Lady Bird Johnson passes away in Texas

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 11, 2007 

FORT WORTH, Texas — Lady Bird Johnson, widow of former President Lyndon Johnson and lifelong advocate for the beautification of her native state, died Wednesday afternoon at her Austin, Texas, home. She was 94.

Mrs. Johnson had been in poor health for several years. She had a stroke May 2, 2002, and lost her ability to speak, and she was hospitalized for undisclosed reasons several weeks ago.

"She's lived a full and vibrant life," daughter Luci Baines Johnson said in 2002. "I think that the life of public service has rewards that can't be measured."

But Lady Bird Johnson's contributions can be measured, especially on spring days along the roads of Texas where bluebonnets and Indian paint brushes brighten the countryside. And in Washington, D.C., where cherry trees and dogwoods temper the impersonal look of the city; and along the nation's highways, where junk yards and billboards no longer block scenic views.

Beauty was important to Mrs. Johnson. It was a salve for hard times, she said, and she taught the country to appreciate its splendor.

"Ugliness is so grim," she once said. "A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which lessens tensions."

When her husband embarked on his "Great Society" initiative, she was there working to include conservation and beautification in the package.

"Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool," she wrote in her diary. "All the thread 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."

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 became known as "Lady Bird's Bill."

It was the first legislative campaign ever launched by a first lady, and while that gave her a certain pride, it did not alter what she saw as her primary roles in the White House. Those of mother, wife and confidante.

"I will try to be balm, sustainer and sometimes critic for my husband," she said of her duties. "I will try to have my children look at this job with all the reverence it is due, to get from it the knowledge their unique vantage point gives them and to retain the lightheartedness to which every teen-ager is entitled. For my own self, my role must emerge in deeds, not words."

She shunned comparisons with other first ladies and did not feel competitive with her beautiful and glamorous predecessor, Jackie Kennedy.

"There is not a competitive bone in her body," Liz Carpenter, her former press secretary, once said. "She lives for one thing, and that is to be a joy and a companion to her husband and her daughters. It simplifies all of life if you have one purpose."

Mrs. Johnson's life, however, was not that simple.

She was born Dec. 22, 1912, in Karnack, deep in the East Texas woods where Southern sentiments pervaded the cotton fields and bayous. Her name was Claudia Alta Taylor, but when a maid exclaimed, "She's purty as a ladybird," her identification was forever altered.

Her father, the oppressive Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was a man straight from a William Faulkner novel. He was the wealthiest man in the area, controlling 15,000 acres of cotton and two general stores. He was known as "Mister Boss" by the local black population and his home, a mansion on the outskirts of town, was called "The Brick House."

A sign at one of his stores proclaimed: "T.J. Taylor - Dealer in Everything."

Mrs. Johnson told biographer Jan Jarboe Russell, "My father was a very strong character, to put it mildly. He lived by his own rules. It was a whole feudal way of life, really."

Minnie Taylor, Mrs. Johnson's mother, did not fit in well in the reclusive Piney Woods. She read the classics of Greek and Roman mythology and hoped to usher her two older sons and newborn daughter away from the clutches of East Texas.

She died when Lady Bird was only 5. Mrs. Johnson later said her clearest memories of her mother were on her deathbed.

With her two brothers too old to be playmates, and her Alabama cousins too far away, Lady Bird found her recreation in the natural beauty of the thick East Texas woods.

It was her introduction to nature, and the lessons stayed with her throughout her life.

"Growing up rather alone in East Texas, I took my delights in the gifts nature afforded me daily - in the wild pink roses and dew berries I would find in the sandy lanes, or the cool pine forest with the understory of white dogwood in April, or violets by the clear stream," she said in a 1990 speech.

Lady Bird was an exemplary student, and when she finished third in her high school class, it was suspected that her shyness held her back rather than her intellect. It was said that she didn't do better because she didn't want to make a valedictorian or salutatorian speech.

At 15, she moved on to a private junior college in Dallas, where she conquered all her studies with A's, with the exception of science. "This must be important," she said of her science class. "I just don't know why."

At the University of Texas at Austin, she earned a bachelor's degree in arts and one in journalism.

Then she met Lyndon Johnson.

He was a 26-year-old congressional aide and in a hurry to establish his own political career. She was 21, fresh out of UT, and not particularly looking to marry.

They met in the fall of 1934 and the attraction was immediate and profound.

"He was excessively thin but very, very good looking, with lots of black wavy hair, and the most outspoken, straightforward, determined manner I had ever encountered," she recalled. "I knew I had met something remarkable, but I didn't know quite what."

Two and a half months later, on Nov. 17, Lady Bird told a friend, "Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night."

There were whispers that Lyndon Johnson had simply married for money, and it was true that his new wife gave him $10,000 for his 1937 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

But it was also true that he was truly smitten with her heart, her looks and her behavior. Later in life she confided: "He would look at me quite seriously, and he would say, 'You don't sell for what you're worth.' He really thought I was better looking than I was.

"He believed in me too much, he praised me too much," she would add.

While her husband began his political climb, Mrs. Johnson developed a reputation for her efficiency, graciousness and devotion. Longtime friend Virginia Foster Durr said in a 1967 interview: "The household was totally adapted to Lyndon's life and Lyndon's needs and Lyndon's political career. I think Lyndon was accustomed to two adoring women all his life, his mother and his wife."

Mrs. Johnson ably ran her husband's congressional office in 1942 during his brief stint in the Navy. In 1944, after 10 years of marriage and four miscarriages, the couple had their first child, Lynda Bird, on March 19. Luci Baines arrived July 2, 1947.

The following year, Lyndon Johnson was elected to the Senate by the narrowest of margins: 87 votes. But he quickly rose in stature and became one of the most powerful majority leaders in history.

During the Senate years, Mrs. Johnson, for whom self-improvement was a lifelong theme, also took a speech course. Even after she became an effective, eloquent speaker, she said she never overcame her dread of it.

Johnson considered running for president in 1960, but his chief rival, John F. Kennedy, had worked hard to sew up votes at the Democratic convention. Kennedy offered Johnson the No. 2 spot, but Mrs. Johnson expressed strong reservations about his accepting it. She and others thought he should fight out the nomination on the convention floor.

But Johnson finally took Kennedy's offer, and his wife accepted the decision.

On the campaign trail, Mrs. Johnson was visible and effective, despite her shyness. Southern crowds responded to her folksy style and soft drawl.

"Lady Bird carried Texas for us," Robert Kennedy remarked later.

In November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and the Johnsons were catapulted into a harsh and painful national spotlight.

"My mother always said, `I feel I was thrust on the stage for a role I never had the chance to rehearse,'" Luci Baines Johnson recalled. "I've heard that over and over again. I can't imagine more of a training ground than being a wife of a congressional aide, a congressman, then a senator, then the vice president. I don't know how much more rehearsal you could expect."

Johnson threw himself into his Great Society program, at the core of which was the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction. White southerners rebelled and it was Lady Bird who was sent to quell the revolt.

She orchestrated a 1,628-mile train tour through eight states in four days. It was a hard schedule, made even more tortuous by the angry crowds that came to vent their hardcore frustrations.

"You may not agree with what I have to say," Mrs. Johnson told them in her soft, but firm drawl, "but at least you will understand the way I say it."

Six of the eight states she visited went for LBJ in the following election, but the excitement was short lived. Vietnam had wrestled away the nation's attention and Mrs. Johnson worried that the pressures of the office would kill her husband.

"Lyndon lives in a cloud of troubles, with few rays of light," she wrote in her diary. "I am counting the months until March 1968 when, like Truman, it will be possible to say, `I don't want this office, this responsibility, any longer, even if you want me. Find the strongest and most able and God bless you. Good-bye.'"

She became so certain the strain of Vietnam would cause the president a heart attack, she bought a black dress to keep in her closet should he not survive.

When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run again in `68, Mrs. Johnson boldly insisted he add a phrase to his announcement. He had written, "I shall not seek" the nomination of my party. She had him add, "and I will not accept."

It was time to come home, to Texas and the ranch. To the wildflowers and the hot summer winds. It was time to enjoy life again.

On that first night at home she again wrote in her diary, "with a line of poetry reeling in my mind. I think it's from India's Love Lyrics. `I seek, to celebrate my glad releases, The Tents of Silence and the Camp of Peace.' And yet it's not quite the right exit line for me because I have loved almost every day of these five years."

On Jan. 22, 1973, Mrs. Johnson left the ranch to attend a University of Texas regents meeting. That afternoon, Lyndon Johnson collapsed with another heart attack. This one was fatal.

"The Lord knew what he was doing when he took Daddy first, because I don't think Daddy could have gotten along without Mother," daughter Lynda Johnson Robb said in a 2001 PBS documentary. "I really don't think he could have lived without mother. He depended on her so much."

Lady Bird Johnson was not the delicate flower so many people envisioned her to be. She was as strong and versatile and vibrant as the wildflowers she had come to love and identify with.

While her husband busied himself with problems of the nation, she had quietly and successfully built a media empire on the shoulders of an Austin radio station.

She also endured repeated stories of his infidelity. Rumors that he had affairs hurt, and she told the Washington Post she was upset about what she had heard of Robert Caro's biography on her husband, which detailed his alleged affairs. She said she would not read it.

"I refuse to let hurt or bitterness mess up my life, so I just ignore it," she said.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Johnson kept her emotions on a tight rein.

"She's so in control of herself and her emotions," former White House social secretary Bess Abell once said of her. "She would soften the blows that a lot of people would get from the president. A tongue lashing from him would sometimes be followed by sweet words from her."

Mrs. Johnson said her husband "used the weapon of sarcasm" on those around him, but her devotion to him never wavered.

In a 1985 interview, she described him as "marvelous, contradictory, great natural intelligence, showman, sometimes hurtful, sometimes, very often, tender and giving."

"Well," she summed up, "he was an exciting person to live with and I consider myself lucky."

After LBJ's death, she worked to beautify Austin with the same tirelessness she had used in Washington, D.C. She continued her goal to promote the indigenous beauty of America.

On her 70th birthday in 1982, she helped launch the National Wildflower Center on a 42-acre site in Austin.

Now, two decades later, the center has moved to southwest Austin and a lush 179-acre site with more than 400 native plant species growing on the grounds. It has blossomed into a respected national research facility and one of the country's leading advocates for native plant conservation. It has branched out to embrace landscape restoration, Hill Country culture and ecological education.

The center is no longer called the National Wildflower Research Center. It is now the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

When Lady Bird began the center, she called it her "last hurrah." Almost 20 years later, she told presidential historian Michael Beschloss that she felt "like a top winding down."

Mrs. Johnson received many awards throughout her life including the Department of Interior's Conservation Service Award in 1974, the Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988. She also served on the National Park Service's advisory board.

Almost always when asked about her accomplishments, Mrs. Johnson would either say that there was little to discuss or that she would leave others to determine her legacy. She once told Carpenter, her former press secretary, "I will settle for an epitaph, `She planted three trees.'"

She knew she had done far more.

Once asked if she believed in heaven, Mrs. Johnson told biographer Jan Jarboe Russell, "Oh yes, I do. I do know that there is something hereafter, because all this has been too significant, too magnificent, for there not to be something after. Heaven, to me, is a mystery, a place I'll know what all this - the events of my life - meant."

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