‘She really invented the job’: Lady Bird Johnson and the rise of the modern first lady | St. Louis Public Radio

‘She really invented the job’: Lady Bird Johnson and the rise of the modern first lady

Nov 9, 2015

Photo portrait of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in the back yard of the White House.
Credit Robert Knudsen, White House Press Office (WHPO), Wikimedia Commons

Betty Boyd Caroli is an expert about the first ladies of the United States. She’s turned her biographer’s eye toward the Roosevelt women, Michelle Obama and even Hillary Clinton. She most recently released a biography about Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady to the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. It is called “Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made the President.”

On Monday’s ‘St. Louis on the Air,’ host Don Marsh discussed the life and legacy of Lady Bird with Caroli as she visited the area for a talk at St. Louis County Library on Monday night. 

“She really invented the job of modern first lady,” Caroli said. “She was the first one to have a big staff, the first one to have a comprehensive program in her own name, the first one to write a book about the White House years, when she leaves. She had an important role in setting up an enduring role for her husband with the LBJ Library. She’s the first one to campaign extensively on her own for her husband.”

Caroli asserts that Lady Bird Johnson was the force behind-the-scenes that pushed Lyndon through the presidency “as a key strategist, fundraiser, barnstormer, peacemaker, and indispensable therapist.” In most rankings, she comes out in the top five first ladies of all time. At the time of her husband’s presidency, public opinion of her was not nearly so high, especially in the media.

"She had the misfortune to have a husband who really liked to flaunt his attentions to other women."

“She had the misfortune to have a husband who really liked to flaunt his attentions to other women,” Caroli said. “That’s the first president to face that. Lady Bird had to deal with that. He also had the habit of yelling at people, whether it was his wife or his aide. People saw that and wondered why she didn’t fight back. They wrote about her as though she was a doormat.”

In interpersonal relationships, Lady Bird was quite likable. Caroli recounted that President Johnson would bring her with him to dinners where no other wives were present because she cast him in a better light. “Lyndon used that,” Caroli said. “She was the people pleaser of all time, I think.”

Caroli asserts that Lady Bird Johnson was the force behind-the-scenes that pushed Lyndon through the presidency “as a key strategist, fundraiser, barnstormer, peacemaker, and indispensable therapist.”

Listen below to learn more about Lady Bird, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dalliances with other women, and key moments she counseled him through in his presidency here:

Betty Boyd Caroli

At the end of Caroli’s research, she decided she liked Lady Bird Johnson far more than she did at the beginning.

“At the beginning, I didn’t understand the strength. I thought it was not authentic. How could a woman that strong allow her husband to yell at her? At the end, I understood she simply shut it off. It wasn’t that important to her. She was number one in his book. That was all that mattered to her.”

Related Event:

What: St. Louis County Library Foundation’s ‘Buzz’ Westfall Favorite Author Series presents Betty Boyd Caroli

Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131

When: Monday, Nov. 9 at 7:00 p.m.

More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.