How often do we get to hear directly from a First Lady about her intimate experiences and insights while in the White House — and in her own voice? That’s exactly what we are treated to in “The Lady Bird Diaries,” an all-archival documentary that delves into the 123 hours of personal audio diaries that Lady Bird Johnson recorded during her husband’s presidency. The documentary screens from Circuit Arts at the Grange on July 27 and 28.
The film opens with a bang, quite literally, as we listen to Lady Bird describe exactly what happened when she and then–Vice President Johnson were in the motorcade during President Kennedy’s assassination. We hear her say, “The streets were lined with people, lots and lots of children smiling. We were rounding a curve going down a hill, and suddenly there was a sharp, loud retort, a shot, and then two more … This man who was with us [in the car] bolted over the front seat on top of Lyndon, threw him to the floor, and said, ‘Get down!’… I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw a bundle of pink … It was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the president’s body.”
Thus opens a documentary that reveals Lady Bird’s role as an astute observer of people and history, and a savvy political strategist. Through her near-nightly recordings she brings us behind the scenes of one of the most tumultuous, consequential periods in modern American history. Lady Bird trained, among other things, as a journalist. “I thought being a journalist, from those I knew, put you on the forefront of action in places that were exciting,” she said once prophetically in an interview.
Watching the documentary reminds us of how momentous the times were. Lady Bird describes a dinner with Robert McNamara talking about Vietnam: “It’s pretty terrifying to hear McNamara talk about how dedicated the opposition soldiers are over there. They apparently have intensive training in ideas that are lacking on our side.” We hear Lady Bird speaking frequently about the president trying to grapple not just with Vietnam and sending countless young men over to fight and die, but also with the war on poverty, and civil rights. And through her voice, we drive through the cascading events of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and that of Sen. Robert Kennedy, and the tragic fiasco of the 1968 Chicago National Democratic Convention.
In a recent interview, The Times spoke to awardwinning director Dawn Porter, who has a home on the Island. “What I wanted to do was to have her have the last word. She’s not erased from history, but not as present as she should be. I thought, What if we can let her diaries speak for herself? It’s not meant to be the full description of history, but history as she saw it. What sealed it was during our research, when we put in Lady Bird Johnson or Claudia Johnson, we got two pages of material. I thought, That’s impossible; she was the First Lady during the 1960s. If you put in Mrs. Johnson, you get a little more. If you put in President Johnson’s wife — and don’t even name her — you get more.” Then, while looking through all the footage of President Johnson, she saw that Lady Bird was there so much of the time. “But she wasn’t even identified. Then I felt no one was going to speak for her anymore — and no one is going to erase her anymore. The artistic idea was to marry her diaries with the archival footage.” Augmenting the materials are tapes of President Johnson’s private phone calls, which Lady Bird released in 1993. They add even greater immediacy to the film.
“I was looking for places in her diaries that would give you a new insight into some familiar times,” Porter says. “It’s not a biography but a snapshot in time.” Some of the information is not all that well-known. At one point, President Johnson was severely depressed, and considered stepping down. Lady Bird speaks about it as “the black beast of depression back in our lives. He was like a man on whom an avalanche had suddenly fallen.” She wrote his resignation letter, which he had in his pocket when making a State of the Union address, and we hear her voice wondering if he would pull it out, which, if he had, could have changed the course of history.
Porter, who will speak after the screenings with the creative producer Kimberly Reynolds, plans to talk about how Lady Bird’s contributions to society were overlooked. It’s because of Lady Bird that we have an East Wing. She insisted that her staff be paid, and that they had sessions solely for female journalists. Barbara Walters had her start going to the White House because Lady Bird insisted that she wanted women reporters to come in and speak to her about more than flowers. Porter shares, “She was talking about the environment and climate change before anybody, and [their] impact on mental health. When she went into distressed neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., which were mostly Black and brown, she was making a connection between a physical environment and mental health.” Porter continues, “Lady Bird is known for flowers and beautification. And it’s such a lessening of her intellect, of her contributions to American society.”
At the end of the documentary, we learn that with Lady Bird’s help, President Johnson signed into law 300 bills having to do with the environment. In 1972, President Nixon recognized Lady Bird’s contribution by inviting her back to the White House as he signed documents creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Porter also includes material that provides touching insight into the Johnsons’ family life, which was vital to the couple, even with the eyes of the world upon them. She says, “I was interested in what it was like to be in that kind of fishbowl for Lady Bird. We were looking for those moments where she was a mother, a wife, a citizen, a flawed person. She wasn’t perfect, but had a really unique eyewitness view of history, and her vision is important, too. It is a female lens that I think is interesting. I hope people think about what other lenses there are into history, and see it from somebody else’s eyes.”
“The Lady Bird Diaries” screens Thursday, July 27, at 7:30 pm, and Friday, July 28, at 7 pm, at the Grange. All tickets are pay-what-you-want at circuitarts.org/events.