Monday, May 20

Lady Bird Johnson Documentary Presents a First Lady in Her Own Words

Mr. Johnson did indeed suffer emotional pain, falling into a depression serious enough to make him want to quit the presidency. His wife stepped in, striving to protect him from stress to help him recover, get back to work and ultimately run for a second term. She was a seasoned and indefatigable campaigner, powering through a train tour of the American South despite bomb threats from those opposed to Mr. Johnson’s civil rights agenda. Yet when asked by an interviewer if she would be able to “keep the South in the Democrats’ camp,” Mrs. Johnson gave a typically fan-fluttering answer: “That’s a large order for a woman,” she cooed.

Mr. Johnson won his second term, and the film takes us through these turbulent years (1965-68) of war, riots, battles over civil rights and poverty, and the murders of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. At times, Mrs. Johnson’s narration of these events can seem oddly insular, even a bit blind. Recounting her interaction with Jacqueline Kennedy at Robert Kennedy’s funeral, Mrs. Johnson focuses on a perceived slight by the former first lady: “I called her name and put out my hand. She looked at me as though from a great distance, as though I were an apparition. I felt extreme hostility: Was it because I was alive? At last, without a flicker of expression, she extended her hand very slightly. I took it with some murmured word of sorrow and walked on quickly. It was somehow shocking: Never, in any contact with her before, had I experienced this.”

It’s an odd moment, with Mrs. Johnson seemingly unable to imagine any more plausible explanations — shock, grief, terror, flashbacks — for Mrs. Kennedy’s muted demeanor. Instead, Mrs. Johnson ignores the devastating tragedy of the occasion and interprets the situation personally.

Such insularity might have been a useful defense mechanism. When it comes to her husband, the woman known for her love of flowers seems, in this film, to wear rose-colored glasses. And the film puts those glasses on us, the viewers, too. Mr. Johnson is presented here only as a heroic figure, a devoted family man and progressive trailblazer. While his “Great Society” agenda did produce such monumental reforms as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, there was a darker side to his personality and presidency. Mr. Johnson’s crass and abusive behavior, and his womanizing, for example, appear nowhere in the film. Nor does the film delve into the devastating consequences of the Vietnam War.