Lady Bird Johnson, 1912-2007

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Lady Bird Johnson

In the often brutal game of national politics where Lady Bird Johnson dwelt in some manner for nearly 70 years she was, said Hugh Sidey, TIME's late chronicler of the American presidency, "as close to being a Godly creature as that anguished realm ever produced." In these last years her admirers (and who was not one?) in sheer frustration at the inadequacy of language to capture her virtues would say over and over again, "Lady Bird is a saint."

The more so as details of the outrageous and roguish behavior of her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson, emerged in tape recordings and extensive scholarship, including a volume by LBJ biographer Robert Caro, which detailed Johnson's philandering and mean and humiliating outbursts in front of others against her ideas and lifestyle, even down to how she fixed her hair and the shoes she wore.

Once, when LBJ was still the Senate majority leader, Sidey was having a late drink with him in the Johnson ranch house in Texas. Lady Bird and a staff member came down the stairs responding to LBJ's shout. They were both in pajamas and night robes. Johnson stood up, gathered them in his huge arms and began to fondle a breast of each woman. Sidey later said that Lady Bird's restraint — she did nothing, but sweetly — is what calmed him down. After the White House, when confronted with some of these stories, Lady Bird shunted all wrath aside. "Lyndon always did like the ladies."

Like everyone else who studied the couple, Sidey had wondered during his coverage of the Johnson saga, almost from day one, how Lady Bird stood it and never — yes, never — retaliated with anything but a serene and enduring love of the rarest kind. "I adored him," was about as far as she would go to describe her feeling which he said was "awesome in both its physical and intellectual dimensions." She found a natural force, understood that and guided it to the top. Otherwise she might have been a forgotten housewife in clunky shoes and he just another eccentric and embarrassing politician in mohair suits who marched into oblivion.

In the early years she seemed uncomfortably slavish, bringing her husband breakfast in bed and, according to author Caro, she laid out his clothes, unbuttoned his shirts, put in the collar stays and cuff links, filled his fountain pens and put them in the proper pocket, filled his cigarette lighter and put a handkerchief and money in their pockets. But as Johnson climbed higher, Lady Bird found her world expanding too.

Many political observers believe she can claim a big part of her husband's lopsided win over Barry Goldwater in 1964. The South, angry over LBJ's civil rights efforts, was smoldering when she whistle-stopped from Virginia to New Orleans on the Lady Bird Special, at first enduring catcalls and hostile placards ("Fly Away Black Bird") but the same soft tolerance she used on her husband she used on the southern crowds: "In this country we have many viewpoints. You are entitled to yours. Right now I am entitled to mine." By New Orleans the stories of her sweet courage had turned the risky political journey into a roar of approval and pride.

Born in 1912, she was christened Claudia Alta Taylor, but dubbed "Lady Bird" by a family maid because she was "pretty as a lady bird" and Lady Bird she was for the rest of her life. A large portrait of her wearing a long, billowing pale blue dress, carrying a broad-brimmed hat amid a field of Texas bluebonnets stands in the LBJ Library, capturing both that southern gentility and her passion for nature. But her lilting, soft and round East Texas accent, her passion for natural beauty and her devotion to a man some found loud and crude, masked a steeliness that served both her and her family well.

At 94, fragile, her eyesight diminished by macular degeneration, a cruelty for a woman whose joy in life came from watching the birds and the flowers of her beloved Texas Hill Country, former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson passed away at her home in Austin from natural causes. A few weeks earlier, she had been admitted to a hospital for tests after suffering from what a family member said was a low-grade fever.

As first lady, Lady Bird created a legacy through her passion for what the press called "beautification" and the legislation it produced. She had the billboards and junk yards banished from the federal highway rights-of-way; and she inspired the carpets of daffodils and tulips that delight tourists who come to the nation's capital. She was more than a gardener. She was one of the first true environmentalists of our times. Even LBJ liked the idea, complaining proudly one day that he had a hell of a time taking a nap because Lady Bird and Laurence Rockefeller and a bunch of other beautification folks down below his bedroom were holding a meeting and talking loud and he could not go to sleep. "She's going to beautify us right out of existence," he said.

Lady Bird never liked the term "beautification." What she was doing went beyond that, something to hold the land, bring grace and meaning to scarred lives. "You reporters come up with another word," she used to say. But nobody has yet. Maybe it was unnecessary because she was her own symbol, a woman very much in harmony with the natural world around her. She rafted down rivers, camped out in the national parks, studied ruins. She also founded what is now named the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center at the University of Texas.

Inside her there was the soul of a poet, diverted by the rush of politics, but never denied, not even in the White House citadel. She once told Sidey how often at day's end she took her paper work with her to the arbor in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden where fragrant ripening grapes hung heavy above her and she sat on creaky white wicker chairs. "There," she said, "I'm in a dear, old-fashioned summer home." And she often sat in twilight on the Truman Balcony to watch the Washington Monument fade from a delicate pink to gray. "It is such a beautiful thing," she said. So was she.
With reporting by Hilary Hylton/Austin