On a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I expected to learn a lot about Lyndon Baines Johnson and the time he spent as President of the United States. Which I did. There were so many tidbits of history I had never known before. As we meandered through the exhibits, I pondered how truly difficult was the time in our nation’s history when this man was called upon to lead us. I found myself wishing I had asked my parents more about how it had impacted them to live through it. In addition, our time at the library made me wish I had paid a lot more attention in history class. But at the end of this visit to one of Texas’ three (count ’em, three!) presidential libraries, my most prevalent thought, my biggest takeaway, was this: What I really wish is that I could have known this President’s wife, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson.
Maybe It Was Her Portrait
The White House Historical Association’s website maintains all the official portraits of America’s first ladies, which you can see here. How fascinating are the women’s faces and the angles at which they chose to be portrayed. Every portrait is, in essence, each first lady’s official “look,” the way she wants to be remembered after her time in the White House as the wife of the most influential man in the world.
Lady Bird Johnson’s portrait is done by the artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who is best known for her unfinished portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, she’s also the third artist who was finally able to paint a depiction of President LBJ that he liked.
What draws me in is the evident sense of peace and purpose I see in Mrs. Johnson’s eyes. This was a woman who had eagerly entered into marriage with her polar opposite personality and found much to enjoy about it. Where Lyndon was a boisterous Texan with big ideas and an ego to match, Lady Bird was the more strong, silent type. Lady Bird’s public remarks about her husband were always supportive, her private attentions toward him, likewise. Self-control seems to have been her strong suit.
As a first lady, Mrs. Johnson held back criticism, but was confidently forthcoming for necessary change. On account of the fact that I’m a woman who speaks before she thinks from time to time (okay, a lot), I greatly respect that aspect of Lady Bird Johnson’s character. She embraced her destiny and gave one hundred percent of her best to every task, and chose her words carefully.
Perhaps It’s More Her History
As I was gathering my thoughts about this blog post, I searched the Internet to find out how many United States presidents were actually from Texas. Furthermore, I wondered if all those Texas presidents’ first ladies were native-born to the Lone Star State.
What I found out was that Barbara Bush was born in New York, and Laura Bush was born in Midland, but Lady Bird Johnson was born just a few short hours east of Dallas in Karnack, a tiny town near scenic Caddo Lake State Park. All three of these elegant ladies have interesting personalities and phenomenal legacies. Yet, in my mind, Lady Bird holds an additional element of intrigue, and I wonder if it might just be because of where she’s from.
We Texans are funny about Texas. All of us have a favorite part, a region that perfectly fits us, a town we call our home. By the same token, most Texans will tell you which part of the state they “don’t care that much for.” Those who live near the Coast might have a hard time transplanting to the panhandle. Small town residents might vacation in Texas’ bigger cities, but they are quick to say they’d never want to live in one.
One of my friends loves, loves, loves her part of Texas, but she’ll completely turn up her nose when I talk about East Texas. There’s just something about it that she, well, doesn’t care that much for. I, however, love it. There are beautiful lakes, piney forests, wineries, small towns to explore and not a whole lot of cell service. It’s backwoodsy. It’s mysterious. Definitely off the beaten path.
Mike and I took a fun trip to the place where Lady Bird grew up, and we drove right by her childhood home. There’s no real fanfare or gift shop or anything, like I thought there might be. You wouldn’t even know to look at it if you hadn’t actually been looking for it. But it’s big and looks like it would have been considered quite a stately mansion back in the day.
I think having experienced a touch of East Texas mystique has added to my fascination with the most influential person to ever have come from this unique region of the Lone Star State.
Maybe it’s Because We’re Different
To be certain, my wish that I could have known Lady Bird Johnson isn’t borne out of suspected similarities. On the contrary, I think it could be because of our definite differences. We likely would have agreed on many topics, but I wonder if our differences would have formed the real foundation for an interesting friendship.
Chief among those differences would have been our societal status and platform of influence. I mean, the wife of a President? That’s the height of status and the pinnacle of platform. Lady Bird Johnson lived in the White House, and her influence was quite far-reaching.
She had servants, secret service protection and owned a big ranch in the Texas Hill Country. I, on the other hand, live in a Dallas apartment and write an intentionally adventurous blog specifically for Texans Over 50. I do have a man who helps with the dishes and would lay across the railroad track to protect me, but the biggest piece of Texas we’ve ever owned was two acres in Bushland.
How would any woman not love the position of first lady? On the other hand, how could any woman stand the stress? In fact, history reflects there have been both. Some first ladies have despised the scrutiny and lack of privacy, while others have cheerfully taken to the role with great enthusiasm, ready to pour new passion into beloved causes. Lady Bird appears to have been the latter. Her challenges were daunting, her obligations many. Yet, her smile persisted, and she worked tirelessly to fulfill her role.
Well, there’s this little ol’ thing that’s a pretty big difference between me and Lady Bird Johnson. (But shhh…we’re not going to talk about it.)
Could Be Because She Journaled
All of America’s first ladies have been intelligent, well-educated women, but Lady Bird may have been the one with the greatest desire to document the days of her life and the moments of her time in the White House. She did have a degree in journalism, after all. In fact, her book, A White House Diary, is such a full account of her days in the White House that it takes over 13 hours to read. How she had the time to preserve such detail is beyond me. But any woman who puts her thoughts down on paper is someone I want to befriend.
Just think of all the history that has been gathered from the journals of American men and women. Without written stories from real lives, we would have a much harder time visualizing what life was like in other time periods. Stories from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, pocket notebook writings of Mark Twain and Corrie ten Boom’s accounts of life as a Nazi prisoner are priceless historical treasures. I don’t know if anyone will be reading my journals in 100 years, but we’re certainly still reading Lady Bird’s diary 57 years after she wrote it.
This is the beginning of Lady Bird’s diary entry which describes November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated:
“It all began so beautifully. After a drizzle in the morning, the sun came out bright and clear. We were driving into Dallas. In the lead car were the President and Mrs. Kennedy, John and Nellie Connally, a Secret Service car full of men, and then our car with Lyndon and me and Senator Ralph Yarborough.” (You can read the rest of that day’s events from Mrs. Johnson’s perspective here.)
And Then, Of Course, The Bluebonnets
I recently read an article about Lady Bird’s bluebonnets by a man who grew up throwing trash out of the family car. If they stopped for a burger, his dad instructed him to throw the smelly wrapper out the window. No one cared much about littering back then, he said. We didn’t think one thing about not doing it.
Lady Bird became the nation’s champion for prettier public spaces when her husband’s Highway Beautification Act was signed into legislation. Junkyards were cleaned up and highway billboards were regulated. The Texas Hill Country was made especially beautiful by the planting of indigenous wildflowers along its roadways. The President’s motivation was that the America we see from major highways be a beautiful sight. To that end, he was completely successful here in Texas. Bluebonnets stretching for miles along any Texas road is a lovely thing to behold.
Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy is not limited to her time in the White House. Nor is it limited to the lives of her children. Because of her hugely successful beautification projects, Mrs. Johnson’s greatest contribution to history, at least here in Texas, is the bluebonnets we enjoy from spring to spring.
For me, wildflowers are joy-giving. They have enriched my life and fed my soul and given beautiful memories to sustain me. Beyond their aesthetic value, there are other valid reasons for their increased use. As we experience problems with lowering water tables and increasing maintenance costs, incorporating nature’s bounty into our landscapes may provide a viable alternative in suitable areas to our concept of manicured clipped grass. — Lady Bird Johnson letter in National Wildflower Research Center report, “The First Ten Years: 1983-1993.”
Who would ever want to throw trash out of the car onto these beauties?
Thankful for the Friends I Have
That trip to the presidential library left me with much to think about, for sure. And truly, I wish I could have known Lady Bird Johnson, the gracious wife of POTUS number 36.
However, the friends I know and the friends I love today are filled with their own versions of Lady Bird’s good qualities. They are strong Texas women who speak well of their husbands, embrace their destinies and add beauty to their surroundings.
I bet Lady Bird would have liked them as much as I do.