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Lady Bird Johnson Gave America A Big Bouquet

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

This was another Lady Bird spring we had, wasn't it?

Confident and lush and defiantly gorgeous, this spring burst out of an ugly winter in such glory because of Lady Bird Johnson. Starting after her husband became president in 1963 in the bleak days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she commanded the plantings of millions of tulips and daffodils through the parks and triangles of Washington. Red oaks went in along Connecticut Avenue. Crape myrtles lined up along F Street. Dogwoods. Azaleas. Forsythia. Viburnum. More and more cherry blossoms, ringing the Washington Monument, marching into Shaw.

How could she have known how much we would come to count on her annual spring show in Washington and her wildflower stands along the interstates, more than 40 years later? Hers is a simple and steadfast legacy, unparalleled among first ladies. She took her lifelong love affair with nature and strewed it across a huge country, where it could cheer generations of Americans without regard to class or creed or age. She sowed an explosion of color to please the loner trucker barreling down the highway and the poor child skipping past urban trash.

Claudia Taylor Johnson, who died yesterday at 94, had been so nourished herself when, as a lonely and motherless little girl, she would search each spring for the first daffodil, so that she could name it "queen."

"Whose spirits have not been lifted by the sight of scarlet tulips in the spring and golden chrysanthemums in the fall in a downtown square where once a neglected bench sat forlornly among wild onions!" she wrote in a guest column in The Washington Post in 1966.

Her concept and execution were vast enough that some early pundit named it "beautification," to drape her vision with the bureaucratic jargon federal Washington so reveres. She hated the word. It sounded sissified, she always said, and she was dead serious about her cause. Other first ladies took up illiteracy and drug abuse and mental illness. Lady Bird preferred to focus on the health, instead of the pathology, of the world we inhabit. After riots erupted, she planted daffodils. Yet she carried out her vision not through garden-club fluttering but through a flurry of legislation.

Lady Bird Johnson was a real Southern charmer and a publicly demurring wife, but she also had a steely sense of politics born of decades spent alongside her husband, Lyndon, in the Senate and as vice president. She tramped into the ghettos and posed for photos, pumps on her feet and a shovel in her hands; but she also lobbied for the Highway Beautification Act, which pushed billboards 50 yards away from the roadsides and insisted junkyards be screened from view. It was but one of 150 environmental laws, including the landmark Clean Air Act, enacted with her vigorous support during the Johnson administration from 1963 to 1969. She was a patron saint to the National Park Service.

And she kept at it with energy and dignity in the nearly 35 years after her husband died. Back in Austin, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center and raised $10 million for it. She created hiking and biking paths in a revitalized downtown Austin, all projects united by a single theme: "It was something my heart could sing to," Lady Bird once explained.

When fate forced her to follow the elegant and beloved Jacqueline Kennedy into the White House, Lady Bird told Americans her role would emerge in deeds. She traveled the country speaking up on Head Start and her husband's War on Poverty. During the 1964 election, she bravely embarked on a whistle-stop tour of eight Southern states to sell the Civil Rights Act.

"During a four-day, 1,628-mile campaign trip, she traveled to cities and towns that were in such racial turmoil it was not considered safe for Johnson to go," wrote Jan Jarboe Russell in "Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson."

"Her message was that the Civil War should at long last come to an end, which could only happen if the South shed its racist past and moved into the modern world." She was booed and spit on and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. Still, she pushed on.

Despite these achievements, and a shrewd business head that parlayed her initial $41,000 investment in a radio station into the $150 million LBJ Holding Co., she told People magazine that she considered her greatest accomplishment "anything I did to keep Lyndon in good health and a good frame of mind to work as hard as he did."

Lady Bird came from a generation of women who insisted on carrying out their wifely duties with dignity and professionalism, even as their husbands rebuked them, derided their appearance and took mistresses. To offer this traditional support to her husband during his presidency, she created the modern institutional apparatus of the first lady.

"She was the first to have a press secretary and chief of staff, and an expanded liaison with Congress and a structure to deal with outside groups," said Lewis Gould, author of "Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady."

"She was the first to have somebody to advance her appearances and write her speeches, and you began to get the bureaucracy around the role. She was an activist."

Lady Bird had studied journalism at the University of Texas and hoped to be a reporter before her whirlwind courtship with Johnson changed all that, and so she "knew the language of the trade, the difference between an a.m. and p.m. deadline, and that it was better to be accessible than evasive," according to Liz Carpenter, her press secretary and longtime friend.

"My theory on Mrs. Johnson is that she decided as smart women did in Texas in the '30s that she was probably smarter than 90 percent of the guys she encountered, but if she let them know that, she was going to be in difficulty. She internalized that and felt that effectiveness was more important than credit," said Gould.

She was more intellectual than her often vulgar husband, and always better read. But she resented such distinctions. When historians suggested that their dynamic was bound in a bad Lyndon and a good Lady Bird, or that she had been humiliated by her husband's infidelities, she bristled.

"Lyndon loved everybody, and a little bit more than half of the world is women," Lady Bird told Life magazine. "I do know he wanted me most. I do know he liked me most. I can sum it up by saying that he and I were better together than either of us was apart.

"I haven't had an undue amount of pain inflicted by fate," she added, with her characteristic modesty.

Instead, she created a persistent beauty, coast to coast.

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