Lady Bird Johnson, widow of former President Lyndon Johnson, died on July 11th at the age of 94.
Lady Bird was known as a gracious hostess and a loving wife. She found herself thrust suddenly into the role of first lady after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. “I feel as if I am suddenly on stage for a part I never rehearsed,” she said then.
While she might have not rehearsed for the part, she performed it well.
Manners before Politics
Former President Bush said she exemplified "the grace and the elegance and the decency and sincerity that you would hope for in the White House." He said that, as a freshman congressman in the opposing political party from Texas, Lady Bird and President Johnson warmly and graciously welcomed him to Washington.
Lady Bird campaigned with her husband for his reelection in 1964, a tumultuous time: the Vietnam War was underway and President Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.
Johnson’s hopes for election were threatened by Southern Democrats threatening to leave the party. Lady Bird supported her husband by traveling on a four-day, 1,628-mile campaign train trip. The train was called the Lady Bird Special and the trip included eight southern states beset by racial turmoil. President Johnson won with the 1964 election 61 percent of the vote.
Her approach was thoughtful and focused. “Shortly after the election of ‘64, I began to realize that I wanted to choose some of those things in his administration that I was most in tune with, that made my heart sing most, and try to apply myself to them and support them in any way I could,” she said. “Otherwise, the number of calls upon you would mean that your efforts would be fragmented and would be of little use. And so there arose to the surface the interest in children and education, which was formulated in Head Start, and in conservation, which found its expression very much in beautification.”
Lady Bird was smart. She slowed down and picked passions that would blend with the goals of her husband’s administration. She deliberately focused on a few items, environment and education, that would grow in importance and make a positive impact on people.
"Had it not been for her, I think that the whole subject of the environment might not have been introduced to the public stage in just the way it was and just the time it was,” said Harry Middleton, retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, “So she figures mightily, I think, in the history of the country if for no other reason than that alone."
Once Lady Bird became first lady, she began a beautification program for Washington that expanded to highways around the nation.
If you have ever driven the 160 miles on I-16 from Macon, Georgia to I-95 near Savannah, then you understand truly boring driving. The miles seem to stretch forever. One mile looks the same as the mile before, and the mile after. Opening you eyes after a minute or an hour makes no difference, the scenery is the same.
Our family often travels on I -16 on the way from Atlanta to the Georgia coast. Until last year, my husband managed to nap on every trip during the I-16 stretch. He slept, I drove. Occasionally I would catch him opening his eyes just a bit, only to see them re-shut rapidly once he realized that we were still on I-16.
I drove this same stretch of highway about a month ago. I remember the miles and miles of beautiful yellow and pink flowers in the median along the highway. As I drove and looked at the flowers, I gave thanks to Lady Bird and her focus on beautifying the highways of our nation.
Lady Bird has touched my life in other ways. She kicked off the nationwide Head Start program in 1965. My sister Kathy attended Head Start in New Orleans in 1967, where we lived while my father was a graduate student at Tulane University.
The program has helped millions of families. Since its beginning in 1965, Head Start has enrolled more than 24 million children. Last year alone, more than 900,000 children were enrolled in Head Start programs.
Lady Bird has both improved my view while driving and improved my sister’s education (and probably therefore mine, as I constantly learn from her).
Lady Bird’s death underscores the importance for all of us to focus on the legacy that we will leave. What areas should we focus on that will make our hearts sing? Where can we work for hours and still feel energetic? What will we be remembered for, how have we improved the lives of others?
What will be your legacy?