A Legacy of Her Own

By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Friday, July 13, 2007

Lady Bird was not simply the best thing that ever happened to Lyndon Johnson. She was also an extraordinary leader in her own right who left our nation two monumental legacies: beautification and Head Start. Thoughtful and sensitive, she set the bar high for future first ladies.

The battle to ban billboards and junkyards along federally supported roads was bone-crushing. In late 1965, after muscling the bill through the Senate, we were at least two dozen votes shy of passage in the House of Representatives. President Johnson had every one of us on staff working to turn votes around. "This is the only thing Lady Bird has asked me for, and we're gonna get it for her," Johnson repeatedly told us. Despite all our calls and the favors we exchanged for votes, on the eve of House action I couldn't see how we could win. Then a Republican representative from Kansas offered an amendment regarding administration of the highway beautification program. He sought to "substitute 'Lady Bird Johnson' wherever 'Secretary of Commerce' appears in the bill."

LBJ immediately saw the opportunity he needed. He called member after member expressing his hurt and resentment that Robert Dole, "this upstart Kansas Republican, insulted the first lady, the president's wife, who just wants to make the land prettier for everybody."

The next day the bill passed.

For Lady Bird that was just the start. She beautified the nation's capital with seasonal flowers throughout its parks and open areas. She traveled the country urging citizens to clean up their streets and alleys and to plant trees and flowers in public spaces. Even after leaving the White House, she taught the nation about the beauty of wildflowers and the ease and benefits of planting them.

Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson shared a deep love for each other. I am confident that her counsel, often shared in pillow talk, saved him from many missteps. By 7 each morning, White House aides would be in their bedroom to discuss the problems of the day with the president. If Mrs. Johnson had not gotten out of their big four-poster before aides began arriving, she would patiently lie next to her husband, bed jacket on, covers modestly pulled up to her chin. LBJ liked having her next to him, and always accommodating, she made herself as comfortable as possible, though we could sense at times how awkward she must have felt. Eventually Mrs. Johnson would say, "Now you boys look the other way" or "Now you gentlemen get out of here just for a minute" so she could exit to the privacy of her dressing room next door.

Rarely did Mrs. Johnson express to us an opinion on substantive matters that we were discussing. But I remember the morning after Justice Tom Clark retired, creating a vacancy on the Supreme Court. We were talking about the president naming the first black justice (Thurgood Marshall) to replace Clark. Lady Bird broke in and said, "Lyndon has done so much for blacks, why not fill the vacancy with the first woman?" We discussed a few women, including Shirley Hufstedler, whom LBJ later named to the federal appellate court in California, but President Johnson was determined to put the first black justice on the Supreme Court.

Then there was the controversy over Head Start. Conservatives opposed such federally financed early-childhood education as an attempt by government to interfere with parents' control of their children. At the time, their protests were code words selected to conjure up the specter of Soviet Russia wrenching children from their homes to convert them to atheistic communism. But Lady Bird knew that the rich had kindergartens and nursery schools, and asked, "Why not the same opportunity for poor children?"

Since 1966, more than 20 million needy children have been through Head Start; this year almost 1 million children will benefit from the program.

The writer, chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, was President Lyndon Johnson's top assistant for domestic affairs.

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