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Lady Bird Johnson, 1912-2007

Champion of Conservation, Loyal Force Behind LBJ

(By Yoichi Okamoto -- Lbj Library Via Associated Press)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson, 94, a first lady whose quiet ambition and determination allowed her to play an influential role in her husband's remarkable political career and to carve out an identity of her own as an advocate for beautifying the national landscape, died yesterday at her home in Austin.

Mrs. Johnson, who also was a successful businesswoman and philanthropist, had been in failing health for several years. She suffered a stroke in 1993 and was legally blind because of macular degeneration. She spent six days last month in an Austin hospital, where she was treated for a low-grade fever. "She just slipped away," family spokeswoman Elizabeth Christian said.

Mrs. Johnson was thrust into the role of first lady when the assassin's bullet that felled John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, elevated her husband, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to the presidency.

The first wife of a president since Eleanor Roosevelt to pursue the role of an activist, she helped bring the cause of conservation to national attention. Campaigning for beautification -- although she found the term "prissy" and "slight" -- she helped her husband, the 36th president, advance preservation of the American landscape as an economic, aesthetic and ecological necessity. A 1982 poll of historians ranked her third among first ladies in influence and importance, behind Roosevelt and Abigail Adams.

Her partnership with her husband on beautification had gone on since their work on Texas roadside parks in the 1930s. However, in an extensive interview with The Washington Post in 1994, she said she did not think her love of nature would "ever amount to anything except for my own personal pleasure." With Johnson in the White House, though, what had been a personal commitment to natural beauty became a national cause.

From her "bully pulpit" as first lady, Mrs. Johnson called attention to her husband's ambitious legislative programs. Traveling the country with her own press corps, she dedicated community colleges and encouraged adult education; visited rural clinics, school lunch programs and Head Start classrooms; and worked to improve the landscape of American cities and towns, beginning with Washington.

"Once you are in that position and you want to serve whatever your husband's efforts are on behalf of the country, you choose those which make your heart sing," she told The Post.

Some that made her heart ache were not of her choosing. As racial unrest and the war in Vietnam increasingly overshadowed Johnson's Great Society agenda, the first lady became emotionally drained by what she called the "growing virus of the riots, the rising list of Vietnam casualties." To the end of her life, the conflict's negative effect on her husband's place in history was, in her words, "a sadness."

If she disagreed with her husband's conduct of the war, she did so in private. She was as loyal to him as he was to his military and Cabinet advisers, several of whom were holdovers from the Kennedy administration. Her husband had "an overdose" of loyalty, she said, and although "I do not think less of loyalty, I do think you have to be very clear-sighted." She saw herself, in some respects, as tougher-minded than the president, which she acknowledged gave her a different perspective on some of his policy positions.

"I would express myself," she said, "but I would not argue, no, because I was not the person who was going to implement it if it turned out wrong."

She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912, in an antebellum home in Karnack, a small East Texas town in a dense pine forest. She went through life as "Lady Bird," thanks to a family cook named Alice Tittle who, when she saw the baby girl for the first time, exclaimed that she was as "purty as a ladybird." (A ladybird is a small, brightly colored beetle.)

Mrs. Johnson's East Texas, with its pine forests, red dirt and dank swamps, was more Southern than Southwestern. Its attitudes toward race, religion and social mores were Southern as well, which helps explain why the well-read Mrs. Johnson considered Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner of Mississippi her favorite writer.

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