Johnson, Claudia Alta Taylor ("Lady Bird")

views updated

JOHNSON, Claudia Alta Taylor ("Lady Bird")

(b. 22 December 1912 in Karnack, Texas), wife of president Lyndon B. Johnson, environmental activist and businesswoman who is best remembered for her campaign to help beautify the United States while serving as first lady.

Johnson was the third child and only daughter of Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a merchant landowner, and Minnie Lee Pattilo, a homemaker. A petite, dark-haired woman with a prominent, slightly hooked nose, Johnson attended Marshall High School in Marshall, Texas, graduating at the age of fifteen. She completed two years at Saint Mary's Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas before enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin, where she obtained a B.A. degree in education in 1933, and a B.J. degree in journalism in 1934. Her career plans were derailed, however, when she went on a date with Lyndon Baines Johnson in August 1934. A case of "love at first sight," Lyndon Johnson proposed immediately, and on 17 November they were on a road trip when they stopped in San Antonio and decided to get married on the spur of the moment.

Although she had expressed her disdain for her husband's political aspirations, Johnson quickly proved to be a loyal and dedicated spouse. In 1937, with money inherited from her mother, she bankrolled Lyndon Johnson's run for U.S. Congress. During 1941 and 1942, while her husband was serving in the U.S. Navy, she oversaw the day-to-day operations of his congressional office. The following year she proved her mettle as a businesswoman, buying a struggling Austin, Texas, radio station, KTBC, and turning it into the cornerstone of a media empire that was worth more than $3 million by 1960. She also found time to raise two daughters.

In 1960, a pivotal year in U.S. politics, Lyndon Johnson ran for president. As she had in all his previous campaigns, Johnson served as both critic and adviser, and she founded an organization of women to boost his candidacy. Although John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination, he selected Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, a position Johnson initially attempted to dissuade her spouse from accepting. However, once he had accepted the offer she went into her public mode, fully supporting her husband's ambitions. Indeed, thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy's pregnancy, which kept her confined to Massachusetts, Johnson became the most visible female in the Democratic Party. Although there was a marked contrast between the two women in the eyes of the American public—Jacqueline Kennedy was the epitome of youth and glamour, while Johnson was the down-to-earth, efficient, yet accessible next-door neighbor—they developed a cordial working relationship.

Once on the campaign trail, Johnson proved tireless. With female members of the Kennedy family, she hosted six Texas tea parties in an attempt to assuage the concerns over Kennedy's Catholicism. With her husband, Johnson made sixteen appearances in eleven states and over 150 solo campaign stops. On 4 November, just days before the election, the Johnsons were involved in what some felt was the turning point for the Kennedy/Johnson ticket in Texas. On their way to a speech in Dallas, the Johnsons were accosted by a group of some 400 Republican women (dubbed "the mink coat mob"). During the melee, Johnson was spat upon and struck with a sign. Newspaper coverage of the incident, complete with photographs, shifted public support, and the Democrats narrowly carried Texas in the national election.

As the wife of the vice president, Johnson set up a series of informal luncheons with congressional wives and willingly participated in any ceremonial duties that Jacqueline Kennedy opted not to do. Johnson earned significant praise for her dedication to public service.

Following Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963, Johnson immediately concentrated on selling their Washington, D.C., home, putting her media empire into a blind trust, and seeking advice on how best to serve as first lady. Instead of her predecessor's press conferences, she instituted a series of informal luncheons spotlighting "Women Doers," which allowed her and her staff some control over the agenda. Johnson also began to keep a formal daily record, a small portion of which was published in 1970 as A White House Diary.

In early 1964 Johnson began to develop her unique style as first lady, when she made a trip to the coalfield regions of Pennsylvania to publicize her husband's War on Poverty. Over the course of the next few years, she made numerous visits around the United States as an ambassador for her husband's Great Society programs. Additionally, she continued the efforts spearheaded by Jacqueline Kennedy to restore and preserve the White House, and she made the initial forays into the areas that would later come to define her tenure: public beautification programs and environmental conservation. Working closely with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Johnson toured national parks and Native American reservations and was a primary consultant with the president on the Task Force on Natural Beauty.

During Lyndon Johnson's 1964 bid for reelection, Mrs. Johnson made a 1,700-mile train trip through the American South. The "Lady Bird Special" was a throwback to old-fashioned politicking. At each whistle stop, the first lady made a speech tailored to the local community. Despite the occasional hecklers, whom she handled with aplomb and tact, the trip was considered a triumph for the campaign and for Johnson personally. She had fully emerged as a public figure.

After the 1964 election, Johnson promoted the National Head Start Program for preschool children, raising awareness of the program and lobbying for funding for its expansion. The first lady also organized committees to oversee the planting of trees and flowers throughout the Washington, D.C., area, including more than 2 million daffodil bulbs and thousands of dollars worth of dogwoods, cherry trees, and evergreens. Johnson was the founder of the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital in 1965. Under the oversight of this committee, statues of prominent figures that dotted the city were cleaned and repaired. Local parks were restored, and playgrounds and public school grounds were landscaped and improved. Under her auspices, "Project Pride" was launched, an initiative that encouraged inner city residents to clean up litter and make home repairs. On a wider scale, Johnson was involved, as a trustee of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, in the negotiations with Joseph Hirschorn to bequeath his extensive art collection to the nation's capital. She also worked closely with Nathaniel Owings, who revitalized the Mall and the area around Pennsylvania Avenue.

The first lady's efforts to beautify the United States were not limited to Washington, D.C. She expressed concern over litter and the unsightly junkyards and billboards that proliferated along the roadways. Behind the scenes she lobbied for the passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, a tribute to her tenacity and a first step in the battle to improve the roadsides of the United States. She served as an active spokesperson for this cause into the 1970s and 1980s.

Although the Johnsons were beset by Vietnam War protesters, Johnson did her best to concentrate on the good she was achieving on the home front. At a 1968 Women Doers lunch, she was confronted by singer-actress Eartha Kitt, who spoke out in support of the counterculture and against the war in Vietnam. Although Johnson received a sympathetic portrayal in the press, Kitt's outburst was indicative of the growing public sentiment against the military escalation in Vietnam. When Lyndon Johnson barely won the New Hampshire primary, and Robert F. Kennedy declared his candidacy for president, Lyndon Johnson chose not to seek another term. The Johnsons began to spend more time at their ranch in Texas, and on her final day in the White House, Johnson told her husband she had no regrets and looked forward to going home and spending the next twenty years with him.

That was not what fate had in store, however; Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973. Until she was beset with health problems in the 1990s, Johnson continued to guard her husband's legacy and remained active in conservation and environmental affairs. She helped raise money to rebuild a hike and bike trail in Austin, Texas, and in 1983 opened the Wildlife Research Center near Austin. She also served on the national committee of the Helen Keller World Crusade for the Blind. Johnson suffered a mild stroke on 3 May 2002, which has left her unable to speak. On 6 August 2002 the United States National Arboretum awarded Johnson its inaugural gold medal of excellence for sustained contributions to national landscaping and beautification.

Material documenting Johnson's role as first lady from 1963 to 1969 is at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. Johnson's own thoughts about her time as first lady are in her book, A White House Diary (1970). Biographical information about Mrs. Johnson is in Bill Adler, The Common Sense Wisdom of Three First Ladies (1966); Gordon L. Hall, Lady Bird and Her Daughters (1967); Jan Jarboe Russell, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson (1999); and Kati Marton, Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History (2001). Lewis Gould examines Johnson's environmental work in two books, Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment (1988) and Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady (1999). Books about the Lyndon B. Johnson administration with information about Johnson include Vaughn Davis Burnet, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1983); and Robert A. Divine, ed., The Johnson Years: Volume Two: Vietnam, the Environment and Science (1987). A three-volume set, Robert A. Caro, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1983); Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1990); and Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2001), is also informative. Articles about Johnson include "Reflections on Life in a Fishbowl," U.S. News & World Report (28 Sept. 1987); "Lady Bird Looks Back," Texas Monthly (1 Dec. 1994); "Lady Bird's Legacy," Architecture (1 July 1995); "Hits and Mrs.," Texas Monthly (1 Sept. 1999); and "Rare Bird," People Weekly (1 Jan. 2000).

Ted Murphy

About this article

Johnson, Claudia Alta Taylor ("Lady Bird")

Updated About content Print Article