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Johnson, Lady Bird (1912—)

Johnson, Lady Bird (1912—)

American first lady from 1963 to 1969, known for her national conservation and beautification campaign. Name variations: Claudia Alta Johnson. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas, on December 12, 1912; one of three children and only daughter of Thomas Jefferson Taylor (a merchant and politician) and Minnie Lee (Patillo) Taylor; attended St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls, Dallas, Texas; University of Texas, B.A. in liberal arts (1933), B.A. in journalism (1934); married Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973, president of the U.S., 1963–1968), on November 17, 1934, in San Antonio, Texas; children: Lynda Bird Johnson Robb (b. 1944); Luci Baines Johnson Nugent Turpin (b. 1947).

Lady Bird Johnson entered the White House in the aftermath of a national tragedy—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—and had to replace one of the most admired and emulated women of the modern era, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. But Johnson held her own and emerged as a highly respected first lady, compared favorably with Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams . Throughout the turbulent period of the Vietnam War and racial unrest on the home front, Johnson was both helpmate and foil for her high-spirited and controversial husband. She worked tirelessly in support of the President's War on Poverty, especially in promotion of the Head Start program for underprivileged preschoolers. She is remembered primarily, however, for her own zeal to protect the natural resources of the country, which she accomplished through an ambitious national conservation and beautification campaign. Even when slowed by arthritis and the failing eyesight of advancing age, she still stubbornly advocates the cleaning of the countryside.

Christened Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912, then nicknamed by the family nurse who thought she was "as purty as a Lady Bird," Johnson grew up in an antebellum brick mansion in the remote town of Karnack, Texas, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her mother died when she was five, leaving her in the care of her maternal Aunt Effie, who traveled from Alabama to help raise her. With her much older brothers away at school most of the time, Johnson endured a lonely childhood and grew into an extremely shy teenager. Bright and well read, however, she graduated third in her high school class and spent two years at St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls, a junior college in Dallas, before entering the University of Texas in Austin. There, she blossomed, receiving her B.A. in 1933, and staying on to receive a second degree in journalism the following year. Hoping for an adventuresome career as a newspaper reporter, she was instead swept off her feet by Lyndon Johnson, whom she met at the office of a mutual friend. Lyndon, then executive secretary to U.S. Representative Richard M. Kleberg of Texas and often described as a character out of a western movie, proposed the next day. Claiming she had "a moth-and-the-flame" feeling about him, Johnson was only able to hold him at bay for two months. After the wedding, her father was said to have remarked, "Some of the best deals are made in a hurry."

The Johnsons began married life in a small one-bedroom apartment in Washington, where Lyndon continued as a congressional secretary. In 1935, upon his appointment as a state administrator of the National Youth Administration, they moved to Austin, where, in 1937, he ran successfully for a congressional seat. The campaign was financed by Johnson, who borrowed $10,000 against her inheritance from her well-to-do mother. During World War II, while Lyndon served with the navy, Johnson managed his Congressional office in Washington. The experience instilled new confidence in her, and, in 1943, she purchased a small debt-ridden radio station, KTBC, in Austin. Within six months, under her full-time management, the station began to show a profit. Twenty years later, it had grown to a multimillion-dollar radio and television enterprise, the Texas Broadcasting Corporation.

Ten years into her marriage, after suffering several miscarriages (one of which almost killed her), Johnson gave birth to her daughter Lynda Bird Johnson in 1944; Luci Baines Johnson was born in 1947. When Lyndon became a candidate for the Senate in 1948, Lady Bird became an integral part of his campaign, recruiting, handling mail, and supervising campaign workers. Although he won by a margin of only 87 votes, he eventually became one of the most powerful men in the history of the Senate. Lady Bird became a popular Washington hostess, celebrated for her Southern charm and self-effacing wit. When Lyndon suffered a serious heart attack in 1955, she

managed his Washington office, keeping her husband informed of events in the capital and the nation. When he became a vice-presidential candidate in 1960, she assumed greater responsibilities in the campaign, traveling over 35,000 miles and prompting Edward Kennedy to proclaim that it was Lady Bird and not Lyndon that carried Texas in the election. As the wife of the vice president, Johnson became an ambassador of good will, making trips to over 30 nations. The couple entertained foreign dignitaries in a luxurious French château in Washington ("The Elms") and at the rambling LBJ ranch near Johnson City, which they bought in 1951.

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, made Johnson's transition to first lady a painful and sorrowful affair. She and Lyndon were in the presidential caravan as it traveled through Dallas the day Kennedy was shot. Hours later, she stood by her husband's side in the cabin of Air Force One, where he was sworn into office as president. Her first days in the White House were marked by a somber surreal feeling, followed by the inevitable comparisons to her predecessor. During the successful 1964 campaign, she undertook a whistle-stop tour of the South aboard "The Lady Bird Special," which covered over 1,600 miles and made 47 stops. By 1965, comfortable as first lady in her own right, she had begun to impress her friendly Texas style on official events, which often took the form of informal barbecues. Social occasions during Johnson's tenure included White House wedding receptions for both of her daughters.

Johnson's chief project—conservation—got under way with the formation of The First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and the White House Conference on Natural Beauty. Her Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was dubbed the "Lady Bird Act" and, though generally well-received, was not without its detractors. Her efforts to outlaw billboards along the highways met with some resistance from commercial-interest groups and prompted a cartoon by Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times, depicting a road heavily lined with signs, one of which read "Impeach Lady Bird."

As an advocate of the Discover America program, Johnson undertook what came to be known as "Lady Bird Safaris," one of which was a four-day trip in a raft down the Saddle River. The first lady's press secretary Liz Carpenter , who accompanied her on many of her grueling cross-country treks, described her as having "a touch of velvet, with the stamina of steel." This duality often went unseen by biographers. Jan Jarboe Russell 's portrayal of Johnson in Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson is remarkably different from the somewhat "pitiable" woman portrayed in Robert Caro's multivolume series on Lyndon Johnson.

By 1968, reaction to the Vietnam War and racial tension at home precluded a run for a second term and had left Lyndon a broken man. In 1969, the couple returned to their Texas ranch, where Johnson continued her beautification and conservation efforts. After Lyndon's death in 1973, she worked on the development of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin. In 1976, she was part of the Salute to America effort and also campaigned for her sonin-law Chuck Robb in his Senate race against Oliver North. (For one fund-raising dinner, she reputedly delivered no less than eight members of her husband's former Cabinet.) She was also appointed to the University of Texas Board of Regents, which she considered her most important accomplishment on her own.

In 1988, Johnson moved to Austin but continued to maintain the LBJ ranch, which in 1972 was deeded, along with 200 acres of ranchland, to the National Park Service, with the provision that the Johnsons be allowed to live there until their death. Her life is rich with longtime friends and grandchildren. In the 1990s, Johnson participated in the dedication of the National Wild-flower Research Center, 10 miles outside Austin, the culmination of a dream that began in 1982 with her donation of 60 acres of land and $125,000 to commemorate her 70th birthday. When questioned about her legacy of beauty, she is apt to shrug it off, calling it simply rent for her space in the world.


Johnson, Marilyn. "In the Bloom of Life," in Life. Vol. 19, Issue 4. April 1995, pp. 48–59.

Melick, Arden Davis. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1964.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

suggested reading:

Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Russell, Jan Jarboe. Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson. NY: Scribner, 1999.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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