Doc Talk: Lady Bird Johnson meets Joan Baez at the Nantucket Film Festival
By Peter Keough
Two documentaries grapple with the ’60s, a decade of chaos, craziness, and the potential for doom or salvation.
As we endure the travails of the current decade, it might be instructive to look back at the 1960s, which still rank highest for sheer chaos, craziness, and the potential for doom or salvation. At least that’s the impression you might get from the documentaries about the era and those it spawned, several of which can be seen at this year’s edition of the Nantucket Film Festival (June 21-26).
Two of these feature figures who helped promote the era’s movement for change, or were inspired by it — Joan Baez and, believe it or not, Lady Bird Johnson. Both in their way wanted to make the world a better place, and in some cases did so. Perhaps more trenchant is how they they persevered despite setbacks and learned to face discouragement.
Though she proudly sang “We Shall Overcome” at demonstrations during the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, the subject of Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle’s Joan Baez I Am a Noise is seen still struggling with doubts and demons at 82. She looks enviably ageless as she prepares for and engages in her 2018 “Fare Thee Well” tour. But in the background there is still that locked storage unit in which are piled boxes of cassettes, videotapes, letters, drawings, and other memorabilia that testify to many periods of darkness in her six decade-plus career.
It began in 1958 when as a student at Boston University she tentatively sang some folk songs at Club 47 in Harvard Square. Her angelic voice and looks became a sensation — they would call her “the barefoot Madonna” at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival — and by the time she was 18 she had hit albums and was selling out concerts in New York. But despite her seeming aplomb, serenity, soaring vocals, and effortless artistry, she was wracked by doubt, guilt, and confusion, as seen in her diaries and letters.
Her confidence and sense of direction were restored when she hooked up with a boyish, as yet unheralded Bob Dylan. She joined him in singing “When the Ship Comes In” at the 1963 March on Washington in front of 250,000 people, and it was a time when they were sure they could change the world.
What they couldn’t change was their own troubled natures, and, as seen in clips from Dylan’s 1965 British tour (recorded in D.A. Pennebaker’s brilliant 1967 documentary Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back), their relationship chilled and Baez was edged out. The breakup plunged her into one of her recurrent depressions, one of the deepest. “He broke my heart,” she says now, but she still has a portrait of Dylan hanging on her wall and his songs, such as “It Ain’t Me Babe,” are prominent in her repertoire.
Next followed her time with activist and journalist David Harris and her dedication to “the Revolution” as she was swept up in the antiwar movement. But their marriage broke up shortly after Harris returned from a 20-month prison sentence for draft evasion. After that, her career and happiness undulated between euphoric heights and abysmal lows through the years, though with diminishing impact on the events of the day. And then there was always the amorphous, ominous repository of the past stacked in storage, the tapes of therapy sessions, the oral diaries, the letters illustrated with her whimsical John Lennonish drawings (animated, they offer welcome levity in the sometimes heavy lifting of the film), that hint at secrets untold and in some cases, she wonders, perhaps imaginary.
Baez and Lady Bird Johnson, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s First Lady, never met, and chances are any such meeting would have gone about as smoothly as when activist and actor Eartha Kitt confronted Lady Bird at her 1968 Women Doers Luncheon and condemned the War in Vietnam (Kitt’s career crashed for a decade after the encounter; an unconvinced Lady Bird had been miffed). But if Baez ever sees Dawn Porter’s The Lady Bird Diaries, she might find she has some things in common with the spouse of one of the most conflicted, productive, and reviled of US presidents. Compiled from the 123 hours of audio diaries Lady Bird recorded from 1963 to 1969, the film vividly and often wrenchingly recalls the years of turmoil and progress, hope, and catastrophe that eclipse even the troubles of the present day.
It begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when then VP LBJ took the oath of office on Air Force One, flanked by his wife and Kennedy’s widow — the latter’s face a Greek mask of tragedy, her dress stained with her husband’s blood. Despite the grief and horror of that moment, captured with homespun eloquence in Lady Bird’s recollections, the aspirations of Kennedy’s Camelot were acted on and sometimes fulfilled. Johnson, a canny negotiator and manipulator from his days as Senate majority leader, managed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He defeated the arch-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide in the election that year and went on to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With his accomplishments in the War on Poverty, not to mention Lady Bird’s own efforts in her Beautification Campaign, which included environmental measures and social services for the needy, he might have been regarded as the most progressive president since FDR. Instead what he will be remembered for is Vietnam.
As Lady Bird recalls it, he always had doubts about the growing US commitment to what turned out to be an unwinnable conflict and an unhealable wound in the nation’s conscience. But rather than withdraw and face disgrace as a loser, Johnson decided to keep escalating, which meant that he would endure ignominy as a warmonger responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and countless Vietnamese. He faced opposition in his own broken party, particularly from JFK’s brother, New York Senator Robert Kennedy, LBJ’s former Attorney General and, as Lady Bird surmises in some of her many shrewd observations, his possible nemesis. On March 31, 1968, Johnson, who would die in 1973 at 64, shocked the world by announcing during a TV address, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
But it was a shock soon overshadowed by others yet to come. On April 4 Martin Luther King was assassinated, igniting riots in several cities. And on June 5 Robert Kennedy was shot and died the next day.
“What is our country coming to?” asks Lady Bird, who died in 2007 at 94, in a diary entry. “What’s happening to us? Are we a sick society?” As many of the positive achievements of Johnson’s administration are eroded, and as the nation’s evil tendencies grow in power and audacity, these questions haunt us still.
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).