Thursday, July 12, 2007

Good Bye, Lady Bird

Another one of the Grande Dames of Texas passed away yesterday. Lady Bird Johnson was 94.

Growing up in Austin, it was impossible not to hear of her. I watched her television station; listened to her radio station; rode my bike along the Hike and Bike Trail, which she helped create; visited her husband's Presidential Library countless times; saw all the wildflowers she helped plant along the roads of Texas; and even went to the Johnson Family Ranch, which she turned over to the nation in 1972 as a National Historic Site.

Her radio station, KLBJ, was a pretty damn good station, too. The only real rock and roll station in Austin in the 1970s. It embraced punk rock early and introduced me to groups such as the Clash, Sex Pistols and others.

She brought poetry and barbeque to the White House. Can't get much better than that.

There's going to be a public cortege on Sunday, starting at the Capitol in Austin, passing along Cesar Chavez Street, crossing Town Lake, and heading out of town all the way to Johnson City, where she'll be buried at the family cemetery.

Here's part of an obituary from the Austin American Statesman (free registration required):

Her marriage to a larger-than-life Texan thrust a shy, small-town girl named Lady Bird Johnson into the national spotlight. A love affair with the great outdoors kept her there.

And though nationally, she was best known as the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president, Mrs. Johnson was very much a figure in her own right. She mixed Southern graciousness with a quiet, cast-iron fortitude that not only won admirers but allowed her to steer a large business enterprise and help forge a national environmental movement.

Mrs. Johnson was an author, a businesswoman, a champion of education and conservation efforts, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and, most of all, a supportive and loving wife. She was a tireless advocate who left her gentle fingerprints on America's history and helped shape its diverse landscape.

Her legacy includes the millions of daffodils that bloom every year in the nation's capital, that strip of serenity along Town Lake known as the hike-and-bike trail and the bursts of spring color that have made stretches of Texas highways nothing short of remarkable.

Mrs. Johnson was a true intellect who loved books and poetry and, above all, stimulating conversation. At home and on vacations, she surrounded herself with writers, academics, politicians and thoughtful people whose discourse was far from idle chit-chat.

Her love of nature didn't confine itself to boardrooms and committee work. The outdoors and natural environment were part of Mrs. Johnson's regular day, as her once-frequent walks along Town Lake made evident, along with her picnic/poetry readings on the lawn fronting the LBJ Library.

Her environmental work took her from the National Geographic Society board of trustees to the Advisory Board on National Parks. She also served on the board of the American Conservation Society.

Lady Bird and Lyndon, dancing at their daughter's wedding reception in the White House, 1967.

And from the New York Times obituary (free registration required):

Mrs. Johnson was a calm and steadying influence on her often moody and volatile husband as she quietly attended to the demands imposed by his career. Liz Carpenter, her press secretary during her years in the White House, once wrote that “if President Johnson was the long arm, Lady Bird Johnson was the gentle hand."

She softened hurts, mediated quarrels and won over many political opponents. Johnson often said his political ascent would have been inconceivable without his wife’s devotion and forbearance. Others shared that belief.

Mrs. Johnson developed her own public projects. She was an early supporter of the environment and, in championing highway beautification, worked to banish billboards and plant flowers and trees.

Mrs. Johnson financed her husband’s first campaign for Congress in 1937 with a $10,000 loan against a small inheritance from her mother. She began taking an active role in politics in 1941, after he lost his first bid for the Senate and returned to the House. While he was on active duty in the Navy during World War II, Mrs. Johnson managed his legislative office. From that point she shared his public life, representing him, speaking for him and answering questions with unusual candor.

Johnson openly expressed affection for his wife. He often planted a quick kiss on her forehead and held her hand when they were being driven somewhere. In public, Mrs. Johnson referred to her husband as Lyndon; when they were alone or with friends, he was Darling. She was always Bird.

Although she had attended many state dinners in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Mrs. Johnson made no effort to copy the style of previous first ladies. Her first state dinner, for the president of Italy and his wife, combined Italian opera and American hootenanny.

The Johnsons enjoyed entertaining official guests at the L.B.J. Ranch in Stonewall, Tex. Their Texas background inspired the menus and entertainment for many White House events. The South Lawn, which the president referred to as the backyard, became a setting for barbecues.

Mrs. Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912 in a big red brick house in the East Texas town of Karnack (population 100). The youngest of three children and the only girl, she acquired the name Lady Bird as a toddler after a nursemaid described her as “purty as a lady bird.”

Her whirlwind romance with Lyndon Johnson began in the autumn of 1934 in the office of a friend in Austin. They met for breakfast the next morning. After pouring out his life history, financial status, how much insurance he carried and his prospects, Johnson asked her to marry him. When she reported the first-date proposal to her father, he showed no astonishment. “Some of the best bargains are made in a hurry,” he said.

It took a few more tries before Johnson’s persistence was rewarded.

“He was the most outspoken, straightforward, determined person I’d ever encountered,” Mrs. Johnson said of her suitor years later. “I knew I’d met something remarkable, but I didn’t know quite what.”

They were married on Nov. 17, 1934, two months after they met, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio. The groom forgot the ring, and the best man was sent across the street to buy one at a Sears, Roebuck store for $2.98.

“It has been a wonderful life,” she told Ms. Carpenter in 1992. “I feel like a jug into which wine is poured until it overflows.”


Lawrence Case said...

Yep. I got a bit contemplative when I heard the news. I only lived there 5 years to go to school (and sometimes play racquetball ;) but her strong presence pierced my pensive, narrowed mind.

Mostly I remember her bluebells. In fact the other day, before this, I mentioned her efforts to some co-workers.

I am moving back to Austin in a week and I am sure I will reflect when I see blue flowers on the side of the road.

Thanks Lady Bird for making this place a little prettier.

William, visit me in Austin when you can.

BTW, have you ever used As far as music advice goes, its the closest replacement to you that I have found.

cowboyangel said...


Great to hear from you! I was just thinking about you and wondering how you were. Good timing.

Wow, so you're moving back to Austin?! Are you looking forward to it? I never seem to get down there since all my family's spread out across the Lone Star State, but my wife needs to see where I grew up, so maybe we'll make a trip. There's definitely more chance of seeing you in Austin than there was in Arizona. Let me know when you're going - and send me your info when you get there.

I'm a little disappointed to hear that I can be replaced by a website. Sigh. But that's the 21st Century, I guess. Bet they can't tell you about Fred Astaire's recordings from the 1920s, though! Thanks for the tip - I'll check it out.

One thing. If you're moving back to Austin, you must know your State flower. It's Bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus). Bluebells (Mertensia) are a different species. I just don't want you to get in trouble in some smoky Texas honky tonk talking about "bluebells." People have been strung up for less.

You're probably thinking of Blue Bell ice cream!

God, I'm getting homesick.

Jeff said...


My, you've been a busy fellow all of a sudden.

She had a rock radio station, really? That's a great story.

Ladybird Johnson was a real class act. She was one of the best of the First ladies, to be sure. In addition to the things that you mentioned, I think a lot of people forget or are too young to remember how filthy and cluttered our highways were back in the fifties and early sixties. They were covered in trash, litter, and ubiquitous billboards. It was largely due to her efforts that all of that was eliminated and some consciousness about littering was raised. It wasn't just D.C. that she "beautified".

Now I'll spoil all this with something entirely inappropriate and tasteless under the circumstances, but I just can't help myself. Please forgive me...

Good President, Johnson. Might have gone down as a truly great President, if it wasn't for Viet Nam.

I understand however, that old Lyndon could sometimes be the Banes of White House reporters in that he had a prediliction for waving the presidential "Johnson" around, of which he was apparently quite proud.

Interesting how presidents think. Not too different from a frat house or a corporate boardroom, really.

Poor Ladybird. Equipped with this useless information, I just can't quite think of her in the same way. Cast-iron fortitude indeed.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks (?) for the Johnson links. I couldn't get the second one to work. Will try again later.

Being from Texas, I'm biased - I've always thought Johnson was a fascinating figure. Truly tragic. He's always seemed like King Lear to me. I mean, the guy drank himself to death. How many presidents feel so bad about things that they wipe themselves out like that? Nixon never had that kind of remorse.

Bush II, on the other hand, will probably go down as one of the most pathetic and incompetent presidents we've ever had. (Jimmy Carter will be grateful, I'm sure. Bush makes him look a hell of a lot better.) The amazing thing about Johnson is that he did so much good, despite Vietnam. Bush has nothing to balance out the absolute disaster of Iraq.

Clinton is also interesting as a flawed historic figure, but I don't think he was in Lyndon's league. Lyndon was a lion. Clinton's a hyena.

cowboyangel said...

And, of course, Lyndon didn't get us into Vietnam. That was your friend, John!

Jeff said...

Never mind the second link. The server it's on is too slow. Just a stupid quote from an anecdotes page about LBJ talking about "jumbo".

Jack Kennedy and Viet Nam! Well, I guess we'll never know what would have happened. I've heard Kennedy apologists claim that Kennedy was planning on pulling out of Viet Nam after the 1964 elections. I think there are reasons to give creedence to that. First was his quote, "All wars are stupid." Second was the Bay of Pigs debacle, which convinced him the CIA was untrustworthy and incompetent. Third was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which proved to him that the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were all rash fools.

On the other hand, the
"Best and the Brightest", Robert MacNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy... These were his hand-picked guys.

cowboyangel said...

Sorry, that was a cheap shot on my part. I have a chip on my shoulder about Johnson and Vietnam because he always gets blamed for it - and he definitely deserves much of the blame.

I was particularly ticked off this past week because I heard someone say Kennedy didn't want to invade Vietnam, it was Johnson's idea. I couldn't believe it. Like JFK ever came close to being influenced by Lyndon Johnson. I remember in the Halberstam book there was a crucial high-level meeting and they realized halfway through that they had forgotten to invite LBJ. He was totally on the outside of the Kennedy inner cirlce. Someone was mistaking Cheney's power over Bush for Johnson and Kennedy. I don't think that was the case.

However you slice it, Vietnam wasn't one of our best moments as a nation.