Lady Bird Johnson (1912-2007)

Lady Bird Johnson

Environmentalist, businesswoman, political activist and former First Lady Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, or “Lady Bird Johnson,” as she was known, was born in 1912 in Karnack, Texas. 

Raised in a wealthy family in Karnack, Lady Bird attended the University of Texas in Austin, where she earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in history and journalism.  She planned to work as a newspaper reporter when she graduated, but her plans changed after she met her future husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was working as a congressional secretary for a Texas congressman. After a short, ten-week courtship, they married in 1934.

In 1937, the congressman from Lyndon Johnson’s home district died of a heart attack, and Johnson considered running for the vacant spot, but lacked the money.  Lady Bird ensured that he was able to run for the office by giving him $10,000 of her inheritance from her deceased mother for his campaign.  He won the election. 

During World War II, Johnson served overseas in the Navy while Lady Bird ran his congressional office, including running his re-election campaign, which he won despite being absent.  She said, “I learned while Lyndon was away in the Navy that I could make my own living without him.  That increased my self-worth and gave me the courage to try to start a business of my own.”  She decided that politics could not be relied on for their family income, so she used her inheritance to buy a failing Austin radio station in 1942. 

She spent hours reading books to learn how to track advertising revenue, sold advertisements herself, hired staff, and even cleaned floors.  Under her guidance, the radio station was successful, becoming a base for a multi-million dollar communications company that included television stations and a cable television system.  Her biographer Jan Jarboe Russell wrote of the couple’s public ambitions that “he had the influence, but she had the cash.”

During the late 1940s, Lady Bird continued to support Lyndon in his political career in the House while she ran her communications company and gave birth to two daughters after multiple miscarriages.  In 1948 she campaigned for Lyndon when he ran for the U.S. Senate.  He won, and after two years became the Senate Majority Whip.  In 1955, Lyndon suffered a heart attack and during the following four months was primarily home and bed-bound.  In addition to caring for her husband, Lady Bird took over the day-to-day operations of his Senate office in his absence. 

In 1960, after losing the presidential nomination to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon ran with Kennedy as his vice-president.  Lady Bird campaigned over 35,000 miles across the country for them.  Her strong southern heritage helped win many southern voters who were otherwise wary of voting for a Massachusetts candidate.  After Kennedy/Johnson won, Lady Bird spent the next three years traveling to 33 foreign countries and across the United States as an ambassador of good will for the White House. 

After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office as the 36th President of the United States and Lady Bird became First Lady.  Soon after taking office, Lyndon signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination.  The Act was very unpopular among many southern whites.  With Johnson facing an election campaign, Lady Bird suggested that she and the wives of southern members of Congress go on a whistle-stop tour of the southern states to gain the trust of white voters.  Many people urged her not to undertake the trip for fear of her safety, but she insisted, and she visited eight states in four days, traveling 1,628 miles.  She faced large, angry crowds who called her names like “Black Bird.”  However, her courteous manner and southern accent helped calm the crowds.  One hundred and fifty members of the national press traveled with her and portrayed Lady Bird as “a fearless moral representative of her husband.”  During the election campaign, Lady Bird gave 47 formal speeches in the South.  At election time, six of the eight Southern states voted for her husband, which was partly attributed to her efforts. 

Johnson won the election by a landslide and started his next four years in office with Lady Bird as his key advisor.  "What we knew, at all times, was that she was the most trusted, most loyal, most dependable person that President Johnson could turn to on any issue, but her presence was never one of intruding," said Tom Johnson, a top former aide to the President and future head of CNN.

As First Lady, Lady Bird undertook various nationwide beautification projects of public lands.  For example, she commissioned the planting of millions of azalea bushes, dogwoods, cherry trees, tulips, and daffodils throughout Washington, D.C. Her desire to reduce the number of billboards and junkyards along the nation’s roads led her to launch a major legislative campaign, which resulted in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, popularly known as “the Lady Bird Act.”  She chaired various environmental committees, such as the LBJ Memorial Grove on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. and the Town Lake Beautification Project in Austin, Texas. 

She also used her influence to call attention to the need to preserve important historic parks such as the California Redwoods and the Hudson River in New York by visiting them with the media in tow.  With her support, 200 laws related to the environment passed during Johnson’s presidency.  Before he left office, Lyndon presented her with a plaque that read: "To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon."

As First Lady, Lady Bird also actively worked with her husband on his war-on-poverty reforms, particularly the Head Start initiative that provided free pre-school to children from low income families.   For several years she served as the chairperson of the National Head Start Program.  

As the failings of the Vietnam War wore on Lyndon, she worked hard to keep him calm and hoped he would not seek re-election.  She worried he would have another heart attack and not survive.  During their last several months in the White House, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy both were assassinated, and Lady Bird was instrumental in helping bring stability to an uneasy country. 

In 1969, the Johnsons retired to their ranch near Austin, Texas.  However, Lady Bird remained active in public life.  Starting in 1969, she served for many years on the council of the National Park Service’s Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments.  In 1970, she published a book about her experiences in the White House called White House Diary.  In 1971, the governor of Texas appointed her to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, which was a large focus of her time over the next several years.  She also worked with her husband to build his presidential library, which opened in the University of Texas in Austin in 1972. 

In 1973, Lyndon Johnson died.  “The Lord knew what he was doing when he took daddy first, because I don't think daddy could have gotten along without mother,” said their eldest daughter Lynda Johnson Robb. “I really don't think he could have lived without mother. He depended on her so much.”

After her husband’s death, Lady Bird traveled the world and continued work to beautify the nation and Texas in particular.  In 1983 she founded the National Wildlife Research Center in Austin, Texas, which works to re-establish native plants in natural and planned landscapes.  It was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1998.   She has served as the chairperson of the Center’s Board of Directors since its founding.  She also founded the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and served on various boards, such as the Board of the National Geographic Society.  She also spent time with her family and occasionally mingled with tourists at the LBJ Ranch in Texas. 

She received scores of awards over her lifetime.  Two of her most prestigious were bestowed by Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

Her lasting legacy is a more beautiful nation and a role model of a strong businesswoman and political and environmental activist in her own right, who also played an essential role of political advisor and supporter to her famous husband.  

 

 

Additional Resources:


Web Sites:

Books:

  • Appelt, Kathi and Joy Fisher Hein. Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America. New York City: HarperCollins, 2005. (ages 9 - 12)
  • Gould, Lewis L. Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady. Topeka, KS: University of Kansas, 1999.
  • Johnson, Lady Bird. White House Diary. 1971.
  • Johnson, Lady Bird and Carlton B. Lees. Wildflowers Across America. Abbeville Press, 2001.
  • Russell, Jan Jarboe. Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson. New York City: Scribner, 1999.

 

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