Lady Bird Johnson Dies at 94

"Lady Bird" Johnson, the wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, died at 94. Though she rose to prominence as first lady, in the 34 years since her husband's death, Mrs. Johnson earned renown in her own right as a champion of beautifying the outdoors. She lived in Austin, Texas.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, died yesterday at her home in Austin. She was 94.

And here to talk about the former first lady, NPR's Cokie Roberts, an old friend of Lady Bird Johnson's. Cokie?

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. Now, you know, at the time, in the '60s, and with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, people tended to think of first ladies as retiring behind-the-scenes tea-pourers.

ROBERTS: But they never have been. It's always been a misconception. And it was certainly a misconception when it came to Lady Bird Johnson. Lyndon Johnson says she was the brains and money of the family. And I was so pleased when the Johnson Library released the tapes of Lyndon Johnson talking on the phone to all kinds of people because it became very clear when they were released what kind of role Lady Bird Johnson played. Listen to her critiquing one of his press conferences. Here she is.

Ms. LADY BIRD JOHNSON: When you are going to have a prepared text you need to have the opportunity to study it a little bit more and to read it with a little more conviction and interest and change of pace.

President LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: Well, the trouble is that they criticize you for taking so much time. They want to use it all for questions.

ROBERTS: You could hear him getting defensive. And as he goes on, he sort of backs further and further away from the phone. And he took her advice. He - she was his main counselor. In later years when the tape came out, I teased her about it, even after her terrible stroke, where she was unable to talk these last few years when she's been incredibly valiant. She still enjoyed a good story. And she loved that one.

MONTAGNE: And Lady Bird Johnson also went on the campaign trail and sometimes under very difficult circumstances.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. For decades she was on the campaign trail, from the 1930s on, from the time he was in the House of Representatives. But it got tough in 1964 after the president had signed the civil rights bill. And the South was really up and arms, Renee. And so she decided, she decided to do an old-fashioned whistle-stop train tour of the South.

My parents were along on that trip and they described it. Sometimes there were furious, angry mobs on the platform. And Mrs. Johnson would just come out and charm them. Here she is in Virginia.

Ms. JOHNSON: To me Virginia means beautiful rolling country, exquisite gardens and love of family.

ROBERTS: Her ladylike demeanor, her reminder that her mother was from Alabama, it had the effect of calming the crowds and the whistle-stop tour was an enormous success.

MONTAGNE: You know, there was one cause Mrs. Johnson has become known for: the beautification of this country. And in a way in its day it was an environmental effort.

ROBERTS: Absolutely an environmental effort. You forget, our highways were blighted by horrible billboards and junk, trash. And she cleaned them up and planted the appropriate flowers for that place all along our highways. But the place that to me is the biggest success is here, our beautiful capital city, which she just completely cleaned up and planted with tens of thousands of azaleas and tulips and daffodils. And the numbers are just astounding. And every spring when it comes into bloom, you have Lady Bird Johnson to thank.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Cokie, your families were friends. How did they meet?

ROBERTS: My father was elected to Congress in 1940. My 24-year-old mother was here with two little babies, neither whom was me. And you still had to go calling. It was before World War II. You called on the House members one day, Senate members another, Cabinet another. And the first people to pick up my mother, to take her calling, were Lady Bird Johnson and Pauline Gore, and the families have been very close friends forever more, and Mrs. Johnson was a very, very special and kind woman.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Cokie Roberts speaking of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of the late President Lyndon Johnson, who died at her home in Austin. She was 94.

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Former First Lady 'Lady Bird' Johnson Dead at 94

Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson on their ranch, Austin, Texas, in December 1963. i

President Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson at a barbecue party on their ranch in Austin, Texas, in December 1963. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson on their ranch, Austin, Texas, in December 1963.

President Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson at a barbecue party on their ranch in Austin, Texas, in December 1963.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Headshot of Lady Bird Johnson wearing a pearl necklace and a brooch i

Lady Bird Johnson in 1962. As a child in East Texas, she earned the nickname that would stay with her throughout her life when a nursemaid remarked that she was "as pretty as a lady bird." Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Headshot of Lady Bird Johnson wearing a pearl necklace and a brooch

Lady Bird Johnson in 1962. As a child in East Texas, she earned the nickname that would stay with her throughout her life when a nursemaid remarked that she was "as pretty as a lady bird."

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Johnson family photo taken circa 1966 i

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson pose with their daughters, Luci Baines and Lynda Bird, in front of the fireplace at the White House, circa 1966. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Johnson family photo taken circa 1966

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson pose with their daughters, Luci Baines and Lynda Bird, in front of the fireplace at the White House, circa 1966.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Lady Bird" Johnson, the wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, the nation's 36th president, died Wednesday at the age of 94.

Though she rose to prominence as first lady, in the 34 years since her husband's death, Mrs. Johnson earned renown in her own right as a champion of beautifying the outdoors. She lived in Austin, Texas, where she oversaw the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and a wildflower research center in her name.

'As Pretty as a Bird'

Claudia Alta Taylor was born to a prosperous East Texas family. She earned the nickname that would stay with her throughout her life when a nursemaid remarked that she was "as pretty as a lady bird."

In 1934, after a two-month courtship, she married Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a congressional aide.

"In our case, we were better together than we were apart," she said in a 1988 NBC News special. "And I knew that, and I loved my share of life with him."

An Influential First Lady

In later years, Mrs. Johnson came to be seen as much more than a gracious hostess and shy first lady. She had a vital influence on the career and temperament of her husband. She was also the financial brains of the family, bankrolling Lyndon Johnson's first run for office and turning an ailing Austin radio station into a financial success.

According to friends, Mrs. Johnson used her kindness and graciousness as a counterweight to her husband's outbursts. For example, after Lyndon Johnson's tirade against a young Houston radio reporter named Dan Rather, Mrs. Johnson got in the car and went after Rather, who was walking dejectedly toward the highway. She pulled up beside him and asked him to come back and have some punch, explaining, "That's just the way Lyndon sometimes is."

Other times, Lady Bird's disapproval could stop Lyndon Johnson right in his tracks, according to family friend and Austin radio personality Cactus Pryor.

"I always thought perhaps the most important words spoken in the White House were Lady Bird saying, 'Now Lyndon, now Lyndon,'" Pryor said.

A Devoted Partner

Throughout her marriage, she remained fiercely devoted to her husband, despite his extra-marital affairs. She was troubled to see how he was tormented by the country's divisions over civil rights and the Vietnam War.

During her 1988 interview with ABC, Mrs. Johnson read from her White House diary:

"The sties are coming back on Lyndon's eyes, first one and then the other, red and swollen and painful. I thought wryly that his life sounded more and more like the tribulations of Job. Nonetheless, he is remaining calm, even-tempered, serenely philosophic about politics. But about the war itself, he is deeply worried."

Campaigning for Civil Rights

At the time of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, Mrs. Johnson went on a four-day train trip through eight Southern states, campaigning for her husband at a time when race relations were boiling — the first solo whistle-stop tour of a first lady in history.

She showed a political skill and tenacity of purpose that prompted one writer to call those four days "the most courageous of her public life."

Lyndon Johnson retired from politics in 1969 under the pall of Vietnam. After his death in 1973, she lived to see him receive belated praise for his Great Society programs.

Lady Bird's unofficial biographer, Jan Jarboe Russell, maintains that history has been kinder to Mrs. Johnson.

"She really did stand for the very best in Lyndon B. Johnson: a strong activist commitment to government, a strong record on civil rights, a loyalty to family and country, and her own authenticity, by doing this conservation movement," Russell said.

A Passion for Aesthetics

But she will probably best be remembered for her passion for "beautification," a word she always considered prissy.

As a girl, she fell in love with wildflowers on her long strolls through the woodlands of deep East Texas, and she brought that affection to the White House.

Throughout Washington, D.C., she had millions of azalea bushes, dogwoods, cherry trees, tulips and daffodils planted in public places.

And from the bully pulpit of the first lady's office, she pushed for the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, popularly known as "the Lady Bird Act," which sought to eliminate billboards and encourage roadside plantings.

"There is a growing feeling abroad in this land today that ugliness has been allowed too long, that it is time to say 'enough' and to act," she said at the time.

In 1982, she founded a wildflower research center in Austin, which, on her 85th birthday, was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It serves as a showplace for native plants and as an education center.

"I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont," she once said. "I just hate to see the land homogenized."

The Wildflower Center's current director, Bob Bruenig, says Lady Bird had a tremendous influence across the country, as other states have planted roadside wildflowers.

"She felt that, to have a good life, you had to have a strong connection to the land. And I think it distressed her to see our country diminished because of ugly housing developments, ugly urbanization and strip malls," Bruenig said. "It became her passion to awaken people to the natural beauty of our world."

Those who encountered her around Austin say Lady Bird possessed a natural beauty, says biographer Russell.

"Everyone has a story about having met Mrs. Johnson on a speech or in the grocery store or in a nursery, and she was always down to earth," Russell said. "So she was one of those rare public people who managed to hold on to her private self."

In her later years, which she called her "harvest years," Lady Bird Johnson spent time enjoying the large extended family of her two daughters, Lynda Robb and Luci Baines Johnson. The former first lady also lent support to favorite Democratic candidates.

Although legally blind in her later years, she never stopped appreciating the natural beauty of the land. Friends remember how she would have her driver stop the car so that she could get out and admire — even dimly — a brilliant field of wildflowers.

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