Champion of Conservation, Loyal Force Behind LBJ

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.

"He describes a South I'm somewhat acquainted with," she said. "It has a dark side. It's shadowy, but yet it speaks to a world I know."

Her wealthy, domineering father, T.J. Taylor, son of poor Alabama dirt farmers, was himself Faulknerian. A patriarch known for his philandering, he was a tenant farmer and country merchant who dealt in dry goods, cotton and acreage, the latter acquired through frequent debt foreclosures.

When Lady Bird was 5, her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died from a fall. Throughout her life, Mrs. Johnson clung to an image of her mother walking through East Texas woods gathering wildflowers.

Her father summoned a frail maiden aunt from Alabama to take care of his little girl. The beloved aunt permitted her "a free-ranging sort of childhood," in which she roamed the pastures and forests near her home and paddled in the dark bayous of Caddo Lake but was taught little about things that traditionally interest girls her age.

Enduring a nickname that embarrassed her, as well as the Taylor family's trademark hook nose -- "which, at one time, I seriously tried to have bobbed," she confessed -- she found refuge in scholastic excellence. She was so shy that she deliberately dropped to an academic ranking of third in her class to avoid delivering one of two commencement speeches. Graduating from high school at 15, she studied at an Episcopal girls school in Dallas for two years. She also converted to the Episcopal faith.

Later, at the University of Texas at Austin, she equipped herself with "a bunch of little tools to go out in life and face the world and make a living." Although the Great Depression made life hard for many of her classmates, she never lacked for anything. She had a car, a bank account and a charge account at Neiman Marcus.

In June 1934, she received two undergraduate degrees, in history and in journalism. Her aunt encouraged her to become a reporter for The Post, maybe a drama critic for the New York Times, maybe even a ballerina. Ever practical, she also earned a teaching certificate.

That summer, she and a girlfriend took a postgraduation trip to New York and Washington, where they saw the sights and peered through the railings at the green lawn of the large house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Later that summer, in Austin, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, a brash young man who was working as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Kleberg (D-Tex.). "He was very, very good-looking," she recalled years later. "Lots of hair, quite black and wavy, and the most outspoken, straightforward, determined young man I'd ever met."

The encounter with the tall, lanky 26-year-old triggered "a sort of queer moth-in-the-flame feeling," she said. He asked her to marry him on their first date. After 10 weeks of unrelenting pressure -- precursor to what would become a Johnson political trademark -- she gave in to a now-or-never ultimatum and said yes. She was a month short of 21.

In Washington, where her husband was plotting an ambitious future, the bride was first an eager observer and, years later, a behind-the-scenes participant. Within three years, Lyndon Johnson was running in a special election for the congressional seat from his Texas Hill Country district, left vacant when the incumbent died. Mrs. Johnson provided the initial $10,000 in campaign money, advanced by her father from her mother's estate.

For her money, she got an early lesson in bare-knuckled politics, Texas style, in a race in which her husband was the only New Dealer in a field of 10 candidates and the object of the most mudslinging. With her future inextricably tied to his relentless political ambitions and colossal ego, she had to make up her mind whether she wanted him to be a gentleman or a congressman.

He could be both. Crude, insensitive and parochial, he also was mesmerizing, inspiring and engagingly folksy -- particularly to attractive women, many of whom he was romantically linked with throughout his long political career. His most notorious involvement was with Alice Glass, the mistress and later wife of the publisher of the Austin American-Statesman and one of Johnson's patrons. Although the affair lasted years and was common knowledge in Washington, Mrs. Johnson maintained a lifetime of silence about it. She told friends she never really believed it happened.

"Everyone felt sorry for her," longtime friend Virginia Durr told Jan Jarboe Russell, author of "Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson" (1999). "He yelled at her. He ordered her around. He left her alone at the most important times of her life, and made no secret of his affairs. Still, she stayed loyal."

He also expected total devotion and total attention to his well-being, both personal and professional. Although Mrs. Johnson might have been what she called "slave labor," she never considered herself a victim. Instead, she viewed herself, in Russell's words, "as a woman strong enough to control and contain an ego as colossal as Lyndon Johnson's."

"She conducted herself, often in the most difficult circumstances, with a graciousness and dignity and total devotion to her husband that was heroic," said Robert A. Caro, the author of a multi-volume biography of Johnson.

Interviewed by The Post on the eve of her 82nd birthday, Mrs. Johnson recalled: "Ours was a compelling love. Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment."

Although she had prepared herself for a career -- more than one, in fact -- she never had a job outside the home until Johnson left his congressional office in her charge in the early months of World War II. While he was on active duty with the Navy, she served without pay but gained valuable experience.

She learned she could be independent, Mrs. Johnson told Russell. "That increased my self-worth and gave me courage to try to start a business of my own."

In 1943, she spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase KTBC, a 250-watt radio station in Austin operating at a deficit. Its previous owners had been unable to obtain approval from the Federal Communications Commission for a power increase, but Mrs. Johnson was granted approval within a month. Critics concluded that her husband's close connection to Franklin D. Roosevelt had made the difference.

Although Mrs. Johnson was president of the company, commuting from Washington to Austin weekly, it was her husband who negotiated an affiliation with the CBS radio network. The arrangement dramatically boosted advertising revenue and made the Johnsons millionaires.

In 1952, she decided to buy a TV station, despite Johnson's objections. "It is my money," she reminded him. By the mid-1960s, the family fortune included an Austin cable TV company, a bank, three other ranches and assorted real estate. She remained involved with the business, LBJ Holding Co, well into her 80s.

In 1944, at age 31, she became a mother for the first time. Three pregnancies had ended in miscarriages. Three years later, she had another girl.

Besides her daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb of McLean and Luci Baines Johnson Turpin of Austin, survivors include seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

It was coincidental that Mrs. Johnson shared her husband's initials, but it was by his choice that his daughters, his dog Little Beagle Johnson, his LBJ Ranch and the LBJ Co. would bear his brand, the ultimate power symbol among Texans.

Despite his wife's obvious business acumen, Johnson continued to exclude her from his political world -- dismissing her with "See you later, Bird" when conversation turned to politics -- but that began to change after he suffered a massive heart attack in 1955. She remained by his side for weeks afterward, not only sleeping in his hospital room but also managing to run the household, care for the children and stay in touch with his congressional office.

Johnson gradually began soliciting her opinions and even taking her advice on issues and strategy. As Caro noted, Johnson came to realize she had an intuitive feel for how a speech or an issue would play to the general public. "Somebody else can have Madison Avenue. I'll take Bird," Johnson told people.

"She already had this dignity, no matter how he yelled at her, but she transformed herself from the shy young woman afraid of speaking in public into the poised, dignified, gracious first lady the American people would come to admire in later years," Caro said. "It's an act of willpower and heroism that is very thrilling."

That she would someday be the nation's first lady was not something she expected, Mrs. Johnson told The Post. Despite her husband's power and influence in Washington, he did not harbor presidential aspirations, she said.

"I think Lyndon always had a great reverence for the presidency, also sizable -- should I call it -- fear? I do not think that at any time he figured on getting to the presidency."

Nonetheless, Johnson flirted unsuccessfully with that possibility in 1960. When John Kennedy offered him second place on the Democratic ticket, Mrs. Johnson counseled her husband against meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, the candidate's brother and campaign manager. The younger Kennedy didn't like Johnson -- the feeling was mutual -- and advised his brother not to choose the older, more experienced Texan as running mate.

Mrs. Johnson told The Post that her husband accepted John Kennedy's offer for one reason: "He didn't think Kennedy could win without him, and that with him, if he put in his whole stack -- as he would have expressed it -- that might just pull it off and win."

In the opening days of the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign, Kennedy asked her to take on an expanded role. Jacqueline Kennedy was pregnant and worried about a miscarriage. "Would Lady Bird carry the load on the women's end of the campaign?" he asked. Mrs. Johnson agreed without hesitation.

During the 71 days of the campaign, she traveled 35,000 miles, made 16 stops in 11 states and appeared with her husband at an additional 150 events.

One of those events was in Dallas, four days before the election. A crowd of about 400 all-white, well-dressed Dallas women confronted the Johnsons in the heart of downtown. One conservative heckler bashed Mrs. Johnson over the head with a sign that read "Let's Ground Lady Bird." Another spat in her face.

Mrs. Johnson started to yell at the second woman, but her husband covered her mouth with his hand. "Hush," he told her, then motioned for her to walk more slowly through the melee. With TV cameras rolling, he realized the political value of the images that Americans would see on the evening news.

Four days later, Kennedy won the presidency by 112,881 votes out of 66,832,818 cast. Thanks to Johnson, he carried seven Southern states, including Texas -- "partly," biographer Russell wrote, "because of the way Lady Bird had been treated by the Mink Coat Mob."

As wife of the vice president, Mrs. Johnson was busier than ever. She was a frequent substitute for Jackie Kennedy at social events and official functions.

By 1963, rumors were mounting that Johnson would be dumped from the 1964 ticket. Kennedy set the record straight at a press conference a month before the fatal Texas trip: Johnson would be his running mate. The trip was to give the state's feuding liberal and conservative Democrats a chance to reunite after a long and fractious estrangement.

"It all began so hopefully," she said of the political fence-mending trip that took the Kennedys and Johnsons to Texas.

Her recollection of the shooting summed up the epic tragedy in simple terms. "I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw in the president's car a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. It was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the president's body," she wrote in "Lady Bird Johnson: A White House Diary."

Later she found Mrs. Kennedy sitting alone in a Parkland Hospital hallway. She embraced the younger woman and murmured, "God help us all."

Her anguish was followed by anger. "Anger that this could happen in my country," she said, "anger worse that this could happen in my state."

In the weeks after Kennedy's death, Lyndon Johnson moved swiftly to reassure Americans he was up to the job. His wife, too, moved with decisiveness into a job she later said she "wouldn't have missed for the world but wouldn't want to pay the price of admission again."

In 1964, in a now-famous convention-eve letter, she implored her husband to seek the presidency in his own right "to prove he was worth it." Touring eight Southern states in the fall, she traveled to cities and towns that were in such racial turmoil that it was not considered safe for Johnson to visit. In November, her husband got the landslide he had sought, carrying 44 states against the Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. Barry M. Goldwater.

Despite that mandate, the next four years were not altogether happy for the Johnsons or for the nation. As cities burned and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators marched -- "Hey, hey LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?" -- and as her husband doggedly pursued the course he had set, Mrs. Johnson saw with increasing alarm that "his ability to handle the presidency as it should have been handled -- with an 18-hour driving force -- was giving out."

Not until March 31, 1968, when Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection and was withdrawing from national politics, could his wife begin to see the end. "You can endure anything almost if you know the time limit," she told The Post.

Four years later, at what she called their "forever home" -- the LBJ Ranch -- what Mrs. Johnson had feared finally occurred. Johnson suffered another massive heart attack. Given no hope for any kind of heart surgery, he took up smoking again.

Although she spent most of her time taking care of her increasingly incapacitated husband, she also served on the University of Texas board of regents and made public appearances.

Lyndon Johnson died Jan. 22, 1973, living two days longer than a potential second full presidential term. "Had he run, had he been elected, he would have been a non-serving president," Mrs. Johnson said. It would have been "catastrophic."

In the initial years after her husband's death, she became the official steward of his legacy, presiding over events at the LBJ Library in Austin, giving interviews to historians and journalists and continuing to run the family business. She also began claiming her own legacy as first lady. In speeches, she reminded audiences that 150 laws were passed during the Johnson presidency that directly benefited the environment.

She could note with pride that, thanks to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 -- known as "Lady Bird's Bill" -- more flowers and fewer junkyards and billboards lined the nation's freeways. She also founded the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital and worked to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue and parks throughout Washington. Just before her husband left office, Columbia Island in the Potomac River was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Park.

On her 70th birthday, she "threw my hat over the windmill and celebrated" by giving 60 acres along the Colorado River a few miles west of Austin and a pledge of $25,000 for five years to found the National Wildflower Research Center, now known as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Slowed by failing health, she clung to what she called wildflower "adventuring" through the Texas countryside every spring. "When you get to be 81," she said in 1994," you savor it even more, want to see it one more time."

In a 1994 interview, Russell asked her whether she believed in heaven. "Oh yes, I do," she said. "I do know that there is something hereafter, because all this has been too significant, too magnificent, for there not to be something after. Heaven, to me, is a mystery, a place I'll know what all this -- the events of my life -- meant."

Former Post staff writer Donnie Radcliffe contributed to this report.

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