An activist first lady who succeeded on her own terms

Times Staff Writer

LADY Bird Johnson, the widow of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose tumultuous presidency often overshadowed her considerable achievements as an activist first lady, environmentalist and founder of a multimillion-dollar media business, died Wednesday at her home in Austin. She was 94.

Johnson had been in failing health for several years, weakened by a series of strokes and other ailments, including a low-grade fever that kept her in the hospital for a week last month. A family spokeswoman said the former first lady’s daughters, Lynda Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson, were by her side when she died at 2:18 p.m. PDT.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 19, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Lady Bird Johnson obituary: The July 12 obituary of Lady Bird Johnson in Section A said President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 presidential race with the words “I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party....” In fact, he said: “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party ...”

As the wife of the 36th president, Johnson was often portrayed by contemporaries and some historians as a meek woman who silently endured her husband’s volcanic outbursts and infidelities. Yet she, perhaps more than any presidential wife since Eleanor Roosevelt, expanded the terrain of the first lady by taking a visible role in her husband’s administration, most memorably in her national beautification efforts.

Her love of nature was enshrined in law when her husband signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Conceived primarily to restrict junkyards and unsightly signs along the nation’s highways, it was the first major legislative campaign launched by a first lady.

Although often eclipsed by protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights -- the dominant issues of President Johnson’s tenure from 1963 to 1969 -- her effort to replace urban blight with flowers and trees prepared the way for the environmental movement of the 1970s.


“I think there is no legacy she would more treasure than to have helped people recognize the value in preserving and promoting our native land,” Luci Baines Johnson said in a statement shortly before her mother’s death.

Johnson also broke new ground by campaigning independently of her husband. During the 1964 presidential campaign, she undertook a courageous whistle-stop tour of the South, where his civil rights agenda was widely reviled. Two months later, President Johnson won one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. She held the Bible at his swearing-in, a precedent followed by all her successors.

As her husband’s key personal advisor throughout his career, she championed Head Start, the early childhood education program that was a major component of his War on Poverty, and was its first national chair.

She was deeply involved in his decision to run for his first full term in 1964, as well as in his dramatic announcement four years later that he would forgo a second term. His famous words -- “I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party” -- were written by his wife.

Johnson often was compared unfavorably with her predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy, who captivated Americans with an elegant style. Johnson did not wear designer clothes or introduce French chefs to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but she was the most active first lady since Roosevelt, her declared role model.

“Among first ladies of the 20th century, Lady Bird Johnson deserves to rank with Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the significant innovators in the history of the institution,” presidential historian Lewis L. Gould once wrote.

Gould noted that Johnson assembled her own East Wing staff, which included the first officially designated press secretary for a first lady; participated in legislative strategy sessions; and personally lobbied for environmental programs.

As a businesswoman, Johnson had the foresight early in her husband’s career to buy a debt-ridden Austin, Texas, radio station and parlay it into a broadcast empire eventually worth millions. She was, according to biographer Jan Jarboe Russell, the only first lady to have built and sustained a fortune with her own money.

Despite these accomplishments, Johnson was humble in her self-assessment. She told People magazine in 2000 that her greatest feat was “anything I did to keep Lyndon in good health and a good frame of mind to work as he did.”

He was a moody man prone to depression who led the nation during a period bracketed by violence -- including the assassination of President Kennedy, the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the slayings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. She defined herself as her husband’s “balm, sustainer and sometimes critic” who soothed tensions in a besieged White House by relying on her keen instincts and sense of what was right.

It was she who made the conciliatory phone call or offered a dinner invitation after her husband had severely bruised a staffer’s ego. It was she who set the tone after a top White House aide was arrested for a homosexual act by publicly expressing concern for the man’s health and praising him as a dedicated public servant.

“If President Johnson was the long arm,” her press secretary, Liz Carpenter, later wrote, “Lady Bird Johnson’s was the gentle hand.”

Lonely, shy child

SHE was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912, to Minnie Lee Patillo and Thomas Jefferson Taylor. Her father was the prosperous owner of a general store in Karnack, Texas, a small, predominantly black town near the Louisiana border. Her mother was a well-read woman who believed in a woman’s right to vote and promoted the welfare of the black population. Most of Lady Bird’s playmates were black.

One of three children and the only daughter, she received her nickname from a nurse who thought she was as “purty as a lady bird.” She was raised by her Aunt Effie after her mother died in an accident when Lady Bird was 5.

A lonely and shy child, she found solace in the pine trees, muddy bayous and rolling hills that surrounded Karnack. Many years later, she said she chose beautification as her primary White House project because “what has given me the most joy, what surfaces when I think back over the last 50 years [are] things like walking through the piney woods of East Texas listening to the wind sighing, or along the banks of Caddo Lake with gnarled cypress trees heavy with moss.”

A lover of the classics and an excellent student, she graduated from high school at 15, then attended St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas for two years. In 1933, when she was 20, she graduated in the top 10 of her class at the University of Texas in Austin. Not wanting to return to Karnack, she stayed another year to earn a degree in journalism and considered being a drama critic.

In 1934, a friend introduced her to Lyndon Johnson, then a 26-year-old congressional aide. True to his blunt and domineering nature, he asked Lady Bird to marry him the day after they met. She was both repelled by and attracted to this ambitious man who was five years her elder and who gave her a “queer moth-in-the-flame feeling.”

A few months later, on Nov. 17, 1934, she yielded to his considerable pressure and married him in a hastily arranged ceremony in San Antonio. Then Lady Bird, who had never cooked a meal or swept a floor, quickly learned to become a Washington hostess.

“Lady Bird Johnson’s remarkable ability to make anyone feel at home was ... to give her husband’s career the biggest boost it had yet received,” Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert A. Caro wrote in his 1982 book “The Path to Power.” One of the Johnsons’ regular guests was Rep. Sam Rayburn of Texas, the longtime House speaker, who later told Lyndon that marrying Lady Bird was the wisest decision he had ever made.

Rayburn persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 to name Johnson the national youth administrator for Texas. Two years later, a death created a vacancy in the Texas congressional delegation. With crucial support from Lady Bird, who lent his campaign $10,000 from her mother’s estate, Johnson won the seat.

The young congressman lost a Senate bid in 1941. Later that year, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sent the country into World War II, he fulfilled a campaign pledge by joining the Navy. He put Lady Bird in charge of his congressional office, which she managed efficiently. She overcame her shyness to lobby Cabinet members and other Washington officials on behalf of constituents.

With her husband away at war, Lady Bird began to consider other ways to ensure a steady family income. In 1943, using $41,000 of her inheritance, she bought KTBC, a small Austin radio station that was thousands of dollars in debt. Within two years, she turned the red ink to black through diligent, tight-fisted management. With her husband’s connections in Washington, she won federal approval to double the station’s transmitting power and increase its air time.

In 1952, she obtained permission to open a television station. It soon had contracts with all three major networks, and other acquisitions followed. The Johnson family would remain in the broadcast business until 2003, when it sold its last six stations for $105 million.

Lady Bird Johnson kept a steady hand on the business as company president while struggling through a difficult pregnancy. After 10 years of marriage and four miscarriages, she gave birth to Lynda Bird on March 19, 1944. Luci Baines was born July 2, 1947.

In addition to her daughters, she is survived by seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Another great-grandchild is expected in August.

Turning a blind eye

IN 1948, Lyndon Johnson realized his Senate dream, winning a disputed election by 87 votes. He rose rapidly through the ranks, from minority whip in 1951 to majority leader in 1955. In 1960, after losing his party’s nomination for president, he accepted the No. 2 slot and became vice president in one of the closest presidential elections in history.

During the early years of the Johnsons’ marriage, he was the dominant force. He told Lady Bird what to wear, insisting on slim skirts and good hosiery. He expected her to entertain a dozen people for dinner at a moment’s notice, and at parties he barked orders to her in a manner that made others flinch. In an oft-quoted line, he acknowledged that he sometimes asked her for political advice, but “I have a ... maid, and I talk my problems over with her too.” Lady Bird seemed to take the slights in stride.

Her devotion to her husband included turning a blind eye to his lengthy affair with Alice Glass, the mistress and later wife of Charles Marsh, a wealthy Austin newspaper publisher and patron of Lyndon’s since the 1930s. According to biographers, Lyndon’s friendship with Glass ended in the 1960s over the Vietnam War, which Glass strongly opposed.

As other infidelities surfaced over the years, Lady Bird was often asked for comment. According to Caro, she developed a stock reply. “Lyndon loved people,” she would say. “It would be unnatural for him to withhold love from half the people.” This reply, Caro wrote, “was always delivered with a smile.” She apparently never considered leaving him.

Lyndon Johnson suffered a major heart attack in 1955, an event that deepened their bond. Gradually, he began to treat his wife with more respect in public and to rely on her counsel. Wrote Caro: “Once, not seeing her at a public function, he demanded, with something of his old snarl, ‘Where’s Lady Bird?’ and she replied, ‘Right behind you, darling. Where I’ve always been.’ ”

In 1960, she campaigned in 11 Southern states for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. More visible in the campaign than Jacqueline Kennedy, who was pregnant at the time, she recruited two other Kennedy women, Ethel and Eunice, to join her in “Flying Tea Parties” in Texas to win over voters perplexed by the possibility of a Catholic president. When Kennedy carried Texas in the tight race, campaign manager Robert Kennedy gave the credit to Lady Bird.

She was a passenger in the presidential motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy, riding two cars ahead of her, was shot.

At Parkland Hospital, after the president was declared dead, she told his wife, “Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, you know we never even wanted to become vice president, and now, dear God, it’s come to this.”

Later she confided to a friend, “I feel like I am onstage for a part I never rehearsed.”

As first lady, she gave her husband crucial support when he suffered doubts before the 1964 Democratic National Convention about running for his first full term. “You are as brave a man as Harry Truman or FDR or Lincoln,” she wrote in a letter. “To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future.”

Her own campaigns

THAT fall, she moved into the limelight as no presidential wife had before.

She organized a 1,628-mile whistle-stop tour through eight Southern states, where the hostility among whites toward Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights goals was so strong that the president was advised to stay away. A few months earlier, he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a far-reaching law that protected African Americans’ right to vote and guaranteed access to public accommodations. Lady Bird undertook the tour despite the opposition of senior campaign aides and Southern governors, who feared that her trip might push segregationists deeper into the corner of the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater.

Focusing on small towns where bigotry was most entrenched, she charmed local politicians, inviting them on board the “Lady Bird Special” to shake hands and pose for photographs. Although booed and heckled for her forthright support of racial equality, she maintained her calm. At one stop in South Carolina, she responded to the raucous insults of Goldwater supporters with a plea for tolerance, noting that the jeers were coming “not from the good people of South Carolina but from the state of confusion.”

After a bomb threat in Florida, the train safely arrived in New Orleans, the final stop. She was greeted by a multiracial crowd and President Johnson, who publicly thanked her for the gutsy campaigning that had reached half a million Southerners. Reflecting on the headline-making event, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham later concluded that Lady Bird’s high visibility had been vital: “She talked with authority,” Graham said, “because she belonged there.”

Emboldened by this success, Lady Bird launched an ambitious program of tree and flower plantings in the nation’s capital. She saw conservation and beautification as part of her husband’s Great Society agenda to improve the quality of life in America’s crumbling cities.

“A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony, which will lessen tensions,” she once said.

The president called his entire Cabinet and top staff together to fight the billboard industry lobby and persuade Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act. Nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill,” it was the product of the first open political partnership between an American president and first lady.

Her legislative triumph was a bright note in an increasingly grim White House. As American casualties in Vietnam mounted, protesters burned Lyndon Johnson in effigy. Lady Bird found she was rarely out of earshot of the demonstrators, who brought their anger to the White House gates, chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”

At a January 1968 luncheon of 50 influential women invited to a White House forum on street crime, singer Eartha Kitt raged at the first lady. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” the entertainer said to a stunned audience. “They will take pot, and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”

Although prominent leaders, including King, would take Kitt’s side in the ensuing controversy, Lady Bird won praise for her response. “I am sorry I cannot understand as much as I should because I have not lived the background you have. Nor can I speak as passionately or as well. But I think we must keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on constructive aims. Violence,” she said, “will not help it.”

Over the next few months, Lyndon Johnson agonized over whether to run for reelection. Another term meant the prospect of more civil unrest and more American soldiers killed in Vietnam. The answer came to him on March 31, 1968, when his daughter Lynda returned to the White House after saying goodbye to her husband, a Marine officer who was going to Vietnam on a 13-month tour of duty. Lynda, who was pregnant with their first child, looked her father in the eye and asked, “Why do we have to go to Vietnam?”

That night, in a scheduled speech to the nation, the president announced the curtailment of American bombing in most of North Vietnam. In a conclusion that shocked listeners, including many on his own staff, he announced that he would not run again.

After Richard M. Nixon was sworn in as the 37th president, the Johnsons retired to their ranch on the Pedernales River west of Austin. Lady Bird published her diary in 1970 and accepted a seat on the University of Texas’ board of regents. She also helped her husband plan the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, which opened on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin in 1972.

A month later, Lyndon Johnson suffered a massive heart attack. It was a prelude to the one that took his life on Jan. 22, 1973. He was 64.

‘A compelling love’

AFTER his death, his widow traveled widely and collected awards, including the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 1977 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

On her 70th birthday, in 1982, she created, with actress Helen Hayes, the National Wildflower Center with a donation of $125,000 and 60 acres near Austin. (It now encompasses nearly 280 acres and is part of the University of Texas.) Later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, it is devoted to preserving and researching native American flora and, Johnson said, “to pay the rent on the space I’ve taken up in this world.”

In her late 80s she swam 32 laps a day in the pool at the LBJ Ranch, where she continued to live after turning the ranch over to the public years earlier. In her last years, the colors and shapes of the wildflowers she loved would be blurred by macular degeneration, which left her legally blind. She was crippled by arthritis, and a series of strokes stole her speech.

She remained doggedly loyal to her husband’s memory.

“Ours was a compelling love,” she told biographer Russell. “Lyndon pushed me, he drove me, at times he even humiliated me, but he made me become someone bigger and better than I would have been.”

The public will be allowed to pay final respects to Johnson from 1:15 p.m. Friday until 11 a.m. Saturday at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin. A private funeral service will be later that day. On Sunday, a ceremonial cortege beginning at the state Capitol will carry her body to the Johnson family cemetery in Stonewall, Texas, where she will be buried next to her husband.