LADY BIRD

A Biography of

Mrs. Johnson

By Jan Jarboe Russell

Scribner. 350 pp. $26

The job (for job it most certainly is) of First Lady is one of the most ambiguous and difficult in a city where all too many positions fit that description. The person who holds it is not hired or elected or paid, yet she is held by her employers -- the people of the United States -- to the most exacting standards of performance and dignity. She is expected to serve the public interest, yet if she expresses forthright views about public issues she is criticized for stepping out of bounds.

That was true in the 1930s and '40s of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was as much vilified by her political opponents as adored by her followers. It has also been true of Hillary Rodham Clinton, especially during her husband's first term, when she took on -- ineptly, as it turned out -- the campaign to reform health care. Now she is about to become the first woman to run for elective office from the launching pad of the White House, and it is highly likely that her performance as First Lady will be an issue in her effort to win a Senate seat from New York State.

But the activism of those two First Ladies is the exception to the rule. For the most part, First Ladies have been defined not by themselves but by their husbands, leaving us to wonder: If the vice president -- the job is both elected and paid -- is no better than a pitcher of warm spit, in John Nance Garner's memorable characterization, then what, pray tell, is the First Lady?

When one considers the incredible restraints under which the First Lady conducts her business, it is remarkable that so many who have held the job have done it so well; indeed, over the last half-century most of the women who've been First Lady have brought more dignity, integrity and competence to the position than their husbands have brought to the presidency. None demonstrated these (and other) qualities in greater abundance than Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, universally known as Lady Bird, the wife and now the widow of Lyndon Baines Johnson. She is an admirable and substantial figure in her own right, and she has been accorded a biography -- thorough, respectful and at times painfully candid -- that can only heighten the esteem she has long enjoyed.

Jan Jarboe Russell is a Texas journalist who interviewed Mrs. Johnson at length five years ago for an article to be published in Texas Monthly. That led to this book, with which its subject cooperated until, a couple of years ago, Russell began to press her about her husband's "key relationships with other women," many of which were adulterous. At that point Mrs. Johnson ended her interviews with Russell, in an "icy and final" letter, but her resistance must not have been total, for Russell quotes at length from private letters and other documents over which she presumably has some degree of control.

Whatever the extent of Mrs. Johnson's cooperation, it is much to Russell's credit that she seeks no revenge for the termination of the interviews. She does not refrain from telling what she perceives as the truth, which includes psychological speculation, but she is consistently sympathetic and understanding. Beyond that, despite being a woman of a younger generation to which the fruits of feminism have been plentiful, she does not view her subject through the prism of sexual politics; she knows that Mrs. Johnson, who was born in 1912, was a member of a transitional generation, and assesses her in light of that.

Lady Bird Johnson is self-reliant, "strong, resilient, immovable," as "ruthless and savvy in business, love and politics" as her famously ruthless husband, but she is a Southern woman of a certain time: "a married woman of the 1950s, a member of the `silent generation'." From the moment that Lyndon Johnson persuaded her to marry him -- his courtship was ardent, insistent and hasty -- she knew "the dominant pattern of their relationship" would be that "the focus was always on him," and accepted it without question. She "never considered herself a servant, nor a victim, not then and not later in life." As she said: "Ours was a compelling love. Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment . . . I guess you could sum it up by saying we were better together than apart."

In her long life there have been two dominant men: her husband and her father. Thomas Jefferson Taylor Jr. was, in his daughter's words, "a very strong character, to put it mildly," who made himself rich as a storekeeper and then a cotton farmer in East Texas. He was a big, ambitious, rough-hewn man who went through many women. Lady Bird's mother, Minnie, was "smart, well read and rich, but not beautiful," a "dreamy, cultured woman in a raw land" who died when her daughter was not yet 6 years old. "Her mother's death," Russell writes, "became the primary lens through which Lady Bird saw the world. It marked the end of her brief childhood. As a child and adolescent, the fact that she was motherless was never forgotten. In fact, her motherless status constituted her initial identity."

This left her in her father's hands. He may have loved her, but he countenanced no emotional displays -- not even, it seems, grief over the loss of her mother -- and offered no psychological comfort, yet she seems to have worshiped him. Horace Busby, who worked for Lyndon Johnson for years and understands both Johnsons acutely, told Russell: "The key to understanding Lady Bird is to understand that in her mind her father was the role model for how all men are and should be. It explains why she put up with LBJ's womanizing, and why she idealized him for being a public servant. She grew up with her father and assumed all men had a wife but also girlfriends. She didn't attach much importance to it."

That is a man speaking, but the essential point is accurate, though it should be noted that Mrs. Johnson had subtle but telling ways for embarrassing women with whom her husband had affairs. As has been true of innumerable other women tied to difficult and occasionally indifferent men, she learned to erect a wall between herself and what she did not care to acknowledge or confront. "Whenever she remembers something she doesn't like about [LBJ]," according to a person who worked with Mrs. Johnson for years, "the psychic wall just drops down, as if from out of the sky. Nothing can penetrate that wall." Russell writes:

"The ability to take `psychic leave' or to just `emotionally vanish' -- as her friends have called it -- was one she had learned as a child. Johnson was merely the trigger. He constantly stirred up memories of how she had felt as a five-year-old when her dying mother looked at her from her hospital bed and wept because her soon-to-be-orphaned daughter had a dirty face and there was no one to take care of her. When she grew up, she married a man whose treatment reminded her of her mother's dying wish that the face she showed to the outside world not only be clean but also pretty, with a cheerful mouth and a fresh coat of lipstick."

Not especially pretty as a girl, Lady Bird grew lovelier with the years; she wore her burdens well. It was difficult to enter the White House hard upon the transcendently lovely Jacqueline Kennedy, but the inner light shone through. She made no attempt to compete with her glamorous predecessor (with whom she always had a cordial and correct relationship, but nothing more) but "moved quickly to establish her own turf." She "saw herself as Johnson's full partner." Though "much of their intimate connection was lost" in those controversial, contentious years, the president "and Lady Bird continued to keep their bargain: LBJ made her feel worthwhile, and she gave him the loyalty he required." The latter was notably the case in 1964, when she boarded the "Lady Bird Special" and barnstormed the South, making "47 formal speeches to an estimated 500,000 people" and helping LBJ win six states that Barry Goldwater "had considered his own."

She also had her own causes, chiefly beautification, which at the time was belittled as women's work but had lasting effect in several ways, among them the elimination of many highway billboards and the camouflaging of many auto junkyards. Still, in the White House as in the first days of her marriage, LBJ came first. Comparisons with Eleanor Roosevelt are apt but should not be overworked. Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson's smart and flamboyant press secretary, gets it exactly right: "Mrs. Roosevelt was an instigator, an innovator, willing to air a cause without her husband's endorsement. Mrs. Johnson was an implementer and translator of her husband and his purpose.

. . . she was, first and foremost, a wife."

Lyndon Johnson died early in 1973, barely four years after relinquishing the presidency. His widow has spent the years since then alone at the LBJ Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, tending her flowers and guarding his memory. Her service to her husband has been incalculable. Her service to her country has been much the same.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.