Throughout the five years in which Lyndon B. Johnson was the President of the United States, his First Lady––Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson––took note of everything. The Lady Bird Diaries, directed by Dawn Porter, is built on archival photo and video as well as audio from Lady Bird herself. For the duration of the Johnson Administration, Mrs. Johnson recorded 123 hours of audible diary entries. From these revealing documents, Porter forms a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrait of a compassionate woman in an extraordinary position.
Based on Julia E. Sweig’s biography Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight and the podcast In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson, The Lady Bird Diaries opens on November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas. “It all began so beautifully…,” Lady Bird recalls. The immediate aftermath of the JFK Assassination is described in great detail by the new First Lady, thrust into a role she was never eager to play. Quickly she would become LBJ’s closest critic, conscience, and heart.
Her idiolect is something to behold and perhaps the highlight of the entire picture. Lady Bird’s Texan drawl sounds entirely alien to anyone else’s, at least to these ignorant, Northern ears. She comes across as both puritanical and progressive. One imagines the voice is doing of lot of this work. In the same moment she describes JFK’s murder as a “disaster hanging over our heads” and proclaims the television Gunsmoke to be “[Lyndon and I’s] biggest self-indulgence.” Who wouldn’t like this woman?!
Through her own words, we learn of her husband’s reluctance to run for president in ’64 and then bow out in ’68. There are recordings of wholesome conversations between Lady Bird, Lyndon, and a grieving Jackie Kennedy. We hear Lady Bird’s enthusiasm for what would become her “Beautification of America” campaign, an earnest (perhaps naive) agenda to connect Americans with their natural surroundings in an attempt to promote something like conservation as well as cleaning up urban areas that had begun to decay. Marginal success and marked criticism are taken in stride. The film highlights that “President Johnson signed into law 300 bills having to do with the environment.” This was a woman strong in virtue, driven by a self-described “puritan conscience.”
Documentaries like this are sneakily complicated. Porter presents her film as a singular piece of reflection, peppered with effective asides where appropriate. A particular White House memory via Eartha Kitt stands out. This fluidity is the result of incomprehensible work, to be sure. Credit to Porter and editor Benjamin Zwieg for building something so seamless and engaging.
There’s so much here. Her uneasiness with RFK, a feeling she did not harbor with JFK. President Johnson’s conflicted decision-making in regards to Vietnam, their navigation of the Walter Jenkins scandal during the 1964 campaign, and their concealment of LBJ’s vicious depression. There’s all of this, and yet, it feels like there could be a second film just as compelling thanks to Lady Bird’s essential observations.
The Lady Bird Diaries screened at DOC NYC and is now on Hulu.