[LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen. #C9959-23A]

[LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen. #C9959-23A]

Lady Bird Johnson in her own voice

Nov 26, 2012

by Michael Barnes,
[published in austin360.com on November 25, 2012]

“We did get in his car and ride and ride and ride,” Lady Bird Johnson recalls about her first date with Lyndon Baines Johnson. “He did a great deal of talking of a surprising sort of nature for me. He told me all sorts of things about himself, and not the least bit in a bragging way but just factual things about the jobs he had, just a brief history of his life.”

Her soft, recorded drawl projects grace and caring. The almost theatrical range of her voice reflects her lifelong curiosity and enthusiasms.

There’s something else. An unmistakable resolve that helped carry her through more than nine decades while raising a family and managing its businesses, amid bruising political campaigns and during long years in the White House, here in Austin and at the LBJ Ranch.

These words were captured on tape primarily by Michael Gillette , now director of Humanities Texas, during 47 interviews conducted with Lady Bird Johnson between 1977 and 1985. Former LBJ Library and Museum Director Harry Middleton took on the final eight interviews.  

“It’s the transformation of this shy country girl who is willing and able to play a significant role in a presidential campaign,” Gillette explains of the future first lady’s undergirding of resolve. “I think she was just as determined as he was.”

Five years after her death in 2007, the tapes, mostly recorded in the yellow sitting room at the LBJ Ranch, are available to scholars. This week, Oxford University Press releases Gillette’s compact and compelling “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History.”

Timed to the centennial of her birth — celebrations continue Dec. 1 with a state dinner and black-tie gala at the LBJ Library and Museum — Gillette’s book condenses more than 470,000 recorded words into the book’s 200,000 printed ones, a total that includes introduction and footnotes.

He preserved them with an ancient-looking Arrivox Tandberg and Nagra reel-to-reels while serving as chief of acquisitions and oral history at the presidential library.

Tall and well-tailored, the author has the bearing of a career diplomat or a gentleman scholar. Yet Gillette, 66, is no product of privilege. read more