Betty Boyd Caroli has made a career out of her expertise in the wives of American presidents. But the nation’s view of one particular FLOTUS has long left the author of First Ladies puzzled: Lady Bird Johnson. Biographies of Lyndon Johnson tended to describe his wife as shy, retiring, demure. But the story her life told was very different. She was a successful business owner who often spoke about how her marriage was a partnership of equals.
So Caroli set out to write Lady Bird’s story—only to have her editor point out that it was not just the story of a woman but of a marriage, one that commenced on this day, Nov. 17, in 1934. The resulting book is the new dual biography Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President. Caroli spoke to TIME about how Lady Bird Johnson changed the office of the First Lady and what the Johnsons can teach couples today.
TIME: Lady Bird Johnson made “beautification” her personal project as First Lady. Was she the first to turn the First Lady’s office into something that focused on particular projects?
Caroli: There’d been some examples of First Ladies who lent their names to certain causes, like Lou Hoover and the Girl Scouts. The first wife of Woodrow Wilson, who was Ellen Wilson, worked on cleaning up housing in Washington, D.C. You can go all the way back to Elizabeth Monroe renovating the White House. What’s different about Lady Bird Johnson’s project was that it was a very carefully defined program with a competent, large staff to see it through. No one had ever done anything like that before.
To what extent is that legacy still felt in the White House?
Everyone since then has had a defined project that’s associated with their name. For Pat Nixon it was volunteerism, for Betty Ford it was dance and the Equal Rights Amendment, for Nancy Reagan it was ‘say no to drugs’ — before Barack Obama was even nominated Michelle Obama was asked what would be her project if he became president. If it’s Bill Clinton [up next], I think somebody will say ‘What are you going to concentrate on?’
I was interested to read that you were the first biographer to use the letters from their courtship. How did that come about?
The whole batch, her to him and him to her, there are about 80 of them, were finally put together by the library on Valentine’s Day of 2013. No one that I know of has written about them except just to acknowledge that they exist. But anybody can read them. They’re online.
Letters like that give a lot of power to a First Lady who outlives her husband and can decide what to do with them.
That’s certainly true with Lady Bird. She was so open about wanting everything in the library, even her unpublished diary. The letters, first of all, she carried them with her in a little box. She says in her unpublished diary that the day after her daughter Lynda’s wedding in December of 1967, at the very worst part of the Johnson administration—and Lyndon didn’t even stay for the entire reception, which is really a very sad story—[she got] out the little metal box. One of the batches was tied with a red ribbon and the other with a blue ribbon. And she opens them and reads them.
Lyndon Johnson had a reputation as a womanizer and Lady Bird was openly confronted with that reputation in the press. How do you think the media would treat Lady Bird today if they had been in the White House in 2015?
The Johnsons were the first presidential couple to face that close scrutiny by the press. You won’t find that about any president before them. I interviewed people who said what Lyndon Johnson did was nothing compared to what John F. Kennedy did, but the press cooperated by keeping [Kennedy’s affairs] very quiet. Part of the problem with the Johnsons was that Lyndon Johnson loved being thought of as a sort of Romeo on wheels. He fostered those stories about his relationships with other women. He would be with someone he didn’t even have a close relationship with and if Lady Bird were present, or some reporters, he would put his arm around the woman or hold her hand and act like something was going on, when there was nothing going on.
In fact TIME, if you look at the [issue with] the first vacation the Johnsons took to the ranch after he became president, he’s pictured in a convertible with attractive journalists. They pictured him as a flirtatious person. So what does a wife do with that? Lady Bird made a point of acting as though it didn’t matter and that she knew she was number one and essential to his career. Now, your question about what would happen today—I can’t think of another president who would go to that length to embarrass his wife about his relationship with other women. I don’t think we accept that very much.
But some of the stuff that seemed edgy for Lady Bird to say, for example when she’s talking about how they have a partnership, would today be applauded.
I think so. Remember, one of the reasons I think she’s underrated is that she did make a point of [seeming like] the demure Southern lady. She talks about how when she was in what we would call junior high school, she learned how to roll her eyes and draw out her vowels and act as though she were not too bright. I think that fooled a lot of people.
This book isn’t exactly a romance advice manual, but is there anything from your research into their marriage that would be good advice?
I think if they could talk about this they would say that the impression people get of a marriage is often not correct. So many of the biographers of Lyndon have covered the relationship with his commanding presence, interested only in power, and she comes off as a doormat in some cases. But they didn’t see it that way. I think their advice would be that marriage can be much more complicated than you think — particularly political marriages.
Listen to an exclusive clip from the audiobook version of Lady Bird and Lyndon here:
This interview has been edited and condensed