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Pretty as a Lady Bird

Published: 12/22/2012

Lady Bird Johnson would have turned 100 today. When she died July 11, 2007, Steve Goldstein offered this fond remembrance, originally published on Obit-Mag.com.

She was the accidental First Lady.

In her unassuming way, she was a force in the nation's capital, in Texas and, ultimately, throughout the country. While she was in Washington, she was the loyal spouse of a man at first sympathetic and then mistrusted because of a war he inherited and then widened. Leaving, she bequeathed a more beautiful city, an environmental legacy and activism unknown in her station since Eleanor Roosevelt slept in the White House.

Claudia Alta Taylor – Lady Bird Johnson – was downright remarkable.

 Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson in the Texas Hill Country (Wikimedia Commons/Frank Wolfe)

Lady Bird Johnson in the Texas Hill Country (Wikimedia Commons / Frank Wolfe)

Two deaths shaped her life. The first, of her mother, when she was 5, and the second of John F. Kennedy. The motherless child learned to be resilient even when mocked for her name and her strong Taylor nose. The wife of the vice president was forced to inherit the role so winningly performed by America's Widow, a First Lady who set new standards for elegance and style and whose youth and beauty captivated the world. In her diary, Mrs. Johnson confessed the deep trepidation she felt about being compared with Jacqueline Kennedy. When she moved into the White House, she felt "as if I am suddenly on stage for a part I never rehearsed."

And what a part she played.

She was the first presidential spouse to have a press secretary and a chief of staff. Mrs. Johnson studied journalism at the University of Texas before marrying Lyndon Baines Johnson before her 21st birthday, and she understood communication and public relations. Liz Carpenter, her former press secretary, once wrote that "if President Johnson was the long arm, Lady Bird Johnson was the gentle hand." There is a famous photograph of LBJ as Senate majority leader, towering over a cowed colleague whom he was lobbying. A similar photo of Lady Bird would show her offering tea, smiling, yet just as persuasive nonetheless.

Those who knew her or worked for her called her Mrs. Johnson, or Mrs. J, never Lady Bird, and time has not diminished their loyalty and affection. Marcia Maddox, who worked under Carpenter, was asked at one time to pour tea for Mrs. Johnson in the family quarters, where the First Lady was entertaining a visiting dignitary. Maddox didn't know anything about tea, but the First Lady kindly and subtly guided her through the process as she nervously poured for her distinguished guest.

Ashton Gonella, the First Lady's personal secretary, recalls that when she came to Washington for the first time to work for then Sen. Lyndon Johnson, she was a single mother of twin boys. Mrs. Johnson invited her and her boys to stay with them until she found a place. She lived in their attic, and her boys lived in their basement. That's just the kind of thing the Johnsons did with wayward staffers – including some later very well known figures such as Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti. The First Lady treated staff like family.

Moyers, LBJ's former press secretary, said that under her unfailing Southern graciousness Lady Bird retained a core of steeliness. Never was it more apparent than when she did a whistle-stop train tour of the South during her husband's reelection campaign in 1964, into a maelstrom of hostility engendered by passage of the Civil Rights Act. Though she asked senators and congressmen whom her husband had once helped to jump aboard the train and join her campaign, few did. Yet Lady Bird carried on, smiling and waving through crowds that often booed and jeered the Johnson name, into towns that the Secret Service feared might be too dangerous for the president to visit.

When Lady Bird led the battle to ban billboards and junkyards along federally supported roads, business interests vehemently opposed her. During the lobbying, a Republican congressman from Kansas offered an amendment that sarcastically substituted "Lady Bird Johnson" for every mention of the "Secretary of Commerce" in the bill. Knowing he was at least two dozen votes short of passage, LBJ saw a chance and took it, calling members to express his resentment that this upstart Kansan – Bob Dole – had insulted the First Lady.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 passed with votes to spare. Mrs. Johnson later founded the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital and worked to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue and D.C.'s parks. An early environmentalist, she was against strip mining, overhead power lines, junkyards along highways and, of course, litter. Beautification was ridiculed by some at the time, but she replanted Washington and planted an idea in everyone’s heads that the effort was more than cosmetic.

 Photo portrait of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in the back yard of the White House (Wikimedia Commons/Robert Knudsen, White House Press Office (WHPO)

First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in the backyard of the White House (Wikimedia Commons / Robert Knudsen, White House Press Office)

Last weekend, a Johnson family friend traveling by taxi from the airport in Austin for the funeral was regaled by her cab driver with stories about Lady Bird's common touch. Mrs. Johnson made regular visits to the radio station in which she had invested $41,000 (and which evolved into the $150 million LBJ Holding Co.) even after it adopted a hard rock format. After her visits, the cynical radio jocks waxed rhapsodic about her down home nature, the driver said.

At a reception following the interment, under a huge tent pitched on the banks of the Pedernales River bordering the ranch, with the tables covered in colorful quilts and laden with a spread of fried chicken, ham, green beans, biscuits and sweet tea, friends and family told tales about the woman who once drove alone, at age 13, from East Texas to see her mother's family in Alabama. Who suffered three miscarriages and then raised two daughters and hoped to live until 2010 so they wouldn't have to pay estate taxes.

Lady Bird's favorite writer was William Faulkner. And how he would have loved her story! The daughter of a wealthy domineering father who strayed from his marriage; the girl who was raised by a maiden aunt after her mother died; the young woman who herself married an ambitious, brusque, often crude but charismatic figure who strayed from his marriage; the wife who ultimately overcame her shyness to become a public figure, leaving a formidable legacy of her own.

And the charmer who made a lifelong nickname into something that stood for Beauty.

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