Some Final Thoughts on Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson Funeral Service, Austin, TX, June 14, 2007.

PHOTO CAPTION: Funeral service for Lady Bird Johnson, Austin, TX, July 14, 2007.(L to R) Former first ladies Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter,  former President Jimmy Carter, first lady Laura Bush (who seems to have something pesky in her eye), former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. JFK’s daughter Caroline can be seen in the second row, seated next to former first lady Barbara Bush.

(* Full Disclosure: I worked for the Johnson family during the 1990s and had always tremendous admiration for Lady Bird. Therefore, my account below should not by any means be considered entirely unbiased or objective.)

Lady Bird Has Flown

Here in Austin, Texas, we are slowly emerging from a long weekend of funeral services and public gatherings in honor of the late Lady Bird Johnson, who passed away last week at the age of 94.

To most Americans, she will be remembered as the former first lady and wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a woman who brought remarkable calm to both her husband and the nation during the turbulent 1960s. Perhaps she will be best remembered for her tireless efforts to protect and beautify our natural environment, as a pioneer of the modern-day “green” movement.

It wasn’t easy being green in the `60s. At the height of the urban renewal era, our inner cities were in a state of rapid decay. Our air was thick with pollution from factories and gas-guzzling Oldsmobiles, our highways littered with trash. So many of Lady Bird’s efforts were directed not only at making America a more beautiful place, but in the words of her granddaughter Catherine Lewis Robb, at the “beautification of the human spirit.”

While her husband was dropping bombs on Vietnam, Lady Bird was out planting flowers all across the country. This in itself was a political statement, albeit a subtle one. In a decade marked by so much civil unrest and senseless violence, those who would come to be known as the “flower power” generation quite often regarded Lady Bird’s efforts as a sign of silent solidarity to the cause of peace.

Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird’s longtime press secretary, believed the former first lady “was the crucial catalyst… she led a rebellion against ugliness.” Carpenter wrote that Lady Bird’s efforts “lifted the stature” of environmentalists, writing, “she put the environment on the agenda of every person in public life — where it remains.”

On Earth As It Is In Austin

Austinites will always hold a special place in our hearts for Lady Bird Johnson. In a city devoted to conservation and living in harmony with nature, she was a kind of Mother Earth to us, the true “first lady of Austin”.

Ask almost anyone who has lived here any length of years and chances are they have a personal “Lady Bird story” or two to tell. This past weekend, we gathered in various spots around the city, places Claudia gave us — the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail (which she spearheaded an effort to beautify in the 1970s), her Wildflower Research Center, the LBJ Library and Museum — to share our memories, pay our respects, and say our final farewells to a woman who did so much for the city she loved.

This citywide period of mourning lasted three full days, prompting an outpouring of support from locals the likes of which we haven’t seen since the passing of LBJ 34 years ago.

Austinites turned out in record numbers Sunday morning, lining the streets to watch, wave and throw flowers as the ceremonial cortege carrying Mrs. Johnson to her final resting place passed slowly by. With lots of laughter and very few tears, it was just exactly the kind of farewell party we think Lady Bird would have wanted in her adopted hometown.

Friends, Family, Former Leaders Gather to Say Goodbye

It all started with a private family Eucharist at the Wildflower Center on Friday, followed by a larger funeral service Saturday afternoon attended by nearly 1,500 of Lady Bird’s friends, family, and dignitaries from around the world. Among them were former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, former First Ladies Rosalyn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan, as well as Barbara and Laura Bush (whose husbands were noteably absent from the proceedings).

Former President Ford’s daughter Susan was in attendance, as were JFK’s daughter Caroline and Maria Shriver, a longtime personal friend of LBJ’s daughters Luci and Lynda. Members of the Robert F. Kennedy family did not attend the service, but considering the relationship between RFK and LBJ was never a friendly one, this came as no great surprise.

One of the most memorable moments came during a speech by former LBJ White House aide Tom Johnson. When he said that Lady Bird’s “magic” had touched so many souls, a heavy downpour began — out of a clear blue sky — thundering so loudly on the roof that the audience could barely hear his words. In their remarks, longtime family friends Bill Moyers and Rev. Patsy Chaney also seemed to interpret the rain as a sign that Lady Bird’s spirit was present and apparently, pleased.

As if on cue, the rain stopped just as the service was ending. The hot Texas sun re-emerged, banishing those dark storm clouds for the remainder of the weekend.

Moments of Quiet Reflection

More than 12,000 people passed by Lady Bird’s casket while she lay in repose for 22 hours at the LBJ Library, and I was one of them.

I went by early Saturday morning, a time when the museum seemed peaceful, even serene, affording visitors more private space for quiet contemplation. The line was short at that time of day. No one felt rushed passing by the casket. Many stopped to bow their heads in prayer, sometimes for several minutes, before moving on.

Lady Bird Johnson Lies In Repose at the LBJ Library

PHOTO CAPTION: Former LBJ press secretary Liz Carpenter (left, in wheelchair) joins members of the Johnson family at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, where Lady Bird lay in repose for 22 hours, allowing the public a final chance to say goodbye.

I placed a single rose for Lady Bird in a basket that was already overflowing with Texas wildflowers brought by her many admirers. Particularly moving was a crayon drawing of colorful flowers that had been placed inside the basket by a small child.

Surveying the assembled crowd, I took notice of how many young children were there, and while few, if any of them ever had a chance to meet Lady Bird Johnson, they seemed to understand and respect her importance somehow.

As they walked hand-in-hand with their parents, I observed the great curiosity and interest on the children’s faces while they listened to their grandparents tell first-hand stories of the LBJ years, and of the Lady Bird they knew and remembered so well. It made me feel profoundly grateful to hear members of this swiftly-disappearing generation passing oral histories to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in essence saying:

“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Historical Perspective

Her passing of Lady Bird Johnson marks the symbolic close of  “Camelot,” an era presided over by four powerful personalities embodied in two charismatic first couples: President John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson.

She outlived them all by many years. Even in advanced age and poor health, Lady Bird never seemed to tire of relating her stories of what those years in the White House were really like.

There are some who say that “Camelot” ended on that day in November 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. Or when Bobby was killed five years later. At the time of Lyndon Johnson’s death in 1973, the Vietnam war was still raging on. With so much bitterness in the air over the mess in Southeast Asia, it was indeed difficult then for the country to unite and remember him fondly, even at his funeral.

Although Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis lived until 1994, she declined to discuss the subject at any length in interviews. While the public certainly understood and respected her reasons, Jackie’s silence did frustrate some Kennedy scholars who had hoped to clarify the historical record before she passed away.

Only with the hindsight of history can we finally come to see events in their proper perspective. And so it seems somehow fitting that Lady Bird lived on so many years beyond her Camelot contemporaries. Her willingness to share information through numerous candid interviews and the declassification of documents, as well as her sense of fairness and objectivity (she was trained as a journalist during her college years at UT) may well be what history will ultimately thank her for the most.

The End of An Era

Strolling through the LBJ Library and Museum at 7:30 a.m. on the Saturday morning of Lady Bird’s funeral, it is still rather quiet. The only background noise is the ever-constant rhythm of people ascending the main staircase up to where she lay in repose on the second floor. But the exhibits are open, so I begin to browse through the impressive collection of memorabilia documenting LBJ’s long political career.

At the end of a hallway, nestled in a somewhat dark corner next to a page from Johnson’s desk calendar during the Cuban Missle Crisis, one document in particular caught my eye. It was a letter from Jack Kennedy to LBJ inviting Lyndon to join him on the podium to accept their party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention. The date of the letter was July 14, 1960.

Then it hit me: this was when it all began. What we call “Camelot” was born in Los Angeles the moment that LBJ and JFK stepped up to that podium on the last night of the convention as the future President and Vice President of the United States. July 14, 1960.

And this is when it all ends, I thought to myself. Perhaps it was just a coincidence today’s date was July 14, but it was a strange feeling indeed to realize, while standing in the halls of history at that moment, that the era of “Camelot” ended exactly 47 years to the day after it had begun.

* Copyright 2007 by All Rights Reserved.


1 Comment

Filed under austin, environment, jackie kennedy, JFK, John F. Kennedy, lady bird johnson, LBJ, lyndon b. johnson, politics, president kennedy, RFK, robert f. kennedy, texas, the kennedys, Uncategorized

One response to “Some Final Thoughts on Lady Bird Johnson

  1. Joe

    A well-written tribute to a great lady. thanks!

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