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Former US First Lady was Known as Environmental Champion

  • Lincoln Farber

Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of Lyndon Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, died Wednesday at her home in Austin, Texas. She was 94.

She was the wife of one of the most dynamic presidents the United States ever had, and lived in the White House during one of the most turbulent eras of modern American history. Yet Lady Bird Johnson retained her serenity and gracious good humor, supported her husband in his hours of great trial, and went on to live a quiet but constructive life after he died in 1973.

She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas. When she was two years old, a servant in this well-to-do household described her as being "as pretty as a lady bird," and that nickname stuck. Her father was a successful local merchant, a strong personality whom she later likened in many ways to the man who became her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson. She attended public schools in Texas and was graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism in 1934. Shortly after graduation, she met Lyndon Johnson, and in a manner which she said took her breath away, he wooed her.

"We had a breakfast date, but we wound up by spending the whole day together, riding and talking," said Lady Bird Johnson. "Well, he really let me know before the day was over that he wanted to marry me. And I thought that, this - impossible. But on the other hand, there's one thing I knew I just couldn't bear to have happen, and that was to say, goodbye, goodbye, period."

They were married within two months. She went with him back to Washington where he worked for a member of the United States Congress. Her public life, which was to span thirty-eight years, commenced.

Lady Bird Johnson managed their home and social life in Washington with great frugality. In the process, she developed the business skills which she would later use to run a network of broadcast stations and other businesses in Texas that made the couple wealthy.

While Lady Bird Johnson would later say that politics was her husband's life, not hers, she was always an active presence at Lyndon Johnson's side as he, successively, took a federal job in Texas, won seats in the U-S House of Representatives and the Senate, was elected Vice President in 1960 with President John F. Kennedy and, following Kennedy's assassination, became President in November, 1963.

Despite chronic shyness, Lady Bird Johnson participated in all her husband's electoral campaigns. When he was a Senator she took a public speaking course in Washington, and that helped, but she never enjoyed that part of the life. This did not diminish her contribution to her husband's career, however. She once described their relationship by saying, "I think we were a whole lot better together than we were separate. He made me try harder and do more. I think perhaps sometimes I made him persevere or take a gentler attitude toward people or events or be less impatient. And," she added, "we both helped each other laugh."

"You can see his office from here," she said. "The lights may be on until eight o'clock, maybe nine or ten o'clock. But sooner or later the lights will go out and in a few moments I'll hear an eager voice call down the hall, 'Where's Bird?' Then I know he's home. Really home."

Her 24 years as a Congressional wife helped prepare Lady Bird Johnson for the job of First Lady, a job she characterized as "a crescendo of this constant, repeated rat-a-tat-tat of obligations and duties." She saw the First Lady's primary duty as one of support for her husband, the President. This obligation was, in her words, "Inescapable. The obligation of trying to make a comfortable area, an island of peace -- a setting in which her husband can do his best work." And, this she did, through those challenging days of creating new social programs under the great society, the upheaval of the civil rights movement. But the toughest time, says Mrs. Johnson, was the Vietnam War, which she says her husband tried, unsuccessfully, to conclude "honorably."

"It involved an awful amount of his energy, thinking, hours, everything, strength," said Lady Bird.

Aside from this role of support, Lady Bird Johnson felt the first lady should do something on her own, something that, as she said, "Makes your heart sing." For her, this was national beautification, a term she loathed, saying, "It sounds cosmetic and trivial." But the effort to plant flowers and otherwise make America's cities, parks and highways beautiful was not trivial. Mrs. Johnson transformed the nation's capital city by planting 250,000 tulips and 42,000 daffodils in parks across Washington, D.C. She says it was in keeping with the goals of President Johnson's administration.

"Clean water, clean up the rivers, wilderness areas, more national parks - all of that was part of our aim and thrust and what we tried to do," she said.

Political and international pressures eventually caused President Johnson to return to private life and so, in January 1969, they went back to their ranch in Texas. The first lady's thoughts on leaving Washington were positive. "I loved every day of it," she said. "A lot of it was desperately painful, but on balance, I loved it."

But she did have one regret.

"I'm not daring or particularly courageous," said Lady Bird Johnson. "And I do wish I could have done more. But, I have a lot of endurance and I did as much as I could."

The former President died four years later. In an interview some years afterwards, Lady Bird Johnson characterized her relationship with him this way:

"It all added up to a very wonderful life," she said. "I was hurt, I was adored, I was made to be bigger than I was. Well, it was just a whole cataract of emotions and achievements and failures and life."

Lady Bird Johnson refused to withdraw from the world. She pursued the establishment of a memorial to her husband in Washington as well as development of the LBJ Library at the University of Texas. Her devotion to "beautifcation" expanded as she founded a wildflower research and experimentation facility in Texas. In 1995, at the age of 82, Mrs. Johnson opened a new wildflower research center in Austin, Texas. She said supporting the center was her way of paying back the rent for the space she's occupied in the world."

"I've had a long love affair with nature, particularly an accent on wildflowers, native plants for the whole broad face of America," she said.

While Lady Bird Johnson may have been a pioneer in her efforts to preserve the wildflowers of the different regions of the country, she says she gets her greatest happiness from her seven grandchildren and two daughters: Lucy Baines Johnson, who runs the family business, and Lynda Bird Robb, wife of a former Virginia Senator.

When she was in her seventies, Lady Bird Johnson once reflected on those most important years of her life at the White House. "It stretches you," she said. "You have a cram course in the history and people and scenery and ways of making a living of this great and diverse fifty states. And more is asked of you than you thought you could possibly do." And, she added, "Lo and behold, you find yourself doing it." When asked about her contributions to society, the first lady was modest:

"I think it would be pretty presumptuous to think that I have contributed a lot. I hope everybody could enjoy their little piece of America as much as I have enjoyed mine."

Lady Bird Johnson, a first lady of the land, environmentalist and the supportive wife and companion of the 36th president of the United States, dead at 94.

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