Lady Bird Johnson has a unique place in American history. We mostly know her as a First Lady, but also successful in business and she carved out her own legacy, apart from her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Her given name was Claudia, but most everyone knew her as Lady Bird, the wife of LBJ. “I wish I had been Claudia all my life,” she wrote in her diary, as she transitioned from public to semi-private life.
She lived in a man’s world, respecting traditions, especially Southern traditions, but pushed the boundaries by being herself and having a husband that respected how she made their lives better.
Lady Bird was keenly aware of the history of First Ladies. How would you like to follow Jackie Kennedy? The widow Jackie Kennedy. Her interests were different than Jackie’s, more in tune with Eleanor Roosevelt, but her manor was less Eleanor and more Jackie. Lady Bird knew she couldn’t compete with Camelot’s Jackie, so she didn’t. Lady Bird was practical and she was a tremendous strategist.
In a new book: Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, by Julia Sweig, one learns much about the thoughtful, smart and determined woman who stood behind her man, but actually stood beside him.
She campaigned for conservation of our national resources including parks, forests and coastlines. She started with beautifying highways and public areas in the nation’s capital, but quickly moved on to designing spaces that could enrich people’s lives and land use issues that could support historic neighborhoods instead of bulldozing for a maze of elevated highways.
As the crush of Vietnam was consuming LBJ, Sweig recounts the Lady Bird upped her game, enlarged her public profile by taking her environmental and societal campaign to the streets.
The District of Columbia was often the beneficiary of her efforts. She engaged residents of the city in activities and worked the fiscal side to beautify the poorer areas of the city, understanding how a positive feeling about environment came give pride and inclusion to those who gave disenfranchisement. LBJ was also working at legislation to give the city more self rule and local efforts at managing their affairs.
DC was not much different from other cities of the 1960s, white flight to suburbs had left inner cities fractured financially, while the power of urban renewal changed the urban core into a ghost town and large public housing complexes only served to increase the feeling of isolation and increasing crime. Transportation projects aimed at moving people through cities uprooted and destroyed ethnic neighborhoods. This was the backdrop for Lady Bird’s increasing campaign to bring hope and pride to America, but in particular, where she felt the greatest need.
In the mid-1960s, the Watts riot and the building racial tensions across the country were difficult to ignore. Lady Bird’s beautification campaign was deeper than flowers and litter. This was a First Lady that cross-crossed the country giving speeches and working on behalf of her husband’s Great Society agenda. She hired a train and whistle-stopped across the country to engage in plain talk. If LBJ delivered the Southern charisma and arm-twisting, she was the common sense and business acumen of their partnership. While he build the political career and engaged in back room deals, she delivered the sweat and shrewd management that built their business portfolio in Texas. And people liked her unpretentious nature.
According to Sweig, Lady Bird literally worked the phones along side LBJ, he sometimes handed her the phone to close the deal. Also according to Sweig, it was Lady Bird that convinced him to run for President in 1964, when he seriously thought about getting out of Washington, and even suggested an exit strategy for 1968, which he later used. She was shroud and perceptive, something he may have figured out on their first date. They married only a few months later.
Sweig’s book takes you inside the Johnson’s marriage, but only so far. What you quickly realize is that their marriage was more of a partnership. He was definitely first in her life, and even with his dalliances, they endured. The book is really about her, but his political career was her life too. While he might have strayed on occasion, he depended on her counsel and straight talk. He would never have been President without her. While he was building the Great Society and ramping up the war in Vietnam, America was changing, and she realized it more than him, although by the time they left the White House, America was already becoming a mystery to them.
Vietnam and the Great Society were the centerpieces of Johnson’s Presidential legacy. Lady Bird did not understand the growing backlash against Vietnam and particularly the unrest and changing nature of America’s youth. She did recognize that she lived in a fishbowl and her view and understanding of events was narrow and very isolated.
Lady Bird’s contribution to the Great Society is deeper than many people realize. To think that the Great Society was just “welfare programs” would be to miss the larger view. Her efforts on poverty and race were sometimes criticized as the liberal White woman wanting to do for people of color what they cannot do for themselves. This was unavoidable. She supported Head Start, Job Corps and other programs that offered a hand, more than a handout.
Lady Bird will forever be associated with highway beautification and wildflowers. She was deeply concerned about America’s parks and natural landscape. Lady Bird and Interior Secretary Udall logged many miles over the years in pursuit of protecting the country’s natural resources.
It was not until Richard Nixon was in the White House that the Clean Water Act and the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency were passed, but recognized Lady Bird’s role in making those happen.
Lady Bird somewhat quietly helped to redefine the role of women. Later, she would campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. She remained active after leaving the White House, serving as a regent for the University of Texas and on the Board of the National Geographic Society. Her passion was the LBJ Library and Museum, and of course the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
There was a lot we failed to see about Claudia Alta Taylor.