Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson

The Hill wishes to pay its respects to Lady Bird Johnson, widow of former president Lyndon B. Johnson, who passed away Wednesday at age 94 following a long illness.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor, her nursemaid commented that she was "purty as a ladybird", and the name stuck for the rest of her life. She graduated from high school at age 15 and eventually earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. She wanted to become a reporter, but abandoned those plans when she met Lyndon Johnson, then an ambitious young Congressional aide.

Living with LBJ was certainly difficult. He could be charming and gracious one minute, rude and arrogant the next. Lady Bird felt the brunt of LBJ's infamous temper on many occasions, as did nearly everybody who knew him. He embarrassed her with frequent dressings-down in public, and humiliated her privately with his affairs. Lady Bird coped by developing a quiet resolve, and learned a variety of methods of playing to his mood swings to get him to do what she asked.

Lady Bird's business acumen played a major role in developing the Johnsons' financial wealth. With her inheritance, she bought a struggling Austin radio station and made it the cornerstone of a media empire. She immediately went over the books, and within months the station began to turn a profit. She did everything from hiring the on-air talent and selling ad time to sweeping the floor. The Johnsons would eventually own a string of radio and TV stations worth millions.

As First Lady, Lady Bird became synonymous with beautification and environmental projects. A bill that regulated the placement of billboards on interstate highways became known as "Lady Bird's Law". She was also active in promoting and advocating for funding the Head Start program.

In later years, Lady Bird continued to work on environmental projects. She co-founded the National Wildflower Research Center, later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Her legacy is the thousands of beautification projects throughout the country that she helped inspire.

A collection of Lady Bird Johnson quotes from the Washington Post. Also, my Watching Those We Chose blogging colleague Shortstop has written a recollection of Lady Bird's life that is well worth reading.