An Appreciation and Slideshow
December 22, 2012 marks the 100th birthday of Lady Bird Johnson, whose spheres of activity and influence were varied during her six years as the nation’s first lady. She expanded the professionalism of the East Wing staff devoted specifically to the first lady’s projects employing a chief of staff, a press secretary, and support staff to write speeches, maintain contacts with Congress and other groups, and engage in advance planning for her public appearances. During the 1964 presidential campaign she embarked on a political tour on her own, traveling through eight southern states by train on the 19-car “Lady Bird Special.”
However, it is as a tireless and effective advocate for the environment that Mrs. Johnson is most widely remembered. In her diary she compared beautification to “picking up a tangled skein of wool. All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”
Through initiatives like the May 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, Mrs. Johnson worked with conservationists, government officials, private business and private citizens to restrict use of billboards and automobile junkyards, encourage flower and tree-planting programs, and promote highways adjoined with wildflowers and natural vegetation such as grassland. Many of these ideas were authorized by the Highway Beautification Act, which became law in October 1965.
Mrs. Johnson’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital was formed in February 1965 and met regularly at the White House as it supervised the planting of azaleas, cherry blossoms, daffodils, dogwoods, tulips and other trees and flowers throughout the inner city and open spaces of Washington, D.C., particularly on Columbia Island in the Potomac River (Columbia Island was re-named Lady Bird Johnson Park in 1968). She dedicated the White House’s East Garden to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in April 1965 after completion of its redesign to feature a broad rectangular lawn and larger beds for seasonal flowers and ornamental hedges.
With Mrs. Johnson’s urging and support, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11145 in March 1964, authorizing creation of a Curator of the White House to assist in the preservation and protection of White House furnishings. The same Executive Order also authorized the Committee for the Preservation of the White House to establish guidelines, deliver advice and make proposals on acquisitions of furnishings for the White House.
Christened Claudia Alta Taylor when she was born in near Karnack, Texas, in 1912, she received her nickname as a small child; and as “Lady Bird” she was known and loved throughout America. Perhaps the name was prophetic, as there has seldom been a first lady so attuned to nature and the importance of conserving the environment.
Her mother died when Lady Bird was five, so she was reared by her father, her aunt, and family servants. From her prosperous father she learned much about the business world. An excellent student, she also learned to love classical literature. At the University of Texas she earned bachelor’s degrees in arts and in journalism. In 1934 she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a congressional secretary. He courted her from Washington with letters, telegrams and telephone calls. Seven weeks later he proposed. They were married in November 1934.
The years that followed were devoted to her husband’s political career. Lady Bird helped keep his congressional office open during World War II when he volunteered for naval service; and in 1955, when he had a severe heart attack, she helped his staff keep things running until he could return to his post as Senate majority leader. He once remarked that voters “would happily have elected her over me.” After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth to Lynda Bird in 1944. Luci Baines was born three years later.
In the election of 1960, Lady Bird successfully stumped for Democratic candidates across 35,000 miles of campaign trail. As wife of the vice president, she became an ambassador of goodwill by visiting 33 foreign countries. Moving to the White House after Kennedy’s assassination, she did her best to ease a painful transition. She soon set her own stamp of Texas hospitality on social events, but these were not her chief concern. Mrs. Johnson created a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, then expanded her program to the entire nation. She took a highly active part in her husband’s war-on-poverty program, especially the Head Start project for preschool children.
When the presidential term ended, the Johnsons returned to Texas, where Lyndon died in 1973. Mrs. Johnson’s White House Diary, published in 1970, and a 1981 documentary film, The First Lady, A Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson, give sensitive and detailed views of her contributions to the president’s Great Society administration.