Books

Could George and LBJ have made it to the top without Martha and Lady Bird?

Two new books say probably not

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We are constantly bombarded with more on Bill and Hillary, steeped in knowledge about Abraham and Mary, and deeply informed about Franklin and Eleanor. We sigh nostalgically over Ike and Mamie, remember vividly Jack and Jackie, shake our heads over Dick and Pat, smile increasingly fondly on Ron and Nancy, and keep George and Barbara on a pedestal. No last names necessary, of course.

But two other sets — George and Martha, and Lyndon and Lady Bird — have somehow managed to remain relative enigmas. We know little of their relationships, possess no sense of the daily interchange of their lives, have few hints of what brought them together, or kept them together. None, that is, until now.

The publication of two works by accomplished biographers — “The Washingtons’’ by Flora Fraser and “Lady Bird and Lyndon’’ by Betty Boyd Caroli — do much to fill in these blank pages of presidential history.

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Together these books, equally smartly written and devoid of gossip and cant, remind us that, as another presidential couple, Woodrow and Edith, proved in the last years of the Wilson administration nearly a full century ago, national leadership is a joint appointment — two for the price of one, in the unfortunate phrase that Clinton used in 1992 when defending the large role he contemplated for Hillary.

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Separated by a century and three-quarters in the presidency, the Washingtons and Johnsons nonetheless shared much. In each case the husband came from far more modest circumstances than the wife; indeed, Fraser notes that “the disparity in wealth’’ when George met Martha was, in a word, “striking.’’ Caroli’s description of the first meeting of Lady Bird — with two bachelor’s degrees and a gloss of elegance — and LBJ’s mother is stunning: “Rebekah Johnson still struggled to project a genteel image, but Bird saw right through her camouflage into a pile of discarded hopes.’’

The question that John Adams asked about the Washingtons in 1816 echoes through both volumes, applying equally to the Johnsons: “Would Washington have ever been commander of the revolutionary army or president of the United States, if he had not married the rich widow of Mr. Custis?’’ Fraser says of the first president what can equally be said about the 36th: “Washington’s marriage was, in more than one sense, the making of him. Martha imbued George not only with wealth but also with a confidence he had earlier lacked.’’

Caroli’s portrayal of the Johnsons revolves around the notion that at the heart of LBJ was deep insecurity, one both secret and severe, and that the principal antidote was the heart, giving and forgiving, of Lady Bird. “This big strong man, a genius at politics,’’ she writes, “could be suddenly undone and once undone had trouble getting himself back on track.’’

Compared (unfairly) to Jacqueline Kennedy, criticized (repeatedly) for failing to nurture her daughters, and thrust (unwillingly) into the public eye as a politician’s wife, Lady Bird took refuge in the truth that, whatever the irritations and indignities, she was the maypole around which LBJ danced. It was as the wife of the Revolution’s general — about a dozen years before the presidency — that Martha faced the same personal challenges, for at that time, as Fraser puts it, “she embarked on a life in which every action of hers would be closely watched — and judged.’’

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Both women were called upon, as Washington wrote to his brother in 1776, to “soften the hours of private Life . . . and smooth the Rugged scenes of War.’’

Martha did the latter literally, during long and difficult days at frigid Valley Forge and elsewhere where she, in Fraser’s characterization, “remained stoutly at her husband’s side.’’ Lady Bird’s wartime duty was less physically demanding but more emotionally trying, with the Vietnam protesters’ chants (and the doubts of her own daughters about the war) piercing the serenity of the White House.

Lady Bird excelled at congressional constituency work and at being the grease that kept LBJ’s political machinery humming. Combining grit and grace — both, it turns out, were attributes of Martha as well — her very presence softened Johnson’s blunt impact on unwary others, smoothed the Johnson edges, ministered to his moods (ranging from morose to stormy), even as she invested in radio and planted the seeds of a life of comfort the Johnsons would enjoy.

It was, of course, Martha’s temperament and wealth that allowed George to march through Colonial life as a landed gentleman and then to preside over the young republic free of economic worries.

No one can really write the story of a marriage — yours, or mine, or Hillary Clinton’s, the object of a national preoccupation for a quarter-century and, with the possible exception of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen, perhaps the most studied marriage since Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

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So there is a certain fallacy at the heart of both these books.

Caroli writes extensively on LBJ’s infidelities — some conducted virtually in public, others marked by the inconvenient discovery of another woman’s undergarments — but we cannot know for sure the hurt all that imposed on Lady Bird. Fraser notes the long absences that separated the Washingtons, but we cannot feel the pain that distance must have inflicted in an era before telephones and plagued by highly irregular mail service.

Yet both books are an authentic try — and a searing look into the private lives of very public men and women. We are left to understand that both presidential wives were, as Fraser said of Martha Washington, the “recipient of confidences he could make to no one else.’’ The rest the four of them took to their graves — and left to our imaginations.

THE WASHINGTONS:

George and Martha: Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love

By Flora Fraser

Knopf, 440 pp., illustrated, $30

LADY BIRD AND LYNDON:

The Hidden Story of a Marriage

That Made a President

By Betty Boyd Caroli

Simon and Schuster, 463 pp., illustrated, $29.99

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.