Remembering Lady Bird Johnson
First Lady Recalled as Charming, Media Savvy and Deeply Connected to Nature

Lewis L. Gould
Author, 'Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady' and Professor Emeritus in American History, University of Texas at Austin
Thursday, July 12, 2007 12:00 PM

Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, died Wednesday, a family spokeswoman said. She was 94.

"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 L. Gould, author of "Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady."

Gould was online Thursday, July 12, at Noon ET to discuss the life and activism of Lady Bird Johnson.

Appreciation: Remembering Lady Bird Johnson

A transcript follows.


Lewis L. Gould: Hello and welcome to this discussion about the legacy of Lady Bird Johnson. I look forward to your questions about one of the most important first ladies of the last half century. Lewis L. Gould


Lewis L. Gould: Sorry about the typo on discussion. The important thing is the exchange of views which now begins.


Boston, Mass.: What sort of relationship did Lady Bird have with Jacqueline Kennedy?

Lewis L. Gould: While Mrs. Kennedy was first lady, Mrs. Johnson acted as her surrogate and, as it was said in Washington at the time, the "number one pinch-hitter." When Mrs. Johnson was first lady, the shadow of Mrs. Kennedy followed her until Mrs. Kennedy's second marriage. In the years after they both left the White House they became good friends.


Rockville, Md.: Hello,

I am curious whether Lady Bird experienced a strong like/dislike about her billboard campaign. I was ignorant of her cause until I was watching an HBO show ("Big Love") and one of the characters despised her for it.

Just curious.

Thank you.

Lewis L. Gould: The billboard industry was naturally negative. Otherwise her campaign was relatively popular at the time and since. I think time has vindicated her vision though the Highway Beautification Act has been much amended and is now toothless.


Baltimore: Mr.Gould: I remember the shock I felt when Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for another term as president. But until I saw an appreciation of Mrs. Johnson on the News Hour last night, I did not know that she was a principal driver of his decision -- even insisting that he insert the phrase saying he would not "accept" the nomination, not just forego campaigning for it.

Do you know if Mrs. Johnson ever regretted the fact that the president did not run again, given the subsequent course of events under Richard Nixon?

I have to say that, while I was bitterly opposed to the Vietnam War, I applaud Mr. Johnson's achievements -- his sponsorship and active promotion of civil rights legislation was America's most important domestic achievement of the 20th Century.

Lewis L. Gould: Mrs. Johnson was so worried about her husband's health and the impact of another term that she wanted him to bow out as early as the fall of 1967. I don't think she ever had any regrets about her decision and the wisdom of her choice was shown by the decline in her husband's condition in 1972 before his death in January 1973.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Lady Bird Johnson was said to have saved the very large Zelkova tree that still stands on G street in SW D.C., to the point of standing in front of the bulldozers renovating the area in the 60s. When we lived in SW we wondered about the historicity of the incident and whether someone has more information on it.

Do you or anyone reading this know more about this incident? Thanks!

Lewis L. Gould: Mrs. Johnson's files are extensive for her work in Washington. I don't recall the incident you mention but the LBJ Library might be able to help with research. I'd also check out her book White House Diary for a general sense of what she did in Washington.


Washington, D.C.: I'm not sure planting wildflowers along highways makes her an environmentalist.

Lewis L. Gould: But she did so much more. She improved the look of Washington, D.C. both in the monumental areas and the inner city. She fought for natural beauty along the highways, championed the preservation of the California Redwoods, sought to preserve the Grand Canyon from dams, and raised national consciousness about the environment. Check out my book Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment for the full story of an amazing woman.


Georgia: What a wonderful and special person she was -- we lost a true great lady yesterday.

I haven't read much on Lyndon lately. Can you give your opinion on their relationship and tell the story of their engagement? I read that he bought her a very modest ring. Is that really true? Was it a case of opposites attract?

Lewis L. Gould: Their "engagement" was about twenty-four hours since he talked her into driving from Marshall to San Antonio to get married. He picked up a ring along the way, they had the ceremony, and then honeymooned in Mexico. As she told a friend, she had "committed matrimony" with Lyndon Johnson. Their relationship was a complex one to understand. In many ways he brought out the best in her as she often said. But his infidelities and verbal abuse made him something of a jerk as well.


Dover, Del.: I loved Lady Bird, cherish her legacy and will keep her and her family in my thoughts and prayers. Native plants, wildflowers are in my landscape plan (planted myself)in part because of her influence, going back to childhood (wildflower notebooks then).

Q. Did you have the chance to go outside with her on a spring "wildflower adventure" and if so, what was that like? All the photos I've seen with Lady Bird amidst wildflowers seem to have her at peace, in her element. Wonder if heaven is like that for her now ...

Thank you (and will read your book)

Lewis L. Gould: My one visit to the LBJ Ranch was to interview her in 1984. She was the most gracious host and she shared with me a number of insights about her beautification campaign. It was a magical afternoon.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How did Lady Bird Johnson come to take conservation as an issue she advanced as first lady? Were there many first ladies prior to Eleanor Roosevelt who championed causes, and did Eleanor Roosevelt's activism help allow the press and public to accept proactive first ladies from then on, or was there still much resistance to that idea?

Lewis L. Gould: The long answer is in my book. She had been involved in nature since her childhood in East Texas and when she became first lady it seemed natural to extend that interest to Washington, D.C. and then the country at large. Women had long been the activists in terms of conservation, the Johnson administration promoted natural beauty as part of the Great Society, and the postwar period saw heightened concern about the environment. In short, the woman and the moment came together in a very special way.

_______________________ Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady


Los Angeles: Thank you for taking questions, though mine is just a comment. I am a great admirer of the late Lady Bird. A few years ago, I toured LBJ ranch, and the ranger conducting the tour told us that once, when the tour bus was passing the ranch house (at that time currently occupied by Lady Bird), the bus had to stop for three women crossing the road, one in a wheelchair. Lo and behold it was Lady Bird herself along with Luci and Lynda. Luci and Linda pulled the wheelchair up to the bus, and the two daughters boarded the vehicle and spent about 10 minutes graciously answering tourists' questions and sharing anecdotes about life on the LBJ ranch. How I wish I'd been on that bus! Lady Bird was a class act and her daughters seemed to have inherited the best of their parents' genes.

Lewis L. Gould: Your ancedote is Mrs. Johnson as the world knew her. She was gracious and thoughtful to everyone she met. She gained strength from talking with people about the ranch, Lyndon, and the natural world.


Alexandria, Va.: More of a comment -- I had no idea until today that LBJ (that's funny -- she has the same initials as her husband) was the driving force behind all the flowers we see around the city in the spring/summer. I find this a very special/endearing aspect of D.C. and will now always think of her while appreciating it.

Lewis L. Gould: Her work with Mary Lasker, Nash Castro, Walter Washington and others in the 1960s created the landscaped city of Washington that we know today. It was one of her most enduring legacies, and when people like yourself say "Thank God for Lady Bird Johnson" they are attesting to her impact on the nation.


Portland, Ore.: When did the word "litter" enter the lexicon and what did Lady Bird do to change the nation's consciousness about littering?

Lewis L. Gould: Littering and its removal was, as I recall, part of the Keep America Beautiful campaign that flourished in the years after World War II. Her beautification campaign fit in with that cause, and her files at the LBJ Libray document her working relationship with the Keep American Beautiful organization. She reached out to everyone who could help her.


Northeast D.C.: NPR had a nice appreciation of Lady Bird yesterday. I knew about her beautification efforts, but hadn't realized that she was an advocate of planting native wildflowers and trees. I loved her quote about how "Vermont should look like Vermont, and Texas should look like Texas."

Wasn't she pretty far ahead of her time on this issue?

Lewis L. Gould: I agree that Mrs. Johnson was an environmental pioneer in the 1960s. Only now are we beginning to realize how much she did and what she contributed to an understanding of our natural heritage. She built on the achievements of women in the early part of the 20th century, but her record is one of the most impressive among all environmentalists.


New Brunswick, N.J.: My very favorite first lady! And one who has had a lasting impact on our landscape.

I was surprised in the obituaries to read how her interest in the natural world was lifelong. Do you know how she came to form this interest? Also, it's my impression that she continued to develop her knowledge and training in this area, moving from flowers to native plants to eco-systems. How did she continue her education in this area?

Lewis L. Gould: Mrs. Johnson started her interest in the natural world as a child and then kept reading and learning for the rest of her life. I recall recommending a biography of Aldo Leopold to her some years ago and the eagerness with which she wanted to know more about his work as it bore on her own concerns. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside of Austin attests to her interest in this area and her persistent commitment to that cause. When biographers delve into her hundreds of thousands of pages of her letters at the LBJ Library, the world will gain an even better appreciation of the scope of her learning and commitments.


Needham, Mass.: Watching the coverage, I am truly saddened at how little mention has been made of her being a formidable businesswoman at a time when married women were expected to stay home. It was HER inheritance that started the LBJ companies, which SHE ran for many years while her husband was politicking. Could you share some more of this information?

Lewis L. Gould: Mrs. Johnson's business career has not been studied enough, in part because many of those records are still in the hands of her family. She was a very effective manager of the television interest of the Johnson family and was adept at reading balance sheets and paring down expenses! Her husband used to joke that he attended the sessions when she gave cash awards to highway department employees in Texas because it was so rare to see her give away money!


Freeport, N.Y.: Thanks so much for providing this forum. Can you shed any light on Lady Bird's religious inclinations?

Lewis L. Gould: I know that she was church-going on a regular basis, but I should not guess what her affiliation was. The LBJ Library can provide that information on their website or as an on-line answer.


Richmond: Is Lynda still married to Chuck? Where do they live now?

Lewis L. Gould: They are still married and I assume live in or near Virginia, but I cannot say for sure.


Dallas: What do you think Mrs. Johnson's ultimate legacy will be?

Lewis L. Gould: That is a large question that merits a careful answer. In the role of first lady her influence was significant. The way first ladies operate the institution owes much to what she and Liz Carpenter did between 1965 and 1969. In the environment, I think the comments that have appeared in this conversation attest to the impact that she is still having almost forty years after leaving the White House. I do not know but can make an educated guess about how she might instruct us now with regard to climate change and global warming for example. She believed that we are custodians of the natural world and have an obligation, as she put it, "to keep the beauty of the landscape as we remember it in our youth..and to leave this splendor for our grandchildren." Not a bad thought for today.


Bayside, N.Y.: Do you think Lady Bird ever seriously considered leaving Lyndon? In his biography of John Connelly, James Reston Jr. said that she was planning to divorce him if he lost the 1948 Senate campaign, though I haven't read that story anywhere else.

Lewis L. Gould: Mrs. Johnson might well have considered such a course, but there would have been constraints (their daughters, for example) that would have kept her in the marriage. For LBJ divorce, of course, would in those days have ended his presidential hopes. Much has been written about the relationship of the Johnsons. Until a biographer has full access to their letters and Mrs. Johnson's diary, it will be hard to sort out what is rumor and what is fact. Randall Woods' biography of Johnson is a good guide to the most recent writing on these matters.


Princeton, N.J.: Thanks for taking my question Dr. Gould ... in all due respect to the Johnson family, did Lady Bird ever 'own-up' to President Johnson's 'alleged' extra-maritial affairs? And if she did acknowledge their reality, what was her rationale for staying in the marriage? Did she just accept Johnson's indiscretions as part of the complexity of the man?

Lewis L. Gould: Mrs. Johnson was asked that question many times and artfully deflected it on those occasions. There is no doubt that his dalliances hurt her. Only in Washington is infidelity regarded as a victimless crime! It was not easy to be a divorced woman in Texas in that day and time, and the choices she would have faced in divorce would not have been pleasant ones. She loved the man and resolved to put up with his affairs because she knew, as I said earlier, that divorce would have taken him out of the politics he loved. She also knew that at bottom he loved her as he did no other woman. However, I must say that as time has passed I have become more and more impatient with the idea that men in that era were somehow "owed" one free extramarital affair as a prerogative of power.


Seattle: The Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park is an incredible spot. Didn't she give a speech at the grove when the park was opened?

Lewis L. Gould: Yes, indeed in August 1969. As she wrote to a correspondent, "I am so glad to know you share my happiness that the Redwood National Park will be preserved for future generations to enjoy."


Washington, D.C.: I'm curious to know what role Lady Bird had in the historic preservation of America. I was under the impression that she had helped spearhead the preservation movement as well and helped gain support for the act that created the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If I am correct in that assumption, why haven't the news agencies made that distinction alongside her environmental efforts? Wasn't that an equally radical idea at the time (and today)?

Lewis L. Gould: She supported that work in 1966 and wrote the foreword for its original report. There are abundant files about that aspect of her interest in the LBJ Library. One of the problems about writing a book on her environmental work was to do justice to the range of her interest. Happily, scholars and students in the future will have much to write about in these areas. Alas, the news media tends to repeat the cliches about these important public figures rather than delving into the full range of their contributions. That's why historians (shameless plug division) are so crucial.


Ohio: Mrs. Johnson's Highway beautification was a lovely attempt to bring us a sense of tranquility as we drove along. It was a pleasure to round a bend and see a patch of multicolored wildflowers in the median or along the road. Most of these in our area have since run the course of their re-seeding themselves or were scraped away for the improvement of a highway. However briefly they were there, they served the purpose she intended. Each time I drive by her park as I go to Alexandria, her efforts are again remembered. Others, I am sure, have the same feelings.

Lewis L. Gould: She would have been delighted with your words and smiled that engaging smile that illuminated her whole face when she talked about the natural world.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. (the neighborhood, not the government): Not a question, but a comment. Years ago when I walked to work I'd pass a small triangle part -- created between two angling streets in near Southwest. That park contained a plaque that said that this little triangle was the first place in D.C. to benefit from Lady Bird Johnson's beautification efforts. Every day on my way to work I blessed her, because I remembered only too well how ugly much of the city had become -- with tempos on the Mall across the National Gallery and filling the space now occupied by Constitution Gardens. Mrs. Johnson certainly raised people's consciousness about our environment and made our world a more beautiful place to live.

Would that many of people in and near power could achieve so much!

Lewis L. Gould: Amen and then some. Washington still reflects the things she did so long ago to make it better.


Des Moines, Iowa: Certainly, renewing America's roadsides and biways is an act of environmentalism. Native wildflowers serve more purpose than to merely beautify. They are often more resistent to fire, for one thing. Also, wild flowers are more deeply rooted, thus better holding the soil and preventing runoff.

But, my favorite reason for enjoying the replanting of native wildflowers in my state is, that they are mainly sewn alongside secondary hiways. I think they beacon a traveler to take these roads. It causes a person to slow down a bit and enjoy life.

Quite frankly, without Lady Bird's efforts in Texas, how much public money would ever be allotted for such things as renewing what we tore up years ago?

Lewis L. Gould: Your comments illustrate the complexity that Mrs. Johnson's campaigns embodied. It was not just a matter of making things look better but of understanding how each aspect of the environment fit into the larger picture. The story of what Mrs. Johnson did with wildflowers since the early 1980s has not yet become a matter of interest to historians and biographers. Her years after the White House are as fascinating as the times I wrote about. She read deeply about wildflowers and sought to make her fellow citizens understand what a wonderful resource these wildflowers are.


Lexington, Ky.: I have read your excellent book on Mrs. Johnson and the environment as well as your encyclopedia on the first ladies. Do you think any future first lady could be as retiring as Bess Truman and not have a "cause"?

Lewis L. Gould: Thanks for the kind comments about the books. I suspect it would be difficult for a first lady to just "keep her hat on straight" as Bess Truman said. However, the author who is writing about Bess Truman for my Modern First Ladies series (University Press of Kansas if you are keeping score at home) finds that even she had a broader range of interests than the cliches about her suggest. My experience with first ladies over the past twenty-five years has been that these women have led lives of uncommon interest and the study of each one tells us much about how Americans have chosen to live together.


Lewis L. Gould: Thanks to everyone who participated for some good, stimulating questions that made the hour fly by. I think Mrs. Johnson would want us all to enjoy the natural world and then read a good book. That's what I plan to do. Thanks to the Washington Post and Rocci Fish for the use of the hall!


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