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Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady, Dies in Texas


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Lady Bird Johnson died today at the age of 94. She was the wife of Lyndon Johnson, the nation's 36th president. And during the 34 years since his death, she earned renown in her own right as a champion of beautifying the outdoors. She lived in Austin, Texas, where she oversaw the LBJ library and a wildflower research center that was named for her.

NPR's John Burnett has this remembrance.

JOHN BURNETT: Claudia Alta Taylor earned the nickname that would stay with her her entire life when a nursemaid remarked that the infant was, as pretty as a ladybird. Born to a prosperous East Texas family, she married Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a congressional aide, in 1934 after a two-month courtship.

About that first encounter, she said, I knew I've met something remarkable, but I didn't know quite what. In an ABC News special in 1988, she said…

(Soundbite of clip from an ABC News program)

Ms. CLAUDIA TAYLOR JOHNSON (First Lady): In our case, we were better together than we were apart. And I knew that, and I loved my share of my life with him.

BURNETT: In later years, Mrs. Johnson came to be seen as much more than the gracious hostess and shy first lady, but as a vital influence in the career and temperament of Lyndon Johnson. What's more, she was the financial brains of the family. Bankrolling LBJ's first run for office and turning an ailing Austin radio station into a financial success.

The LBJ White House tapes, released in the late '90s, revealed her role as his adviser. In this exchange from 1964, Mrs. Johnson critiques her husband's performance at a televised news conference.

(Soundbite of archived news conference)

Ms. JOHNSON: I think the outstanding things with the close-ups were excellent. When you're going to have a prepared take, you need to have the opportunity to study it a little bit more, and you read it with a little more conviction and interest, and change of pace.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Well, the trouble is that they criticize you for taking so much time. They want to use it all for questions. And if questions don't produce any news, they don't give the news, it gets hell(ph).

BURNETT: Mrs. Johnson's staff director and press secretary was Liz Carpenter.

Ms. LIZ CARPENTER (Former Staff Director and Press Secretary for Lady Bird Johnson): She believed that the president is subjected to either just constant adoration or an acid bath of criticism, and that hers was the level view. That she would tell him the absolute truth, and she did.

BURNETT According to friends, Mrs. Johnson used her kindness and graciousness as a counterweight to her husband's outbursts. For instance, there was the time at the ranch when LBJ blew up at a young Houston radio reporter named Dan Rather. As Rather was walking dejectedly toward the highway, Mrs. Johnson drove up beside him and asked him to come back and have some punch, explaining, that's just the way Lyndon sometimes is.

Other times, Lady Bird's disapproval could stop LBJ in his tracks, according to family friend and Austin radio personality, Cactus Pryor.

Mr. CACTUS PRYOR (Austin Radio Personality): I always thought that perhaps the most important words spoken in the Johnson White House was Lady Bird saying, now, Lyndon - now, Lyndon.

BURNETT: Throughout their marriage, she remained fiercely devoted to her husband despite his extramarital affairs. It troubled her to see how he was tormented by the country's divisions over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Mrs. Johnson read from her White House diary for the ABC interview.

(Soundbite of past ABC interview)

Ms. JOHNSON: (Reading) The styes are coming back on Lyndon's eyes, first, one, and then the other, red and swollen and painful. I thought wryly that his life sounded more and more like the tribulations of Job. Nonetheless, he is remaining calm, even tepid, serenely philosophic about politics. But about the war itself, he is deeply worried.

BURNETT: Mrs. Johnson played a little known role at the time the historic Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964. She went on a four-day train trip through eight southern states, campaigning for her husband at a time when race relations were boiling. It was the first solo whistle-stop tour of a first lady in history. Lady Bird showed a political skill and a tenacity of purpose that prompted one writer to call those four days the most courageous of her public life.

LBJ retired from politics in 1969 under the Fall of Vietnam. After his death in 1973, she lived to see him receive belated praise for his society programs. Lady Bird's unofficial biographer, Jan Jarboe Russell, maintains that history has been kinder to Mrs. Johnson.

Ms. JAN JARBOE RUSSELL (Author, "Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson"): She really did stand for the very best in LBJ - a strong activist, commitment to government, a strong record on civil rights, a loyalty to family and country, and her own authenticity by doing this conservation movement.

BURNETT: Lady Bird will probably be best remembered for her passion for beautification, a word she always considered prissy. As a girl, she fell in love with wildflowers on her long strolls through the woodlands of deep East Texas. She brought that affection to the White House.

Throughout Washington, she had millions of azalea bushes, dogwoods, cherry trees, tulips and daffodils planted in public places. And she used the bully pulpit of the first lady's office to pass the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 popularly known as The Lady Bird Act. It sought to eliminate billboards and encourage roadside plantings.

Ms. JOHNSON: There is a growing feeling of (unintelligible) in his land today. That ugliness has been allowed too long, that it is time to say, enough, and to act.

BURNETT: In 1982, she founded a wildflower research center in Austin, which was renamed The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her 85th birthday. It serves as a showplace and education center for native plants. She once said, I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont. I just hate to see the land homogenized.

Bob Breunig, current director of the wildflower center, says Lady Bird had a tremendous influence across the country as other states have planted roadside wildflowers.

Mr. BOB BREUNIG (Executive Director, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center): And I think it distressed her to see our country diminished because of ugly housing developments, ugly urbanization and strip malls, it became her passion to awaken people to the natural beauty of our world.

BURNETT: For those who encountered her around Austin, Lady Bird herself possessed a natural beauty, says biographer, Jan Jarboe Russell.

Ms. RUSSELL: Everyone has a story about having met Mrs. Johnson on a speech or in the grocery store or at a nursery, and she was always so down to earth, and came out to them and was - wanting to know about them. So she was one of those rare public people who managed to hold on to her private self.

BURNETT: In her later years, which she called her harvest years, Lady Bird Johnson spent time enjoying the large extended family of her two daughters, Lynda Robb and Lucy Baines Johnson, and she lent support to favorite Democratic candidates.

And though legally blind, she never stopped appreciating the natural beauty of the land. Friends tell how she'd have her driver stop the car in the hill country so she could get out and admire, even dimly, a brilliant field of wildflowers.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
John Burnett is a national correspondent based in Austin, Texas, who has been assigned a new beat for 2022—Polarized America—to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.