As Lady Bird Johnson arrived here this week to participate in a series of ceremonies celebrating her 75th birthday, the former First Lady admitted that one of the most tangible results of her "war on ugliness," the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, has been "far from a total success."
"All of my emphasis was to put pride on planting along the highways and it did get overshadowed by the more controversial matters of the billboards."
Mrs. Johnson's beautification crusade took two main courses: encouraging the study and planting of wildflowers, and lobbying for passage of the Highway Beautification Act, which regulated the positioning of billboards and junkyards on interstate and federal roads and provided funds for landscaping and compensating billboard owners whose boards were taken down.
Lady Bird and President Lyndon B. Johnson lobbied so hard for the bill that at the time of its passage, Rep. William C. Cramer (R-Fla.) said he had "never before seen such pressures and arm-twisting from the executive branch . . . as I have seen with respect to the highway beautification bill."
Although some people laughed at the First Lady and others criticized her when she declared her war on ugliness in the 1960s, she receives about 300 letters a month from those who appreciate the results.
And, with the city in full bloom, Mrs. Johnson will be honored for her efforts by the Congress and the White House today on her 75th birthday.
"I just think it's overwhelming," said Mrs. Johnson. "I never dreamed something like this would happen to me." She will be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President and Mrs. Reagan after ceremonies in the House and Senate. President Ford presented her the Medal of Freedom in 1977.
"I'm just smiling from ear to ear," she said. "I hope I can live up to expressing what's in my heart, all the gratitude and happiness about it. There are so many things going on, I hope this 75-year-old can fully absorb and appreciate and enjoy everything."
Asked if her efforts had accomplished all she had wanted, Mrs. Johnson replied, "Goodness, it's never all that you want, is it?
"I think we made a dent. I think we made a beginning. We raised consciousness for people to look at and care more about what their highways look like. After all, they are built with public money."
The Highway Act became and continues to be a matter of controversy, with environmentalists claiming it is so full of loopholes that it is a failure, according to Edward McMahon, executive director of the Coalition for Scenic Beauty.
Law Has Been Subverted
"It is a law that was passed with good intentions which has been subverted by the industry that it was meant to regulate," he said.
One of the biggest loopholes, McMahon and other environmentalists say, is that the act allows billboards to be placed anywhere in commercial and industrial zones, and zoning is left up to the states. Many states have not been very strict with zoning regulations.
"You can virtually today put a billboard anywhere in the United States, on scenic country roads, next to churches, homes, schools and state parks," said McMahon.
Subsequent efforts by Congress to strengthen billboard regulations--such as stopping construction of billboards, prohibiting the destruction of trees blocking billboards and proposing a half-mile billboard-free zone around state parks--have been defeated under heavy pressure from the advertising lobby. Mrs. Johnson has decided to stay clear of the billboard controversy.
Industry Beat Her Badly
"She got beat up badly on it," said one sympathetic environmentalist. "The outdoor advertising industry went after her and she got burned out."
"My main emphasis right now," Mrs. Johnson said, "is on native local wildflowers, trees, shrubs, the picture of the piece of the world that is your piece. I'm encouraging the use of those things in planned landscapes so that the natural habitat of an area is preserved and that heritage won't disappear, as some animals and birds have disappeared."
Mrs. Johnson dedicates herself to this particular cause because "it's what makes my heart sing," she said.
"It's just given me joy and sustenance all my life. Besides the primary thing, your family, and your job, what do you want to spend your life doing? I want to spend mine seeing and learning about and enjoying some of the beautiful scenery and flowers and trees of this great and varied country."
Wildlife Center Benefits
Most of these efforts are channeled through her National Wildlife Center in Austin, Tex., which will be the recipient of proceeds from fund-raising dinners and receptions honoring Mrs. Johnson here this week. Mrs. Johnson lives on the Johnson ranch in Texas, but often travels to the Washington area to visit her daughter, Lynda Bird Robb, who lives in Virginia with her husband, former governor Charles Robb, and their children.
Other than rooting for her son-in-law, who is running for the Senate, Mrs. Johnson said she prefers to steer clear of politics and has not been active in the Democratic primaries.
"The political part of my life I did the best I could, enjoyed it and learned a lot with Lyndon," Mrs. Johnson said. "But it was his life. I shared it with him for all those years. We were married 38 years and he was in public life all that time. But then after his death I've been doing other things long put on the shelf, a lot of traveling, more time with the children and grandchildren, the family business and serving on boards."
Despite some very difficult times in her husband's administration, Mrs. Johnson said she does not regret having been a political wife.
"Good heavens, no, I loved it," she said. "It's an opportunity given to just the tiniest number, and you just try to live up to it. Criticism just goes with the turf. It is much harder to take for your children and your husband. I think it's harder when your husband is criticized than when you are. But it's a temporary thing, so you do the best you can and enjoy it. And if you don't enjoy it, it would be a great shame. I hope every one of them does."