Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912–2007) served as the First Lady of the United States from 1963 to 1969. A well-educated and insightful figure, she acted as a supportive force during the political career of her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who served as a longtime Texas congressman before becoming vice president and then president of the United States. Among her signature efforts as First Lady was a program of highway beautification. In later years, she remained in the public eye through her work as a women's rights activist.
Anative of Karnack, Texas, Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, the daughter of businessman Thomas Jefferson Taylor and his wife, Minnie (Patillo) Taylor. As she would later recall regarding her unusual nickname, when she was an infant, her nurse declared that she was “pretty as a lady bird.” An alternate account attributes the moniker to a nursery rhyme recited by her father at the time of Johnson's birth. Either way, the nickname stuck throughout her life.
Thomas Jefferson Taylor had made a small fortune as a cotton grower and general-store owner. His wife, whose family roots lay in Alabama, helped instill a love of learning in her daughter and two older sons, but she died from a fall when Johnson was five years old. After her mother's death, an aunt moved into the Taylor home to help care for the children, aided by the family's African-American domestic servants. Growing up, Johnson played with the children of these servants, and her youthful observations of the discrimination they and other black Americans experienced made her a firm supporter of civil rights.
As a teenager, Johnson was a bright student and she graduated from high school near the top of her class. She attended St. Mary's School for Girls, a junior college in Dallas, before enrolling at the University of Texas in the state capital, Austin. In 1933, she earned an undergraduate degree in history and journalism, initially intending to become a newspaper reporter. The following year, however, the course of her life altered when she met Lyndon Baines Johnson. A fellow Texan then working as an aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg, Lyndon proposed on their first date; although his initial proposal did not result in marriage, the couple did not delay long. They wed in November 1934, just two months after first meeting.
Lyndon Johnson had begun his career as a schoolteacher, but he had political ambitions. After parting ways with Kleberg, he was appointed to the position of state director for the New Deal era's National Youth Administration. In 1937, he decided to run for Congress in a special election called to fill a vacant seat. Lady Bird Johnson, who had a small inheritance from her mother, helped finance her husband's brief and victorious campaign. Four years later, she managed a successful reelection campaign, mounted while Lyndon was fighting overseas in World War II. Johnson's managerial astuteness also led her to purchase and turn around a struggling Austin radio station in 1942. This investment provided a source of long-term income for the Johnsons and would help fund Lyndon Johnson's political ambitions throughout his career.
That same year, Lyndon Johnson returned to the United States. His congressional office required them to live primarily in Washington, D.C., where Lady Bird settled into her role as a political wife. She gave birth to daughter Lynda in 1944 and a second daughter, Luci, in 1947. The following year, she campaigned on behalf of her husband in a hardfought Democratic primary for one of Texas's two U.S. Senate seats. Lyndon Johnson narrowly won the primary and later the general election. He rose to become Senate Majority Leader in 1954, but suffered a major heart attack in 1955. While he recovered, Lady Bird Johnson helped run his office, and she also worked to persuade him to give up some of his unhealthy habits, such as cigarette smoking.
After Lyndon Johnson campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president in 1960, he joined the ticket of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy as vice president. Young and charismatic, Kennedy faced strong opposition from Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon, who was then vice president under the immensely popular Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lady Bird Johnson set out on the campaign trail, again working to promote her husband's career. The Democratic ticket carried the country by a slim margin. As Second Lady, Johnson traveled with her husband to more than 30 countries and took part in numerous public appearances.
On November 22, 1963, Johnson accompanied her husband and the Kennedys on a public visit to Dallas. As the presidential motorcade traveled through the city, an assassin shot at the president, who was riding in an opentopped car. “The sound seemed to me to come from a building on the right above my shoulder,” Johnson later recalled in her diary. “A moment passed, and then two more shots rang out in rapid succession. There had been such a gala air about the day that I thought the noise must come from firecrackers—part of the celebration.” The president was struck and killed; the Johnsons, riding in a separate car with U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, escaped injury and were rushed by secret service from the scene.
Within hours, doctors had declared Kennedy dead, police had arrested a suspect, and Lyndon Baines Johnson had been sworn in as president of the United States. “I feel like I am suddenly onstage for a part I never rehearsed,” wrote Johnson after the couple moved into the White House in early December. She later acknowledged that her predecessor remained in her mind for much of her tenure as First Lady; Jackie Kennedy, extremely popular for her beauty and manner, had become a cultural icon.
Nevertheless, Johnson proved to be an unusually active First Lady. Citing Eleanor Roosevelt as her inspiration, she vigorously took part in public and political life. She established the Office of the First Lady, hired a press secretary, and acted as an independent campaigner for causes and candidates alike. In October of 1964, she traveled throughout the American South to speak about the recently enacted Civil Rights Bill that overturned Jim Crow laws and ended segregation. Historians often attribute her tour to helping bolster Johnson to win election to the presidency in his own right the following month. The First Lady was also a strong supporter of her husband's signature domestic initiative, the War on Poverty, and was particularly known for her support of the Head Start early education program.
A firm believer that pleasant spaces enhanced community spirit and individual mental health, Johnson used her office to promote the cause of beautification. She spurred development of neighborhood parks, flower beds, and public benches in and around Washington, D.C., through the First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital. She also hoped to expand this program and set her sights on highway beautification with the aim of deterring the encroachment of billboards and trash heaps alongside the sides of the nation's then-young interstate highway system.
Helped by the overt public support of her husband, who called for highway beautification as part of his State of the Union address in 1965, Johnson became the first president's wife to launch a major legislative program. Her efforts resulted in the passage of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which sought to limit unsightly roadside features and encourage the planting of strips of grass and flowers. “This bill will bring the wonders of nature back into our daily lives,” commented Johnson in remarks at the bill's signing reproduced in his public papers. “This bill will enrich our spirits and restore a small measure of our national greatness.”
Despite these successes, Johnson's tenure was troubled by the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. Popular opinion turned more and more against the conflict as it wore on, and the public protests, mounting casualties, and limited achievements weighed on his mind in spite of his belief in the war's necessity. The First Lady worried about her husband's health and welcomed his decision to decline to seek another term. On her advice, the president announced that not only would he not seek the Democratic Party's nomination, but he would not accept it should it be offered. The party instead nominated his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who lost in a landslide to Republican challenger Nixon. Johnson's term ended at Nixon's inauguration in January of 1969.
Throughout her time as First Lady, Johnson was a voluminous diarist. She recorded her thoughts and activities at the White House in great detail, often speaking to a tape recorder and ultimately authoring some 1.7 million words in the small corner office she designated as her own. In 1970, she published A White House Diary, a lengthy memoir drawn from those personal diaries. The work provided an unusual insider look at the pressures and rewards of the nation's top office and it also showcased Johnson's personal voice. “She is intelligent, though not intellectual; observant though not analytical; practical though sentimental; rooted in the earth she loves; tough, though loving,” assessed Maria Mannes in a New York Times review of the book. “History and a great many people will remember her as a valuable woman … who gave the best of herself to her family and to her country,” Mannes added.
After the Johnsons left the White House, they settled at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas. The former president retreated mostly into retirement, but his wife stayed busy with business and philanthropic work. She was named to the board of regents of the University of Texas, which became the home of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. Lyndon Johnson's retirement was cut short by heart troubles worsening by his resumption of smoking cigarettes and a rapid weight gain. He suffered another serious heart attack in the early summer of 1972. With his health failing, the former president suspected, rightly, that he did not have much time left; he died in January of 1973.
Johnson experienced declining health in her later years. She suffered a mild stroke in 1993 and a more serious one nine years later. This second stroke impeded her speech and failing eyesight left her legally blind in the final years of her life. Despite these challenges, Johnson made occasional public appearances and continued supporting the Wildflower Center, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in the late 1990s. She died at her home after a brief illness on July 11, 2007, at the age of 94.
Americans honored Johnson for her legacy of service, particularly in the name of beautification and conservation. A CBS News obituary by Amy Clark quoted fellow former First Lady Betty Ford as stating that her “beautification programs benefitted the entire nation. She translated her love for the land and the environment into a lifetime of achievement.” Soon after Johnson's death, the City of Austin voted to rename a local reservoir Lady Bird Lake in recognition of her efforts to transform the formerly polluted area into a thriving recreational asset.
Johnson, Lady Bird, A White House Diary, University of Texas Press, 1970.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965.
Russell, Jan Jarboe, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, Scribner, 1999.
New York Times, October 25, 1970, Maria Mannes, “Five Turbulent Years as Mistress of the White House”; July 11, 2007, Enid Nemy, “Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady, Dies at 94.”
CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lady-bird-johnson-dies-at-94/ (July 11, 2007), Amy Clark, “Lady Bird Johnson Dies at 94.”
Public Broadcasting System, http://www.pbs.org/ladybird/index.html (December 30, 2017), “Lady Bird Johnson.”□