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Activist first lady supported beautification, Head Start

By Elaine Woo
LOS ANGELES TIMES

Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose tumultuous presidency often overshadowed her considerable achievements as an activist first lady, environmentalist and founder of a multimillion-dollar media business, died yesterday at her home in Austin, Texas. She was 94.

Mrs. Johnson, who suffered a major stroke in 2002 and was hospitalized for a week last month with a low-grade fever, had been in failing health for several years. Family spokeswoman Elizabeth Christian said she died at 5:18 EDT surrounded by family and friends, including daughters Lynda Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson. She will be buried next to her husband at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas.

As the wife of the 36th president, Mrs. Johnson was often portrayed by contemporaries and some historians as a meek woman who silently endured her husband's volcanic outbursts and infidelities. Yet she, perhaps more than any presidential wife since Eleanor Roosevelt, expanded the terrain of the first lady by taking a visible role in her husband's administration, most memorably in her national beautification efforts.

Her love of nature was enshrined in law when her husband signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Conceived primarily to restrict junkyards and unsightly signs along U.S. highways, it was the first major legislative campaign launched by a first lady.

Although often eclipsed by protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights -- the dominant issues of President Johnson's tenure from 1963 to 1969 -- her effort to replace urban blight with flowers and trees prepared the way for the environmental movement of the 1970s.

"I think there is no legacy she would more treasure than to have helped people recognize the value in preserving and promoting our native land," Luci Baines Johnson said in a statement shortly before her mother's death.

Mrs. Johnson also broke new ground by campaigning independently of her husband. During his 1964 presidential campaign she undertook a courageous whistle-stop tour of the South, where his civil rights agenda was widely reviled. Two months later, President Johnson won one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. She held the Bible at his swearing-in, a precedent followed by all her successors.

As her husband's key personal adviser throughout his career, she championed Head Start, the early childhood education program that was a major component of his War on Poverty, and was its first national chair.

She was deeply involved in his decision to run for his first full term in 1964, as well as in his dramatic announcement four years later that he would forgo a second term. His famous words -- "I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party" -- were written by his wife.

Mrs. Johnson often was compared unfavorably with her predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy, who captivated Americans with an elegant style. Mrs. Johnson did not wear designer clothes or introduce French chefs to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but she was the most active first lady since Roosevelt, her declared role model.

"Among first ladies of the 20th century, Lady Bird Johnson deserves to rank with Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the significant innovators in the history of the institution," presidential historian Lewis L. Gould once wrote.

As a businesswoman, Mrs. Johnson had the foresight early in her husband's career to buy a debt-ridden Austin radio station and parlay it into a broadcast empire eventually worth millions. She was, according to biographer Jan Jarboe Russell, the only first lady to have built and sustained a fortune with her own money.

Despite these accomplishments, Mrs. Johnson was humble in her self-assessment. She told People magazine in 2000 that her greatest feat was "anything I did to keep Lyndon in good health and a good frame of mind to work as he did."

She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912. Her father was the prosperous owner of a general store in Karnack, Texas, a small, predominantly black town near the Louisiana border. Her mother was a well-read woman who believed in a woman's right to vote and promoted the welfare of the black population. Most of Lady Bird's playmates were black.

One of three children and the only daughter, she received her nickname from a nurse who thought she was as "purty as a lady bird."

A lover of the classics and an excellent student, she graduated from high school at 15, then attended St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas for two years. In 1933, when she was 20, she graduated in the top 10 of her class at the University of Texas in Austin. She stayed another year to earn a degree in journalism and considered being a drama critic.

In 1934, a friend introduced her to Lyndon Johnson, then a 26-year-old congressional aide. True to his blunt and domineering nature, he asked Lady Bird to marry him the day after they met.
Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on July 12, 2007
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