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Lady Bird Johnson, first lady and diarist

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In her new book, "Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight," author Julia Sweig uncovers the first lady's surprisingly powerful role in her husband President Lyndon B. Johnson's life and political career. Correspondent Mo Rocca talks with Sweig, and also with one of Lady Bird's daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, and granddaughters, Lucinda Robb, about the woman who was the consummate political insider, an environmentalist, and an audio diarist who documented every moment of LBJ's presidency – recording history as she was helping make it.

Video Transcript

- For an entire generation, the name Lady Bird Johnson evokes images of cleanup campaigns across America. But there's a lot more to her story, as Mo Rocca will tell us.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I walk by here. And I sort of smile. And I say, pretty good year.

MO ROCCA: In 1993, Lady Bird Johnson, widow of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, welcomed "Sunday Morning's" Charles Kuralt to the LBJ ranch in Stonewall, Texas, where they talked about the former first lady's legacy.

CHARLES KURALT: When you come right down to it, it's a good deal of trouble to plant wildflowers in great abundance. What good do they do?

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Just joy. And joy is a component of life or should be.

MO ROCCA: But Mrs. Johnson's famous commitment to beautification was about much more than planting wildflowers along highways. A lifelong environmentalist, she believed all Americans needed access to nature.

LUCINDA ROBB: That was going to be her way to pay her rent for the space she took up on the planet.

MO ROCCA: Lucinda Robb is Lady Bird Johnson's granddaughter.

And this wasn't just an avocation. It wasn't sort of, oh, I need a cause. Let me pick this.

LUCINDA ROBB: No, it's something that literally started when she was just a child. Her mother died when she was 5. And so she spent a lot of time in nature.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Nature was my friend and sustenance and teacher.

MO ROCCA: She was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas. Her nursemaid nicknamed her Lady Bird. At the University of Texas, she studied journalism and history, which may explain her other legacy, the vast and largely unknown audio diary she recorded during her husband's turbulent time in office.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: All the leaders of the Congress lined up behind Lyndon as he signed the bill.

JULIA SWEIG: What we're hearing is her first draft.

MO ROCCA: For her new book, "Lady Bird Johnson, Hiding in Plain Sight," and companion podcast, author Julia Sweig listened to every single minute.

JULIA SWEIG: There are 123 hours of tape. She recorded on almost 1,000 days of their presidency.

MO ROCCA: The diary covers both the consequential--

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: The House voted final congressional passage of an historic civil rights bill today--

MO ROCCA: And the quotidian.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: And then I went back to watch "Gunsmoke." And the younger folks stayed up to see a movie called "How to Murder Your Wife."

JULIA SWEIG: Her emotional IQ was off the charts. Her ability to read a room was maybe even better than Lyndon Johnson's.

MO ROCCA: As for Lady Bird's voice--

I mean, her accent, her vowels, I just love the way she talks.

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: Well, what is most important about the way mother talks is that she talks in real sentences. And she very seldom says, um, uh, well, you know what I mean.

MO ROCCA: Lynda Bird Johnson Robb is Lucinda's mother and the elder of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson's two daughters.

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: She was very, very both disciplined with her language but very loving.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: This morning, I woke up to a white world, snow falling outside of our bedroom windows so thick.

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: Words were kisses from her.

MO ROCCA: But the very first diary entry describes the tragic event that would thrust the Johnsons into the White House, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Mrs. Kennedy's face was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it. And her right glove was caked. That immaculate woman, it was caked with blood, her husband's blood.

MO ROCCA: Lady Bird was recording history as she was making it.

Did she even have a chance to mourn?

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: No, she did not have a chance to mourn. I don't know that we ever talked about that. The assassination was so-- just talking about it makes me cry.

MO ROCCA: In May 1964, President Johnson, unsure if he should run the following November, turned to his most important political advisor.

JULIA SWEIG: LBJ asked Lady Bird to write out the pros and cons for him of running or not running.

MO ROCCA: In a seven-page handwritten memo, she made her case.

JULIA SWEIG: On balance, you should run, and you'll win. And here's the kicker, she writes, and then in February or March of 1968, you can announce that you will not run again for the presidency. And that is precisely what he did.

MO ROCCA: She had it all mapped out.

JULIA SWEIG: The arc of his presidency.

MO ROCCA: The five years that the Johnsons spent in the White House were eventful ones. Sisters Lucy and Lynda were still young women at the time.

Let's get down to brass tacks. In 1966, you dated George Hamilton. What was that like?

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: Well, it was wonderful. I always felt that I wasn't very pretty. And meanwhile, Lucy was dancing the watusi. And Lucy was doing things that were much more fun. And I envied her. And I was jealous.

Well, out with George Hamilton-- well, you know, that was really special because he made me feel pretty. And I probably shouldn't say this about my own children, but I'm going to. One of my children was not as interested in how she looked. And my mother once said, we need a George Hamilton for her. We laughed.

MO ROCCA: Both sisters married men who would serve in Vietnam, a conflict which overshadowed Johnson's achievements in civil rights and Lady Bird's own cause.

JULIA SWEIG: She was campaigning for environmentalism but drowned out by anti-war protesters.

MO ROCCA: After leaving the White House in 1969, Lady Bird Johnson spent much of her remaining 38 years with her growing family, inspiring them, Lucinda Robb says, in her steady, self-assured way.

LUCINDA ROBB: She was always able to get things to happen without calling attention to herself. She very much let you think it was your own idea to do whatever it was. And she would plant these seeds. She would say, what a wonderful idea. I just think that's marvelous that you did that.