Power  /  Film Review

Listening to Lady Bird Johnson, in Her Own Words

“The Lady Bird Diaries” depicts the former first lady as a mass of contradictions.

Lady Bird Johnson embodied contradiction, cloaking her gravitas in Southern charm. Even her name made that clear. From infancy onward, Claudia Alta Taylor (born in 1912) was known to everyone as Lady Bird, a lighthearted, whimsical nickname — invented by her nursemaid — that belied her grit, intellect and ambition. Now, a new documentary on Hulu, “The Lady Bird Diaries,” focuses on her White House years and captures the surprising influence and power that this gentle, smiling woman wielded over her husband.

Based on 123 hours of private audio diaries recorded by Mrs. Johnson (and embargoed until her death, in 2007, at 94), the film is told from the first lady’s point of view, and largely in her own recorded voice — a honeyed Texas drawl — interspersed with contemporaneous news footage. There are, however, virtually no outside perspectives or critiques offered. The film takes us inside Mrs. Johnson’s mind and keeps us firmly there.

The documentary, directed by Dawn Porter, opens with the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the ensuing chaotic hours that thrust the stunned vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and his wife into their new roles. “I felt like I was walking onto a stage for a part I had never rehearsed,” Mrs. Johnson says.

Although eloquent and highly educated, with degrees in history and journalism, and quite accustomed to being a politician’s wife, the 50-year-old Mrs. Johnson could not have been more different from her young and glamorous predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy. Compared with Mrs. Kennedy, who even in her bloodstained grief looked like a movie star, Mrs. Johnson seemed staid, even matronly. Her dark hair was set in a permanent helmet, and a triple strand of pearls nestled in the high necklines of her boxy suits and dresses. Her only obvious makeup was a discreet slash of lipstick.

Mrs. Johnson was a practical, down-home kind of woman who claimed that her greatest indulgences were a glass of wine and an episode of “Gunsmoke.” She disliked fussing over her appearance, and fashion held little interest for her: “I’m just not the type for sketches and swatches,” she said. She was, however, profoundly interested in America’s appearance — a cause that defined her White House years.