Projects featuring Lady Bird Johnson’s voice offer new looks at the late first lady

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DALLAS (AP) — Texas college student Jade Emerson found herself entranced as she worked on a podcast about Lady Bird Johnson, listening to hour upon hour of the former first lady recounting everything from her childhood memories to advising her husband in the White House.

“I fell in love very quickly,” said Emerson, host and producer of the University of Texas podcast “Lady Bird.” “She kept surprising me.”

The podcast, which was released earlier this year, is among several recent projects using Johnson’s own lyrical voice to offer a new look at the first lady who died in 2007. Other projects include a documentary titled “The Lady Bird Diaries” that premieres Monday on Hulu and an exhibit in Austin at the presidential library for her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, who died in 1973.

Lady Bird Johnson began recording an audio diary in the tumultuous days after her husband became president following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The library released that audio about a decade after her death. It adds to recorded interviews she did following her husband’s presidency and home movies she narrated.

“I don’t know that people appreciated or realized how much she was doing behind the scenes and I think that’s the part that’s only just now really starting to come out,” said Lara Hall, LBJ Presidential Library curator.

“Lady Bird: Beyond the Wildflowers” shows library visitors the myriad ways Johnson made an impact. Hall said the exhibit, which closes at the end of the year, has been so popular that the library hopes to integrate parts of it into its permanent display.

In making her podcast, Emerson, who graduated from UT in May with a journalism degree, relied heavily on the interviews Johnson did with presidential library staff over the decades after her husband left the White House in 1969.

“Just to have her telling her own story was so fascinating,” Emerson said. “And she just kept surprising me. Like during World War II when LBJ was off serving, she was the one who ran his congressional office in the 1940s. She had bought a radio station in Austin and went down to Austin to renovate it and get it going again.”

The new documentary from filmmaker Dawn Porter, based on Julia Sweig’s 2021 biography “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight” and a podcast hosted by the author, takes viewers through the White House years. From advising her husband on strategy to critiquing his speeches, her influence is quickly seen.

Porter also notes that Johnson was “a fierce environmentalist” and an advocate for women. She was also a skilled campaigner, Porter said. Among events the documentary recounts is Johnson’s tour of the South aboard a train named the “Lady Bird Special” before the 1964 election.

With racial tensions simmering following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson sent his wife as his surrogate. “She does that whistle-stop tour in the very hostile South and does it beautifully,” Porter said.

“She did all of these things and she didn’t ask for credit, but she deserves the credit,” Porter said.

The couple’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson can still remember the frustration she felt as a 16-year-old when she saw the message hanging on the doorknob to her mother’s room that read: “I want to be alone.” Lady Bird Johnson would spend that time working on her audio tapes, compiling her thoughts from photographs, letters and other information that might strike her memory.

“She was just begging for the world to give her the time to do what she’d been uniquely trained to do,” said Luci Baines Johnson, who noted that her mother had degrees in both history and journalism from the University of Texas.

“She was just beyond, beyond and beyond,” she said. “She thought a day without learning was a day that was wasted.”

Emerson called her work on the podcast “a huge gift” as she “spent more time with Lady Bird than I did with anyone else in my college years.”

“She’s taught me a lot about just what type of legacy I’d like to leave with my own life and just how to treat people.”

“Every time I hear her voice, I start to smile,” she said.

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