge of hollies, is the White House Children’s Garden, a special jewel, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson as their family’s time in the White House drew to a close. Mrs. Johnson wrote of the opening in her diary, “Sunday, January 19 [1969]. Today dawned gray and dreary with a light rain falling . . . Carrying an umbrella, I went down to the Children’s Garden, which will be our departing gift to the White House . . . Even in the gray day, the garden was a charming little spot . . . a very secret, quiet place.”

Today the garden remains a symbol of the connectivity of presidential families to the home they once occupied. In the forty-five years since the garden was established, nineteen presidential grandchildren have pressed their handprints and footprints into clay to be cast in bronze, yet there is plenty of room for the prints of future generations to be added to the flagstone paths.

Lucinda Robb Florio, granddaughter of President Johnson, has a keen interest in history and recently reflected for me upon the context she sees for the garden today. Hers were the first handprints left there. “The White House was my first home . . . but as I was only a few months old, I didn’t properly appreciate it! So it is interesting to know that I made some small, lasting mark in my short time there. The garden strikes me as a particularly appropriate gift, especially given my grandmother’s love of nature. Having the prints of the grandchildren in such a private place was a reminder that it was a home loved by many families, who upon leaving office would share a special bond with the other occupants.”

The first prints for the garden were made by President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson's grandchildren, three-year old Patrick Lyndon Nugent and infant Lucinda Robb.

Lauren Bush Lauren, one of twelve grandchildren of President George H. W. Bush whose prints are in the garden, says, “I do vaguely remember the day that all of my cousins and I placed our handprints . . . It was a fun, chaotic day . . . I believe we were all in the Third Floor Solarium and fresh blocks of cement were brought in. I was around five years old at the time, so I certainly did not grasp the significance . . .I now feel a greater sense of pride and history in being part of the garden.”

President George H. W. Bush's granddaughter, Lauren Bush Lauren, in the Children's Garden.

Courtesy of Lauren Bush Lauren

Lauren’s younger brother Pierce Bush, who was three years old when his prints were made, observed, “When your grandfather serves as president—no matter what you do in your own life—you will always be known to some extent as the grandchild of that president . . . The fact that we permanently have our handprints in the Children’s Garden is a small way that we, as grandkids of presidents, will literally leave our mark on the magical place that we Bushes once called Gampy and Granny’s house.”

First Lady Barbara Bush spoke nostalgically, “I loved the Children’s Garden and often walked our dogs around the South Lawn and would stop and step into the garden for a quiet moment. It was very nice.”

Rarely do the progeny of presidents return to the garden, but all remember it as the secret place Lauren describes. The number of stones grows and the terrace they compose likewise is enlarged and rearranged. And there is plenty of space for the grandchildren of future presidents.

Sarah Rosemary Carter is among the many grandchildren of presidents whose handprints are included in the Children's Garden. She is the granddaughter of President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

The Presidential Portrait That Was the ‘Ugliest Thing’ L.B.J. Ever Saw

When Barack Obama unveiled his official presidential portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on Monday, his response was gracious, if self-deprecatory. That combination has become something of a norm since the museum began commissioning portraits of presidents in the 1990s. Obama praised the likeness, but joked that artist Kehinde Wiley had denied his request to be painted with smaller ears and less gray hair in 2008, George W. Bush praised college classmate Bob Anderson’s portrait as “fabulous” but quipped that he knew a sizable crowd would turn up “once the word got out about [his] hanging.” Even Abraham Lincoln poked fun at his own looks, despite his savvy use of portraiture as political message.

But not all presidents’ reactions to their official portraits have been so joyful. When he first laid eyes on the painting that was to be his official White House portrait, Lyndon B. Johnson disgustedly called painter Peter Hurd’s work “the ugliest thing I ever saw” and refused to accept it. Hurd was already decades into his successful career as a painter, specializing in portraiture and landscapes of the American Southwest. Arrogant enough to be unaffected by the comment and eager to publicize the president’s “very damn rude” behavior, he readily responded to press curiosity about the incident. Americans were sympathetic toward the scorned artist and increasingly skeptical of the president’s character—a slight that Johnson, who was already seen as short-tempered, could hardly afford. After displaying the piece at a Texas museum in retaliation, Hurd later donated his painting to the Portrait Gallery, which agreed to not display it until after Johnson's death.

“It’s a mystery to me,” says David C. Ward, former senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery and author of the new release America’s Presidents: National Portrait Gallery. “It’s a good 20th-century ceremonial portrait, and he hated it.”

America's Presidents: National Portrait Gallery

A striking collection of presidential portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, this volume encapsulates the spirit of the most powerful office in the world.

Unlike Obama’s portrait, which has received praise for its departure from the photorealistic tradition of presidential portraiture, Hurd’s portrait of Johnson wasn’t radical and on its face seemed quite similar to those of his predecessors (Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of John F. Kennedy being a notable exception.) A tall, broad-shouldered, determined-looking Texan in a dignified black suit, Johnson is imagined atop the roof of the Library of Congress, holding a heavy-looking U.S. history book, as the dwarfed U.S. Capitol building lights up Washington, D.C. in the twilit background. Like Wiley, Hurd didn’t shrink the president’s ears, blur the lines in his face or darken his gray, slicked-back hair he portrayed Johnson flatteringly, powerfully, but he portrayed him as he was.

“If you just forget [Johnson’s] opinion—it’s a really good portrait of [him],” Ward says. “The fact that you’ve got Lyndon Johnson in this fictitious space, elevated above the entire landscape of the nation’s capital, I think that’s interesting… That’s what Johnson was. He was master of the Senate and then an extremely important president.”

Despite his power and prominence, though, Johnson was often overcome with insecurity. As a Texan, he saw himself as something of an outsider, according to Ward, and was often paranoid that more refined politicians aimed to take advantage of him. This unease was especially obvious in his relationship with the Kennedys: while they were wealthy, conventionally attractive and largely seen as classy and distinguished, Johnson grew up in poverty and was sometimes thought of as a “crude, kind of buffoonish outsized Texan,” according to Ward.

“He’s a major consequential figure, and we’ve tended to forget about him,” Ward says. “He’s still overwhelmed—and this would drive him crazy––by the glamour of [John F.] Kennedy.”

That tension might explain Lady Bird Johnson’s critique that the portrait of her husband didn’t properly depict his “gnarled, hardworking” hands. Though Johnson’s family was poor, he was no farmhand. He became a teacher right out of college and transitioned quickly to life in politics. Ward theorizes that perhaps Lady Bird felt the portrait didn’t adequately differentiate him from genteel New Englanders like Bobby Kennedy.

“Johnson always thought that people were looking down on him,” Ward says. “I wonder if there isn’t this uneasiness on the part of Johnson that somehow the city-slickers are taking advantage of him.”

But it’s possible—even probable, according to Ward—that Johnson’s disapproval of the portrait had less to do with him being fraught with feelings of self-doubt than it did with him being something of a bully himself. He is known to have driven an aide and a plumber to mental breakdown during his time as a politician (though the aide later said that Johnson was very conscious of his staff’s welfare.) He had a habit of applying the descriptor “piss-ant” to his adversaries, from “piss-ant” reporters to the “damn little piss-ant country” of Vietnam. And upon rejecting Hurd, Johnson arrogantly showed the artist his portrait created by the renown Norman Rockwell, which he claimed to prefer despite later getting rid of that painting as well.

“If he felt that you didn’t have any power, I don’t think he’s somebody you’d want to spend any time with,” Ward says. “He liked bullying people. It was like this compulsion to dominate people.”

But couldn’t his caustic personality simply be a byproduct of his insecurity? Ultimately, the discussion of Johnson’s shocking reaction to his presidential portrait couldn’t be more burdened than the legacy of the man himself. Once a celebrated liberal politician, Johnson championed progressive economic causes, access to education and racial equality with his dream for a “Great Society” at the height of the Civil Rights era. But his disastrous approach to the War in Vietnam—which led to the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans—practically precludes remembering him as a great president. The question of how to remember Lyndon B. Johnson in portrait and in policy doesn’t have a simple answer.

“He’s an increasingly tragic figure,” Ward says. “But on the other hand, the point of being a tragic figure is that you bring about your own demise.”

‘Lady Bird Johnson’ Review: Behind the Smile

Lady Bird Johnson recording an audio diary of the day’s events in the White House, 1968.

A minor sport during the Johnson administration was watching Lady Bird Johnson’s face when the president was rambling on, whether at a podium or a party. Her smiling gaze would be hardly different from the standard adoring-political-wife look, which she had perfected.

But Lyndon Johnson knew the difference. He soon shut up.

We reporters who covered social events at the White House had also seen her coolly send an aide upstairs toward the close of a state dinner, with the message that the president (and whichever junior official’s young wife was with him) should return to the party to say goodbye to his guests. He would do so.

So perhaps Lady Bird Johnson was not the totally uncritical and subservient wife she was generally assumed to be. And perhaps planting flowers, in her “Beautification Project”—for which Washingtonians continue to be annually grateful—was not her only political or civic contribution. Yet such presumptions have persisted in the copious histories of that administration, prompting Julia Sweig to correct the record by writing “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight.”

Mrs. Johnson tried to be visible to the future. She recorded a lengthy diary, expressing the hope that her children, grandchildren, and, she added, the entire nation, could see what she had seen—she did not explicitly add the hope that they could also see what she had done.

Book review: ‘Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History,’ by Michael L. Gillette

Anyone who ever spoke to Lady Bird Johnson remembers the former first lady's particular way of talking: her charming East Texas accent her use of certain idioms that echoed another era, now long past. That distinctive voice is what we hear throughout Michael L. Gillette's new oral history, Lady Bird Johnson, for it might just as easily be called an oral autobiography.

This project has long been in the making. Gillette, who directed the LBJ Library’s Oral History Program from 1976 to 1991, is the executive director of Humanities Texas in Austin. He and several colleagues, including Harry Middleton, the longtime director of the LBJ Library, conducted 47 interviews with Lady Bird over an 18-year period. The result, while not a perfect record, brings considerable light to bear upon Lady Bird’s early life and her middle years, before she and President Lyndon Johnson entered the White House after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.

The great disappointment is that so little of the book touches upon the later years of Lady Bird’s long life. Only the final chapter of the history addresses her White House years, and among the questions she answers there are softballs such as, “Did you have a favorite room in the White House?” Her rich and busy life after the Johnson presidency is covered in a two-page afterword, probably because the oral-history interviews ended in the mid-1990s as her health began to fail. As she would say, “The tooth of time has taken a bite out of me.”

Still, for those who wish to know more about the times and places that shaped Lady Bird Johnson, this book is a treasure trove. When the interviews began in the late 1970s, her memory was amazingly sharp, and her tales of her childhood and youth are full of rich flavor, mostly untouched by sentimentality.

One story we all know well is about where baby Claudia Alta Taylor got her nickname — when she was declared to be “pretty as a lady bird” by her black nurse, Alice Tittle. In truth, as Lady Bird told Gillette, the nickname came from two childhood playmates who also were black. “It was later deemed more respectable to assign credit to the nurse and thereby avoid the impression of interracial socialization,” Gillette notes dryly in the introduction to his first chapter.

Lady Bird was born in December 1912 and grew up in an East Texas where racism was casual, an everyday thing among white people. As she told Gillette: “One found it difficult to call blacks ‘Mr. or Mrs.’ … You had no hesitance at all if they were old and respected and longtime friends of your family in calling them Uncle Sam or Aunt Sarah … which is laughable now, but a little sad.”

She was a shy child from a well-to-do family who was left motherless before she was 6 years old. “Pathetic,” in the old-fashioned sense of pathos, is a word she often used to describe herself as a young girl, and even as a teenager and a young woman, she was sheltered and socially reticent, though she always had friends. When she went east to New York for the first time, as she said more than once, “My eyes were out on stems!”

Meeting Lyndon Johnson changed everything for both of them. He was liberal where she was conservative, outgoing where she was shy, fearless where she was hesitant. He overpowered her senses, brought an excitement she had never known in her life. It was a whirlwind courtship, and she was married to him almost before she knew it.

Lady Bird’s loyalty to LBJ meant that she would never discuss his marital infidelities. She summed him up thus: “Marvelous. Contradictory. Great natural intelligence. Showman sometimes hurtful sometimes very often tender and giving. … We all got as mad as could be at him from time to time, and hurt. But … he was an exciting person to live with, and I consider myself very lucky.

“I know we were better together than we were apart.”

Dallas writer Joyce Sáenz Harris interviewed Lady Bird Johnson in 1995 for a Dallas Morning News profile of Tom Johnson, LBJ's former aide who was then president and CEO of CNN.

Watch the video: President Reagans Remarks on Congressional Gold Medal to Lady Bird Johnson on April 28, 1988 (July 2022).


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