AUSTIN, Texas – Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, passed away late in the afternoon of July 11th. She died of natural causes at her Austin home, surrounded by family and friends.
Her passing marks the symbolic close of “Camelot,” the era defined by two distinct and dynamic political couples in the White House: John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. As fate decreed it, Lady Bird would outlive them all — until a long illness finally claimed her at the age of 94.
Johnson, who suffered a stroke in 2002 that affected her ability to speak, returned home late last month after a week at Seton Medical Center, where she’d been admitted for a low-grade fever.
Even after the stroke, Johnson still managed to make occasional public appearances and get outdoors to enjoy her beloved wildflowers. But she was unable to speak more than a few short phrases, and more recently did not speak at all. She communicated her thoughts and needs by writing.
Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, four years after the Johnsons left the White House.
The daughter of a Texas rancher, she spent 34 years in Washington, as the wife of a congressional secretary, U.S. representative, senator, vice president and president. The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. The couple returned to Texas after the presidency, and Lady Bird Johnson lived for more than 30 years in and near Austin.
Lady Bird was “Green” before “Green” was Cool
As first lady, she was perhaps best known as the determined environmentalist who wanted roadside billboards and junkyards replaced with trees and wildflowers. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to beautify Washington. The $320 million Highway Beautification Bill, passed in 1965, was known as “The Lady Bird Bill,” and she made speeches and lobbied Congress to win its passage.
“Every American owes her a debt of gratitude because it was her devotion to the environment that brought us the Beautification Act of 1965 and the scenic roadside development and environmental clean-up efforts that followed … ,” former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton said in a statement. The Clintons also praised her for supporting her husband’s “fights for civil rights and against poverty.”
Lady Bird Johnson once turned down a class valedictorian’s medal because of her fear of public speaking, but she joined in every one of her husband’s campaigns. She was soft-spoken but rarely lost her composure, despite heckling and grueling campaign schedules. She once appeared for 47 speeches in four days.
“How Lady Bird can do all the things she does without ever stubbing her toe, I’ll just never know, because I sure stub mine sometimes,” her husband once said.
Lady Bird Johnson said her husband “bullied, shoved, pushed and loved me into being more outgoing, more of an achiever. I gave him comfort, tenderness and some judgment – at least I think I did.”
“Lady Bird won Texas for us in 1960” – Robert F. Kennedy
When Johnson challenged Sen. John F. Kennedy unsuccessfully in 1960 for the Democratic presidential nomination, his wife was his chief supporter, although she confessed privately she would rather be home in Texas.
His nomination as vice president on Kennedy’s ticket drew her deep into a national campaign. She stumped through 11 Southern states, mostly alone, making speeches at whistle stops in her soft drawl. In his 1965 memoir, “Kennedy,” JFK special counsel Theodore Sorensen recalled her “remarkable campaign talents” in the 1960 campaign.
Robert Kennedy took it a step further, saying that “Lady Bird won Texas for us in 1960.”
She was with her husband in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, and was at his side as he took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One.
In her book “A White House Diary,” she recalled seeing Jacqueline Kennedy with her husband’s blood still on her dress and leg. “Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights – that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood,” she wrote.
Suddenly, the unpretentious woman from Texas found herself first lady of the United States, splitting time between the White House and the Johnson family’s 13-room stone and frame house on the LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City west of Austin.
Her White House years also were filled with the turbulence of the Vietnam War era.
The first lady often would speak her fears and hopes into a tape recorder, and some of the transcripts were included in the 2001 book “Reaching for Glory, Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965,” edited by historian Michael Beschloss.
“How much can they tear us down?” she wondered in 1965 as criticism of the Vietnam War worsened. “And what effect might it have on the way we appear in history?”
She quoted her husband as saying: “I can’t get out. And I can’t finish it with what I have got. And I don’t know what the hell to do.”
Lady Bird’s Later Years
After she and her husband left Washington, Lady Bird Johnson worked on “A White House Diary,” published in 1970. She also served a six-year term starting in 1971 as a University of Texas regent.
In December 1972, the Johnsons gave the LBJ Ranch house and surrounding property to the United States as a National Historic Site, retaining a life estate for themselves. The property is to transfer to the federal park service after her death.
The family’s privately held broadcasting company, KLBJ Radio in Austin – later overseen by Luci Baines Johnson – was sold in March 2003 to Emmis Communications of Indianapolis. Lady Bird Johnson had been a director of the radio company in her later years and even attended most board meetings before her 2002 stroke.
On her 70th birthday, in 1982, she and Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin, later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The research and education center is dedicated to the preservation and use of wildflowers and native plants.
“I’m optimistic that the world of native plants will not only survive, but will thrive for environmental and economic reasons, and for reasons of the heart. Beauty in nature nourishes us and brings joy to the human spirit,” Lady Bird Johnson wrote.
In addition to her two daughters, survivors include seven grandchildren, a step-grandchild, and several great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Johnson will lie in repose at the LBJ Library and Museum from 1:15 p.m. Friday until 11 a.m. Saturday. A private funeral service will be held Saturday afternoon and a ceremonial cortege will carry Mrs. Johnson to Stonewall for burial in the Johnson family cemetery.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend the funeral service at Riverbend Centre Saturday, along with former first lady Barbara Bush and current first lady Laura Bush. President Bush has not yet confirmed his invitation.
President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline will represent the Kennedy family at Lady Bird Johnson’s funeral. At press time, it is still unclear if Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will be in attendance.
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