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Remembering the Woman They Called 'Lady Bird'


Tributes to Lady Bird Johnson, who died last week at age 94, mention her refining influence on her headstrong, often coarse husband, President Lyndon Johnson. They remember her nationwide beautification campaign, from the banning of crass billboards along interstate highways to the clean-up of city parks that had turned, both literally and figuratively, into urban jungles.

Her very name brought attention. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in humid East Texas, she got her nickname from a caretaker, who gushed that the little girl was "as purdy as a lady bird."

We in Washington, D.C., got a long, unforgettable look at this resolute woman. Even before the Johnsons moved into the White House, Lady Bird spent parts of thirty years in town while her husband served in Congress. Walking what were then tawdry streets of the nation's capital, she was mortified by the cheap souvenir stands and x-rated movie houses that, she said, had no business on what should be the greatest boulevards in the world.

With her husband's presidency came the chance to do something about that. Pennsylvania Avenue — called "America's Main Street" — got a facelift. Along a chain-link fence surrounding a tennis court where the modernist East Wing of the National Gallery of Art now stands, Lady Bird planted 120 climbing rose bushes. Up the avenue, hundreds of tulips. In verdant Rock Creek Park, thousands of daffodils that reminded her of home. Little triangles of blossoms appeared in the poorest parts of town. "I saw the proud look of capitals like Switzerland's," she once said, "and I thought flowers were like lipstick to a woman."

One day, somewhere in town, Lady Bird Johnson cut a ceremonial ribbon. Behind her hung a sign that read, "We Love Linden." It wasn't for her husband. It was a thank-you for the beautiful, lime-colored linden trees that Lady Bird was planting.

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