Lady Bird Johnson was the 36th President of the United States and the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson. Lady Bird Johnson served as first lady from 1963 to 1969, and she backed the “war on poverty,” the Headstart Program, and the beauty of Washington, D.C. Lady Bird wrote the 800-page A White House Diary after her husband’s reign. She was also involved in beautification projects and women’s rights concerns until her death in 2007 at the age of 94.
Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas. Claudia was once described by a family nurse as “pretty as a ladybird.” The moniker stayed.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Texas in Austin, then went on to study journalism with the goal of becoming a newspaper reporter.
Claudia met Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was working as a congressional staffer at the time, in the summer of 1934. Claudia and Johnson married just seven weeks after their first date in November 1934. In the mid- to late-1940s, they had two daughters, Lynda and Luci. Claudia used her wealth to fund her husband’s first electoral campaign.
U.S. First Lady
President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas while riding in a motorcade on November 22, 1963. When the gunfire rang out, Vice President Johnson was only two cars behind Kennedy. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president a few hours later aboard Air Force One on its way back to Washington, D.C. Claudia went on to become the first lady of the United States.
Lady Bird served in the position from 1963 to 1969; in 1964, her husband defeated Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for the presidency. Johnson won by a landslide, with public mood overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats and Goldwater’s extreme conservatism; he garnered 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest margin of victory in U.S. election history.
Claudia, also known as Lady Bird Johnson at the time, backed the “war on poverty” and the Headstart Program as first lady. She also tried to beautify Washington, D.C. by planting bulbs and trees along roadsides to draw attention to the mounting crisis of habitat loss and species extinction. She founded the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, and her efforts resulted in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the first significant legislative campaign initiated by a first lady.
Lady Bird came to Portland, Oregon, in June 1968, with then-Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, to give a presentation on a new style of conservation to the American Institute of Architects. She spoke on a community-wide approach to conservation and urbanization. “The answers cannot be found in piece-milled reform,” Lady Bird stated. “The job really requires thoughtful interrelation of the whole environment. Not only in buildings but parks, not only parks but highways, not only highways but open spaces and green belts. A beautification in my mind is far more than a matter of cosmetics. To me, it describes the whole effort to bring the natural world and the manmade world to harmony. To bring order, usefulness, delight to our whole environment. And that of course only begins with trees and flowers and landscaping.”
Johnson experienced a stroke in 2002, which made it difficult for her to communicate. She died on July 11, 2007, in West Lake Hills, Texas, at the age of 94.
Because of Johnson’s commitment to environmental preservation, Columbia Island in the District of Columbia was christened Lady Bird Johnson Park in her honor in 1968. It has two memorials, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac and the Navy and Marine Memorial, and is well-known for its landscape, which includes daffodils and tulips in the spring and stunning fall foliage.
Following her husband’s killing, Johnson authored the 800-page A White House Diary, which recounted his life, including the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.
Johnson continued to be involved in beautifying efforts. Her passion for native wildflowers motivated her to establish the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin, Texas, in 1982. In 1998, it was renamed in her honor.
Johnson was also an enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights, calling the Equal Rights Amendment “the right thing to do.” President Gerald Ford awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and President Ronald Reagan awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.