December 22 - Happy Birthday, Lady Bird Johnson

Posted on December 22, 2017

She's just famous because of her husband, right?

Like other FLOTUS (First Ladies of the United States), Lady Bird Johnson seems like a detail of her husband's biography. Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President, was the one who actually DID things of historical importance. 


As often happens, the answer is both negative and nuanced.

No, she is not just a footnote of her husband's story. As a matter of fact, without Lady Bird, LBJ might never have become president!

(Note that both Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson had the same initials. But when I say "LBJ," I mean Lyndon.)

The two LBJs.

Also, Lady Bird is not just a footnote because she made her own contributions - including, notably, the beautification of America's roads.

But of course, LBJ is the more famous of the two. Let's face it, during Lady Bird's lifetime, she was expected to take a supporting role.

But let's bring her into the limelight!

Born on this date in 1912, and named at that time Claudia Alta Taylor, Lady Bird got her unusual nickname from her nursemaid, who always said that she was a pretty as a ladybird. Lady Bird's siblings and father called her Lady (her mother died when she was young), and her classmates sometimes teased her by calling her Bird - but Lyndon Johnson also called her Bird!

Lady Bird Johnson was well educated for a woman of her time, and she had a good head for business. She had some inheritance money and was able to pay the costs of her husband's first campaign for Congress; she ran his office while he served in the Navy; she invested their earnings so well that she was able to turn a comfortable income into wealth - thanks to her investments, the Johnsons became millionaires. 

As to that claim that Lady Bird Johnson made her own contributions while serving as First Lady, she actually did some "firsts" while doing so. She was the first FLOTUS to interact directly with Congress, the first to hire her own press secretary and chief of staff, the first to make a solo tour on the election trail, and the first to hold the Bible as her husband took the oath of office. 

People often point out that she invented the modern role of a First Lady.

Lady Bird was able to make a difference with Southerners and helped to get John F. Kennedy elected President (and her husband as Vice President) in seven Southern states. Much later, as FLOTUS, she traveled on her own train through eight Southern states promoting the Civil Rights Act, giving 45 speeches in just 5 days!

The Highway Beautification Act Lady Bird promoted limited billboards and emphasized planting roadside areas. The act also called for the removal or screening of junk yards. 

This effort always reminds me of the book Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. In this fictional book, a woman plants lupine everywhere she goes in Maine in an effort to make the world more beautiful. 

By the way, beautiful roadsides do make a difference when you're traveling, for sure. I remember traveling in some places of the world where there were junked cars and litter along the sides of the roads, and it totally spoiled what the natural beauty of the landscape. Even sparsely vegetated places have a kind of barren beauty if they aren't all junked up!

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