Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, also known as Lady Bird, was often associated with playfulness and imagination. However, the mature woman from east Texas portrayed in Dawn Porter’s graceful film, The Lady Bird Diaries, was a model of depth and significance. She also had a talent for documenting her experiences in the White House, leaving behind 123 hours of audio recordings that were made public after her passing in 2007.
In addition to the footage of wildflowers captured by Porter on the Johnson family ranch in Texas, the movie solely utilizes archived audio and video recordings from Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency, spanning from the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 to 1969. Based on an ABC News podcast, Porter’s film is a visually captivating compilation of mid-century America and one of its most intriguing figures.
“[Being a first lady] is traditionally a feminine thing. It’s usually about children and reading and food gardens,” Porter said. “And those things are worthy.” Johnson, though, occupied herself with more than rose gardens. She was a shadow politician, serving as the president’s adviser as well as his tutor, even giving her husband grades on his speeches as we hear in one recording. “I don’t think there were a lot of A-pluses,” Porter said. “I think there was always room for improvement.”
The Johnson family held high standards for one another, reflecting the depth of their love and dedication. According to Porter, their relationship is like a love story. He believes that strong marriages are built on each partner seeing the other as the most intelligent and capable person. This sentiment was echoed by the Johnsons’ daughters when I spoke with them. They shared that their father always believed their mother to be the smartest person he had ever encountered.
Finding archival footage featuring her film’s subject was a bit of a treasure hunt, as scant material was catalogued with her name. “When we started and put in the words ‘Lady Bird Johnson’, very little came back,” the director said. Porter had better luck when she searched by the date and the names of other people who had been on the scenes of Johnson’s recounting. “She’s not noted in the description of the footage, and yet she’s right there in the middle of all of these events,” Porter said. “And I think that’s the story for a lot of women.”
Johnson’s recordings are filled with a sense of closeness, and touch on her concerns regarding her husband’s mental and physical health as well as her own anxieties about being in the spotlight. She also documented her professional life, from supporting her husband’s re-election campaign to her work towards environmental and poverty-related causes. She was the first first lady to have her own staff, led by fellow Texan Liz Carpenter. (Carpenter’s son, who enjoyed recording himself singing, owned the tape recorder used by Johnson.)
Porter’s movie portrays Johnson’s efforts to “beautify” Washington DC as more than just improving aesthetics. Instead, it highlights how she ventured into impoverished, primarily Black neighborhoods and recognized the importance of outdoor spaces, playgrounds, and peaceful, attractive areas for children. Her actions were not limited to simply planting flowers. While the film briefly touches on some controversies, such as when singer Eartha Kitt publicly scolded Johnson at a luncheon for the administration’s handling of the Vietnam war, the perspective presented remains firmly Johnson’s. Director Porter stated, “This is not a tell-all film. My goal was to offer Johnson’s viewpoint on the events unfolding.”
According to Porter, the woman carefully recorded this piece of history on her tapes and her accuracy was impressive. In my past film projects, people have often shared their stories with me, but upon reviewing the archives, there are discrepancies due to imperfect memory. However, Lady Bird’s account of events was remarkably precise and supported by a large collection of film.
Porter’s upcoming endeavors involve a journalist who joined the New York police department and ultimately uncovered evidence proving the innocence of several wrongly convicted prisoners, as well as a film highlighting the life of late musician Luther Vandross, who passed away in 2005. While some documentary filmmakers prefer the real-time aspect of following living individuals, Porter noted that utilizing existing footage adds an extra level of genuineness. “They are not being interviewed specifically for our film, so they are not putting on a show for us in any way,” she explained. “The footage is truly authentic.”
I chose not to conduct interviews for Lady Bird in a natural way, and it’s unlikely that audiences will have a problem with the lack of interviews. Director Porter explained, “I wanted the focus to be on her story. And I also wanted to emphasize that she’s present everywhere.” Porter continued, “You just have to pay attention, and you’ll see her.”
The show “The Lady Bird Diaries” can now be streamed on Hulu for viewers in the United States.