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A Conversation with First Lady Biographer Betty Boyd Caroli


Betty Boyd Caroli is famous for her biographies of First Ladies of the United States. She has written extensively on First Ladies from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, from Abigail Adams to Pat Nixon and from Nancy Reagan to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her keen eye in showing not only how each woman changed the role of First Lady, but also how that role evolved as America changed has been critically well-received. Her latest book, Lady Bird and Lyndon, tells the hidden story of how a marriage made the 36th President of the United States.

A graduate of Oberlin College with a Master's Degree in Mass Communication from the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in American Civilization from New York University, Betty Boyd Caroli has been a guest on the Today Show, The O'Reilly Factor, the Lehrer News Hour and "Book Notes" with Brian Lamb to discuss the role of President's wives in American politics.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was very pleased to visit with Betty Boyd Caroli at her home in New York City for this Conversation.


Betty Boyd Caroli
Betty Boyd Caroli

STAY THIRSTY: In your latest biography Lady Bird and Lyndon, you focus on the hidden story of a marriage that made a President. How influential was Lady Bird in Lyndon Johnson's life? Without Lady Bird, who do you think Lyndon Johnson would have become, and without marrying Lyndon, would Lady Bird have become famous in her own right?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: I don't think we would know Lyndon Johnson's name today had he not teamed up with Lady Bird—or someone her equal. She was extremely helpful at all stages of his career. He had a temper and could alienate staff and associates, but she just oozed charm and could placate potential enemies and keep staff on board. She also built up a broadcasting empire, to support the family so he could stay in politics. Most important of all, she was the sole person who could boost his morale and get him moving again when he fell into one of his deep funks. Without her, I don't think he could have made much of a political career and he might well have ended up teaching debate at the Houston high school, where he started out. As for what her life would have been without him—her high school classmates predicted at graduation that she would become a very successful businesswoman, and I think they got that right.


STAY THIRSTY: In your many biographies about First Ladies, how important was a President's marriage to the success of his political career? Have you ever found any specific archival material, a special letter perhaps, that really brings the point home?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: What drew me into studying first ladies was the realization that so many of them married down, that is, they married men from families less wealthy than their own, men with less education and less impressive social credentials. While I could see why the men married up, I wondered why the women married down, often against extremely strong objections from their parents. The Johnson marriage is a good example of this (although her father's objections were based more on the timing than on his assessment of Lyndon.) The letters Lyndon wrote to "Bird," as he always called her during their courtship, show very clearly that he knew what he needed in a wife. He spelled it out—he wanted someone to "nurse" him and help him "to climb." Those letters were not open to researchers until recently, and when I read them, I knew I had found the key to what made that marriage work for nearly 40 years.


STAY THIRSTY: Lady Bird and Lyndon came from very different economic and social backgrounds. Was there ever any resentment on either of their parts about their different upbringings or was Lady Bird the quintessential political wife?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: Lyndon definitely recognized Lady Bird came from a privileged background, compared to his, and that was part of what attracted him to her. I also think he was more than a little envious. He liked to tease her, saying that if he died, she would probably marry a "count." When she seemed reluctant to attack some problem, he would taunt her, saying that with two degrees from the University of Texas, she ought to be able to do that. Both of them knew how much he resented the fact that he had only one degree and it was from a much less prestigious teachers college. He also teased her about being tight with money—not wanting to spend even after she became a very wealthy woman.   


STAY THIRSTY: As a biographer what most impressed you about Lady Bird Johnson? What characteristics helped sustain her through very turbulent times? How difficult a personality was she to capture in the writing of your book?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: People I interviewed were nearly unanimous in describing Lady Bird as almost perfect—a woman who never got angry, was always gracious and thoughtful, someone who studied a situation carefully before she acted. I don't know many people like that, and I wondered how she maintained such careful control, especially in the life she had as the wife of a politician. What my interviewees made clear was that she had this amazing ability to just tune out of a situation, not hear what people were saying, almost as if transported to another place, in a trance. Now that's an extremely valuable skill to have. I think she developed it during a very lonely childhood.


STAY THIRSTY: Lady Bird was thrust onto center stage on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. How did she handle the transition from being the wife of the Vice President to being the First Lady of the United States? What did she do to support her husband during those first few weeks after he assumed the Presidency?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: Lady Bird said she felt thrust "on stage for a part I never rehearsed," but, in fact, no woman ever arrived at the White House better prepared for the job. For nearly thirty years, she had lived part of every year in Washington, and she knew journalists and wives of senators and congressmen by first name. During the Kennedy presidency, when Mrs. Kennedy could not attend an event or accept an award, Mrs. Johnson filled in for her, attaining the designation of "Number One Pinch Hitter." Lady Bird knew which congressmen chaired the most important committees and how crucial their support was to any bill's passage. So those first few weeks were very difficult, because of the tragic circumstances in which the Johnsons arrived at the White House, but Lady Bird refused to feel daunted. She had already lined up an extremely competent staff, including a seasoned press secretary and a savvy, well-connected social secretary. And as for overseeing the domestic staff, Lady Bird been a superb household manager for years, looking after multiple homes while dedicating her best effort to advance her husband's career.


STAY THIRSTY: What was the relationship between Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy before the assassination of John F. Kennedy and afterward?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: Lady Bird said she felt that the Kennedys were more her daughter's generation than her own, and that there was always a certain distance between the two couples. Of course she was well aware of Jackie's popularity, and following such an iconic fashionista into the public eye could not have been easy. But Lady Bird boldly stepped into the job, continuing Jackie's White House restoration program and then working hard to get Lyndon elected in his own right in November, 1964. Mrs. Kennedy refused to come back to the White House during the Johnson years, but after LBJ's death, she and Mrs. Johnson did see each other, especially during summers when Lady Bird rented a house for a month or so on Martha's Vineyard. At holidays and milestones, they exchanged gifts and there's a folder of letters at the LBJ Library with some very warm letters in Jackie's sprawling handwriting. By the time Jackie died in May, 1994, Lady Bird's health was failing but she made the trip East to attend Jackie's funeral.


STAY THIRSTY: Lyndon Johnson inherited John F. Kennedy's Vietnam War. How did Lady Bird navigate the emotional turmoil her husband experienced during his Presidency because of that war?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: Lady Bird spoke often of how frustrated both she and Lyndon felt because they could see no solution in Vietnam. Poverty and education were problems they could tackle because a goal was definable and a path available. But dealing with a civil war in Southeast Asia imposed a "rich dose of uncertainty," she said.  It was like "swimming upstream" or "shooting the rapids," with no safe land in sight, and "I wasn't big enough for that." 


STAY THIRSTY: Lady Bird lived almost 34 years after her husband died. How did she feel about how history treated him?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: Like a lot of women of her generation, Lady Bird lived nearly one-third of her life as a widow. She explained to Barbara Walters that she had put a lot of plans "on the shelf" and then, after Lyndon's death, she had taken them down and was living those dreams. She traveled a lot outside the US, something Lyndon would never nave done except for work, and she spent summers on Martha's Vineyard with people he had ridiculed as "Eastern liberals." She maintained warm friendships with people he had alienated, and she spent a lot of time with her daughters and grandchildren. But enhancing her husband's legacy was always high on her list. She had taken a central role in planning for the LBJ Library from the very beginning, and she continued working countless hours to make it the very best (and most popular) of all presidential libraries. One of her very last public appearances, when she could no longer speak and had to move by wheel chair, was at the LBJ Library.


STAY THIRSTY: You dedicated Lady Bird and Lyndon to your husband, Livio Caroli. After spending so much time "with" Lady Bird Johnson in writing this biography, did you ever privately compare your marriage to hers?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: I think most biographers make comparisons of their own lives with those of their subjects, if only to illuminate the enormous differences. I would never have wanted the kind of marriage Lady Bird had—dedicating all her time and energy to her husband's career. But she recognized that hers was a different generation, and she insisted until her dying day that she would not have changed a thing about her life.


STAY THIRSTY: Do you have another First Lady in mind for your next biography? Or, maybe a First Husband?

BETTY BOYD CAROLI: I think I'll concentrate on another area—maybe a book about Italy, where I live about half of each year. Or I might write about a little known New York woman, who married a much younger man, a Russian she had met in Germany. As for the subject of first ladies, we're going to have to find a new title for presidential spouse when a woman becomes president. But the role will stay pretty much the same. I think Lady Bird's story shows how important the spouse can be as adviser, facilitator, financial support, and emotional stabilizer. Not all presidents' spouses can fill those roles as well as she did, but I bet most of them will try.



Betty Boyd Caroli

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