Today, just three days before Christmas as it always was, is Lady Bird Johnson’s birthday. This year marks her centennial.
She is rightly remembered, in terms of her public contributions, as a pioneer in raising public awareness about the encroaching danger posed to the natural world we all share by industrialization, poverty, and the population explosion in the 60s. Her “project” was labeled “beautification” but it was really about land conservation, reclamation and preservation. She also became involved in urban development projects, striving to have new federal buildings built into the context of the natural setting.
On the surface it was about planting a tree, a bush or shrub, but just beneath that, as she explained to a 1965 Conference on Natural Beauty, it was about the way all humans perceive their lives as they go about the routines of their days: what we see affects us. The world we look at shapes our attitude and can guide us into pessimism or optimism.
In never over-promising what she believed the federal government could provide, Lady Bird Johnson reflected a practical grasp of reality that never abandoned her words and deeds.
She was also a subtle civil rights leader, a bridge from traditional to modern feminism and an advocate for the Head Start program who proved crucial in helping establish it. The First Lady was one Johnson Administration figure who never hesitated to acknowledge the pain and all types of costs created by her husband’s Vietnam War policy and while she supported it because she supported him, in a 1989 interview with this author she suggested that she had nursed her own doubts about the viability of advice he was given over the course of the war.
But one facet of her legacy which has been entirely neglected stems from Lady Bird Johnson’s journalistic curiosity about one particular aspect of the American Presidency: the power and influence of First Ladies.
At the time her husband, then Vice President, was suddenly thrust into the presidency upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, she had a clear understanding of the public role played by First Ladies historically and how she could adapt it to the goals she developed for the nation.
Once she was in the White House, Mrs. Johnson began to visit many presidential homes and seek out presidential children and grandchildren to learn about the real lives of her predecessors. Yet before she even became a Vice Presidential spouse in 1961, she had read the published letters of Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison available at the time, biographies of Mary Lincoln, Julia Grant, and Grace Coolidge and autobiographies of Nellie Taft and Eleanor Roosevelt. s, visited presidential homes, and sought out the children and grandchildren of First Ladies from the late 19th century.
In my first interview with her, in 1989, she told me about how, from the late 1930s to the late 1950s as first a Congressional spouse and then as a U.S. Senate spouse, she always took visiting constituents to the Smithsonian exhibit on First Ladies in Washington.
She also told of how, when she first came to Washington before World War II began, she joined First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on tours of sub-standard housing where Washingtonians in the most dire of poverty were living.
Later, Mrs. Johnson learned that Mrs. Roosevelt had first learned about what were called the slum “alley-dwellings” in 1913, when she had been a young wife of the Assistant Navy Secretary joining then-First Lady Ellen Wilson who led members of Congress through the deplorable housing conditions to prove they were as bad as rumored to be. The effort of Mrs. Wilson and, then, Mrs. Roosevelt to lobby Congress into funding new low-income public housing was stopped cold – first by the advent of World War I and then by World War II.
Lady Bird Johnson, however, became a vigilant if unofficial monitor of the LBJ Administration’s progress on redevelopment of Southwest Washington until it was finally completed, an effort culminating the vision of two of her predecessors.
The best evidence of Lady Bird Johnson’s early fascination with Eleanor Roosevelt, however, is by her own steady hand. Not long after coming to Washington as a congressional spouse, Mrs. Johnson used her home movie camera and then-expensive and rare color film to briefly capture fleeting images of Mrs. Roosevelt in motion, as she arrived at a Congressional event.
Although she knew and met Mrs. Roosevelt many times after that, to date no pictures of the two women together have surfaced.
There are pictures of LBJ and Eleanor Roosevelt, however, and of Mrs. Johnson attending her 1962 funeral and then presiding at the unveiling ceremony of Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House portrait.
Mrs. Johnson initially placed Mrs. Roosevelt’s portrait on the state floor, a decision inspired by admiration.
Jacqueline Kennedy, by then a former First Lady, gently tried to persuade her against putting it there, making the case that the placement of such a modern personality amid the state rooms furnished in the styles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries would compromise the intention of conveying the ambiance of the early presidencies.
Mrs.. Kennedy suggested the Eleanor Roosevelt portrait be placed in the East Wing as the very first object seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors entering for their White House tour. Lady Bird Johnson liked that idea and moved it there.
Despite all the acrimony between LBJ and Robert F. Kennedy, the relationship between the former’s wife and the latter’s sister-in-law remained close.
At the same time that newspapers reported on the growing schism between LBJ and RFK, the public never knew that Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy were maintaining a warm friendship, the widow even inviting her successor over to her Fifth Avenue apartment so they could relax together and catch up over “a cup of tea.”
One single image of a spontaneous moment did capture Lady Bird Johnson in the presence of an older predecessor from an even more distant past – Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. This was not the first Mrs. Wilson who lobbied for low-income housing but rather his second wife for nine years and his widow thirty-seven years, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Over the course of my several taped interviews with Mrs. Johnson and our conversations over dinner or at conferences, she never tired of speculating about the degree of Edith Wilson’s power during World War I and her assuming the management of his presidency when he had a stroke.
While the picture shows Edith Wilson glaring back at the camera, Mrs. Johnson is distracted, looking as if she is turning to speak to someone she knows. Edith Wilson died eleven months after the Inaugural picture was taken.
In the picture as the incoming Vice President’s wife, Mrs. Johnson was also photographed with outgoing Vice Presidential wife (and future First Lady) Pat Nixon, outgoing First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and incoming First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
When Mrs. Roosevelt died a year after Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Johnson joined her husband, the President and Mrs. Kennedy, former President and Mrs. Truman and former President Eisenhower for her November 11, 1962 funeral.
Although deeply-rooted progressive values affirmed Mrs. Johnson’s lifelong identity as a Democrat, as “dean” of the “First Lady sorority” she was equally close to those who were Republicans. In the pictures below, she is seen over the course of half a century with Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Having died before Barack Obama‘s 2008 presidential campaign and election, she never had a chance to meet Michelle Obama.
Mrs. Johnson was a Congressional wife when she first met Bess Truman and the close political alliance between their husbands was a natural bridge between the two women. Lady Bird Johnson was closer to Mamie Eisenhower, however, since LBJ came to work closely in his role as Senate Majority Leader with Dwight Eisenhower during his presidency from 1953 to 1961. Starting in 1966, the two women became especially close since the former President was increasingly hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital for lengthy periods. Mrs. Johnson regularly invited Mrs. Eisenhower down to afternoon events at the White House and when she joined LBJ in making the twenty-minute drive to the Army hospital so he could consult with his predecessor there, the two women would cloister themselves together in conversation.
Lady Bird Johnson came to know Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford when each of their respective husbands were first elected to Congress.
She told me that she cold never forget her first vision of Jackie Kennedy as a bemused but bewildered newlywed dressed in the nurse uniforms worn by the “Senate Wives Club” when they gathered for a luncheon and charity work that had begun as Red Cross bandage-rollers during World War I. The former newspaper columnist was almost twenty years younger than Lady Bird Johnson and found her acquiescent behavior around LBJ in public too acquiescent. Not until Jackie Kennedy was First Lady and found that Lady Bird was willing to substitute for her at events so she could be with her young children – or jetset to Europe did she come to truly respect her thoughtfulness and marvel at her discipline. Riding with LBJ in the motorcade behind the Kennedys when the President was assassinated was a trauma they never discussed once it was over but over the long haul of time, the experience deepened their mutual understanding of one another. Jackie wrote appreciatively to her after the Johnsons extended themselves in the days after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but they had no contact after Jackie remarried to Onassis in 1968 (she did write a sympathy note to her successor upon LBJ’s 1973 death). It was a dozen years after RFK’s funeral before they again saw each other but in the decade that followed, the two First Ladies of the Sixties forged a new but entirely private friendship indulged during Lady Bird’s summertime sojourns to Martha’s Vineyard, when Mrs. Onassis invited her to a lunch she served herself – with not even a servant to distract their talks.
Lady Bird Johnson was just nine months younger than Pat Nixon but their natural affinity stemmed as much from their parallel lives as it did a generational sensibility. Both striving to fulfill public expectations of them as wives of men who both rose in power from the House to the Senate to the Vice Presidency, both also later expressed guilt about how, in doing so, they were forced to abandon their sense of maternal duty to the two young daughters they each were raising. The friendship and empathy Lynda and Luci Johnson had with Tricia and Julie Nixon resulting from the way each set of children were raised would only further bond their mothers and fathers when Nixon was elected in 1968 as LBJ’s successor. The Nixons honored Lady Bird by dedicating a grove in California’s Redwood Forest to her and, after attending LBJ’s 1973 funeral, considering naming her a foreign ambassador. After the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s 1974 resignation and Pat Nixon’s 1976 stroke, they were rarely in touch and then only in writing. Then, to everyone’s surprise, a frail Pat Nixon, suffering from lung-related ailments at the time, determined to join the other living former First Ladies and Presidents at the 1991 dedication of the Reagan Presidential Library. One more time, these two old-school political wives were together again.
It was during the Johnson Administration that her friendship with Betty Ford especially deepened since the latter was frequently at the White House with her husband in his pivotal role as House Minority Leader. It proved a lifelong friendship. In September of 1974, just a month after becoming First Lady, Betty Ford insisted on joining Lady Birds Johnson for the dedication of the LBJ Memorial Grove along the Potomac River and then inviting her back to the White House. Only later did Mrs. Johnson learn through news reports that, at the end of the day, Mrs. Ford went to undergo a mastectomy for breast cancer. Not wanting the news to shadow the day for Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Ford had delayed the announcement of it. At the 1976 White House state dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth of England during the American Bicentennial two years later, Mrs. Ford invited Mrs. Johnson as one of the guests.
Rosalynn Carter didn’t rise to national attention as Georgia’s First Lady until two years after the LBJs left the White House but during the Carter presidency the two women quickly drew close with their unique commonality of both soft-voiced reverence for their southern culture yet iron commitment to legal equality of women. It was a fight made more tangible for the older Mrs. Johnson in conversations with her daughter Lynda Robb, who sat on Carter’s Commission on Women. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s their effort for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment included Betty Ford, and the trio went on to work together in planning a Carter Center conference on women and constitutional issues. In fact, to do so Lady Bird Johnson hosted her two fellow First Ladies for a sleepover at the LBJ Ranch.
Lady Bird Johnson first met Nancy Reagan, along with Ronald Reagan, when they came to the 1967 White House Conference of Governors, shortly after being inaugurated Governor of California. It was in the Golden State where the Governor’s wife next saw Mrs. Johnson, during the dedication ceremony of the Redwood Forest grove in her honor there. In May of 1988, the Reagans became the first fellow White House residents to honor the now-76 year old former First Lady by presenting her with a Congressional gold medal.
In an interview during the early 1980s, despite a phrasing nuanced with honey, Mrs. Johnson made it clear she opposed the economic reforms of the Reagan-Bush Administration which sought to dismantle much of the LBJ Great Society social welfare programs. She even suggested that wealthy people like herself should pay more taxes to help any fellow citizen struggling to afford a place to live. Barbara Bush being what might be called a Houston Yankee, born and raised in the New York suburb of Rye but relocating to Texas just after starting a family, more forthrightly expressed herself than did Lady Bird Johnson yet the two Lone Star First Ladies got on especially well. Despite their opposing partisan loyalties, Lady Bird Johnson so warmly welcomed Barbara Bush as a first-time White House guest when she came to Washington in January of 1967 as a new congressional spouse that the Texas transplant never forgot it. When Mrs. Bush became First Lady in 1989, she treated Mrs. Johnson as a treasured national figure along the lines of an American Queen Mother. On several occasions, including a luncheon where Betty Ford joined them, Lady Bird Johnson was at Barbara Bush’s side.
During the last decade of the 20th century, Lady Bird Johnson was the central figure of respect around which the sorority of living First Ladies gathered during the unusually frequent number of celebratory national occasions they gathered, with and without the fraternity of living Presidents.
Perhaps Mrs. Johnson’s presence among them, despite her suffering the first small stroke in a series of them that would later plague her, was fueled by the enthusiasm for her expressed by two First Ladies who had not yet even been born when she first came to Washington.
Although Hillary Clinton had met Mrs. Johnson before she became First Lady, their friendship deepened rapidly after the incumbent presidential spouse came to Austin to deliver the Liz Carpenter Lecture in the spring of 1993. Along with Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson’s White House Press Secretary and perhaps greatest friend, and Texas Governor Ann Richards, Lady Bird Johnson offered Hillary a level of encouraging support in the face of vile personal attacks and media criticism that was almost strident in nature and certainly unlike Mrs. Johnson’s more cautious nature. I remember a dinner in the fall of 1998 I had with Mrs. Johnson, Liz Carpenter, LBJ Library Director Harry Middleton and his wife, during which the former First Lady spoke with blunt sharpness about the conduct which had led President Clinton, right at that time, to the brink of impeachment that was matched only by her defense and pride in how the First Lady had conducted herself in reaction to it.
Long before she married into a Republican family, the Texas-born high school student Laura Welch had read widely about and highly admired Lady Bird Johnson. Even after she became Mrs. George W. Bush, Laura’s familiarity with Mrs. Johnson’s accomplishments at both the national and state level remained constant. When she became the Texas Governor’s spouse in 1995 and moved to the state capital city of Austin, she had the chance to befriend the former First Lady whose office was within walking distance of the Governor’s Mansion. It was to visit Laura Bush in 2005 that Lady Bird Johnson made her last visit to the White House. Her first had been a remarkable fifty-eight years earlier, in 1937, as a guest of the Roosevelts.
The December 2000 White House Bicentennial dinner hosted by the President and Mrs. Clinton, with former President and Mrs. Ford, former President and Mrs. Carter, and former President and Mrs. Bush in attendance, marked her final presence at such a gathering, being too infirm to gather with them at the 2001 national prayer service following the September 11 attacks or at the 2004 Clinton Library dedication.
Even had she been well enough to attend the funeral of former President Ford in December of 2006, just after her 93rd and final birthday (Bess Truman, who died at age 97, was the longest-living First Lady), it seems unlikely that Lady Bird Johnson would have appeared. Whether it was due to the fact that she may have had a flu or been out of the country, or for some other genuine reason, Lady Bird Johnson did not say why she did not attend the funerals of Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower or Pat Nixon, nor those of Presidents Nixon, Ford or Reagan.
As stated earlier, she did attend the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962, a year before the assassination of President Kennedy. Perhaps that trauma and the ensuing state funeral during her first days as the new First Lady may have been enough sadness for her.
In fact, the only funeral she did insist on attending, struggling up the marble steps of the church with a cane, was that of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994.
- Christmas at the White House: The President’s Presents, Shopping, Giving & Getting Gifts, Part 1 of 4 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- White House Halloweens: Jackie Kennedy, FDR, Reagan, Hillary & More in Costume (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Stamp honoring Lady Bird Johnson unveiled (mysanantonio.com)