Lady Bird Johnson Documentary Reveals the Legendary First Lady's Wonk Side

SXSW's The Lady Bird Diaries goes beyond beautification

by LBJ Library

The Lady Bird Diaries is a story in three mediums: first, a book on Lady Bird Johnson, written by Julia Sweig; then a podcast produced by ABC News; and now a film directed by director Dawn Porter, of John Lewis: Good Trouble fame. But the source material for all three was a work of gonzo journalism by the first lady herself, in the form of 123 hours of audio recordings chronicling her time in the White House and embargoed till her death. Starting 11 days after JFK was shot in 1963 and ending six years later, the sheer volume of the source material justifies multiple treatments. It reveals not only poignant personal details of her and LBJ’s relationship (they enjoyed a glass of wine and Gunsmoke together at the end of a long day) but also the extent to which she influenced his political strategy. “She didn’t really revel in the spotlight,” said Porter. “She was a policy wonk.”

"We’re going to let Lady Bird tell the story that she wanted to tell.” – Dawn Porter

Not many are aware of Lady Bird, née Claudia Taylor’s journalism and history degrees from UT-Austin, which informed her decision to record her experiences: “She was all about Lyndon’s legacy, but those tapes were also about her self-awareness of her own importance to the Johnson presidency,” said Sweig, who also produced the documentary that premieres this week at South by Southwest.

“One of the decisions I made early on was no talking heads; we’re going to let Lady Bird tell the story that she wanted to tell,” said Porter, who was tapped for the project after her Netflix series, Bobby Kennedy for President. “She always thought of herself as, you know, not the glamorous one, not the one that people would pay attention to. She developed this really keen sense of observation.”

Lady Bird’s importance to the president as an advisor is self-evident throughout the tapes; she describes being “tactful and mean enough to get him home at a reasonable hour, and then continue to discuss work.” There was no vice president when LBJ took over Kennedy’s term, Porter pointed out: “She was literally his closest aide.”

Beyond Lady Bird and LBJ’s political partnership, Porter says, “I was very taken with how clearly deeply they loved and admired each other.” Sweet details like her home movies and their playful ragging on each other’s appearances – “old married couples' sort of kibitzing” – didn’t make it into the final film, along with her one mention, in all 123 hours, of LBJ’s notorious infidelity: “The only line we could find where she alludes to it is – they have separate bedrooms. Nixon was with Johnson in his, and she said, ‘Well, you never know who’s gonna come out of Lyndon’s bedroom.’”

Amid all of Lady Bird’s blind spots and insights, upon hearing the tapes, Porter said, “it struck me so clearly, here is this eyewitness to history in one of the most important presidencies of our country. And it just raises so many questions about how we treat women, how we treat first ladies, when they have this incredible but ill-defined role. She was navigating all of that in real time. She wasn’t looking back, she was recording it as it happened. And I think that that gives you a much fuller insight into what she saw, what she was thinking. You see her evolve over time.”

Documentary Spotlight

The Lady Bird Diaries

World Premiere

Fri 10, 5pm, Zach Theatre

Tue 14, 6:15pm, Rollins Theatre

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SXSW 2023, SXSW Film 2023, The Lady Bird Diaries, Julia Sweig, Dawn Porter

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