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Bird on a Wire

In 1964, fresh from a bruising battle over President Lyndon Johnson's recently signed Civil Rights Act, Lady Bird Johnson got on a train to stump for her husband. Alone. It was the first time a first lady had ever attempted a solo campaign to support her husband's bid for office. But the "Lady Bird Special," as her whistle stop tour was called, was no White House Easter Egg Roll photo opportunity, nor perfectly orchestrated reading lesson, nor carefully choreographed pep rally. Lady Bird insisted on taking her message to her roots--the roiling angry Southern states. She wanted to go where "the pavement runs out and the city people don't often go." She wanted to meet the poor, the country people, the cynical, the angry; she wanted to show them the South wasn't just a "whipping boy" for the Democratic Party--that she too was the South. It was a message: The White House hadn't forgotten these states even if her husband--and, by extension, herself--was forcing that same South to trade in a racist past and present for a more equitable future. She crossed eight states, speaking to a half-million people, traveling only by train, Harry Truman style. And she organized it all without using her husband's advance men, braving bomb threats and demonstrators all the way. In Columbia, South Carolina, when the roar of racist hecklers began to drown out her message, Lady Bird broke from her notes, raised an appropriately white-gloved hand and said "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine. Thank you." And she got their attention.

By all rights the tenure of Lady Bird Johnson at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should have been a disaster. It not only began with tragedy--the assassination of John F. Kennedy--it picked up the reigns from a woman considered the most chic, the most cosmopolitan, and the most beautiful in the country. Lady Bird wrote in her diary that when Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis it was like a ghost had finally stopped following her down the hallways of the East Wing. But despite that private burden, Lady Bird never tried to mold herself after the socialite princess of Camelot. Nor did Lady Bird fall back into the docile, apolitical background haunted by Jackie's immediate predecessors, Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman. She was far more public than the three who came before her, and as much of an activist as Eleanor Roosevelt herself, the ne plus ultra of activist presidential spouses. "She went one step further than her heroine and role model Eleanor Roosevelt by being more intimately involved in the president's day to day life and political career," Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, e-mailed me this morning. "If Eleanor Roosevelt showed just how influential a first lady could be in advancing her own concerns, Lady Bird Johnson demonstrated just how influential a first lady could be in shaping and selling the president's agenda."

Lady Bird, who died yesterday at the age of 94, did it all at a moment where to be anything less than a trail blazer would have been a liability--feminism was just taking root--but anything more individualist could have backfired--because traditionalist strongholds were digging in. She took the impossible job of first lady and made it her own, recognizing immediately that the pulpit and media attention her elevated status afforded her was unique. She pushed through legislation, raised awareness on social and environmental issues, and promoted her husband's presidency. And she did it all in a Southern accent so down-home, yet so genteel, and so gentle, she never lost a battle, and rarely made an enemy.

Lady Bird hardly rested in the office. She was shocked by the blight that was rotting the capital city--saw it, rightly, as a stain on the nation--and set about to eradicate it one street at a time, like an intuitive, personal version of the "Broken Windows" theory, predating that idea by nearly two decades. In 1964 Bird launched the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital which began by planting flowers and trees from Lafayette Park to housing projects across the city and evolved into a neighborhood by neighborhood clean-up campaign. The idea quickly went national. Bird lobbied hard to change the landscape of the country, advocating swapping billboards and trash for wildflowers along the highways, and she drew attention to national parks and historic sites from Virginia to California, usually dragging the media in tow. While some derisively sniggered that her "beautification" campaigns were cosmetic, in fact it rooted the modern environmental movement in both public consciousness and, more importantly, legislation at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. She threw her support behind the Wilderness Act of 1964, the launch of the Land, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, and the expansion of the national park system. She was concerned with pollution and environmental impact, and smartly saw a connection between the country's reckless runaway industrialization and its poverty and urban blight--in her mind, the beautification campaign was a logical partner to LBJ's Great Society. And while her husband was a notorious philanderer who bossed her around in public, he was also slavishly devoted to her and her causes, pushing Congress to pass the legislation she wanted. The $320 million Highway Beautification Bill of 1965 is widely attributed as her work.

It wasn't just one-way. Behind the scenes Lady Bird was an advisor. At the LBJ library her notes are scribbled across LBJ's speeches. Her handwritten comments underscore how influential she was, both in LBJ's decision to run in 1964 and his 1968 speech stepping away from the helm of the country. "She pushed him to invoke themes of self-sacrifice and patriotism, to work in references to World War II, and to blame Congress squarely for failing to fund the Vietnam war properly," explains Troy. "This intervention typified 'Bird's' great influence and her role in protecting Lyndon and trying to position him on the grand historical stage."

Yet Lady Bird's dedication to the country wasn't just filler for her time on Pennsylvania Avenue, nor simply a prop for her husband, who died just a few years after the couple returned to Texas. Lady Bird didn't drop her work when she left office. In fact she may have had more impact in her nearly 40 years as an environmentalist once she returned home. The girlishly named Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas was established in 1982, and it continues to preserve rare and endangered plant species and conduct ecological research.

It shouldn't really be a surprise that her work ethic was the real thing. Lady Bird was a business woman who parlayed a $17,000 inheritance into a tidy media fortune and who maintained a fierce pride in her Southern identity--a combination that, in and of itself, forced admirers to recognize a multi-dimensionality about her home state of Texas, a liberal yet complicated positioning that we rarely see in our divided present. Would Lady Bird survive in today's White House? It would be nice to think she would. Her brand of presidential-bedroom behind-the-scenes diplomacy and her firm public presence, combined with a surety in who she was in the world, would be a welcome change from the distinctly uncomfortable positions first ladies have held since her tenure. She subtly challenged the idea of what we want from political spouses, maintaining a public identity true to her private self. And yet in an era when to appear out of line with her partner, the first lady's office has progressively become more difficult to navigate. The woman born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912 and nicknamed "Lady Bird" by a nursemaid before she could do much about it might just have been the shrewdest user of the impossible office of the first lady this country has ever had.

By Sarah Wildman