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July 18, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson - Steel Magnolia

Kevin E. Dayhoff

A week ago today, Lady Bird Johnson, the celebrated wife of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, passed away at age 94.

A Texan, she was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, but her family called her "Lady." In her teenage years her classmates called her "Bird." It has been reported that she did not care for that nickname at that time, but it did stick. Later, her husband also referred to her as "Bird."

There are many reasons to celebrate the life and accomplishments of this steel magnolia of first ladies. Her husband was president at a tumultuous time in our nation's history. For many younger readers, President Johnson's term of office - from November 22, 1963 to January 20, 1969 - might very well be characterized as "ancient history;" but many of us baby boomers remember it well.

(For an excellent first hand personal account of Mrs. Johnson, be sure to read Roy Meachum's "Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson" published on The Tentacle July 13.)

The outpouring of public affection for the former first lady, associated by many as part of the 1960s of long ago history, has caught many younger people by surprise.

Many have read, since her death, about how she championed conservation issues. Interestingly enough, she did not use the word environmentalist, but as much as anyone, she was an environmental pioneer.

Her lasting legacy of cleaning-up roadside America, her interest in wildflowers, conservation, and public beautification are only a small part of her rightful place in history as one of America's great public servants.

Other reports recall how she worked tirelessly for her husband's political career. One adjective that has frequently been used is "tenacious." That is certainly an appropriate way to characterize her support of her husband, whom history has appropriately remembered as one of the more "cantankerous," (to put it politely) political actors of all time.

What isn't as well reported was her incredible influence upon her husband and her advocacy for civil rights, education and housing initiatives, and welfare programs, including Head Start. Remember, it was President Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. You should also know that then-Senate Majority Leader Johnson was largely responsible for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

For those who comprehend the unyielding influence of southern ladies of clout, conviction, and conscious, the significance and power of Lady Bird Johnson is easily understood.

Not very well known is the fact that her mother would invite black people into their home for social occasions; a practice which was considered unique for its time in the south.

A writer all through her childhood, Lady Bird wanted to be a newspaper reporter before she met her husband. She graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism in 1934. This was, of course, at a time when being a reporter was not considered an appropriate career for a young woman.

Shortly afterwards, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, who it is said, proposed to her on their very first date. They married on November 17, 1934.

Mr. Johnson had political aspirations long before he met Lady Bird. His father served five terms in the Texas legislature and most of his family's social circles revolved around politics and politicians.

History has long debated the role of a First Lady and, to be certain, exactly what role the wife of a president plays is personality driven. The contemporary media would be fascinated with her influence on her husband and his agenda.

Fortunately for history and prosperity, she was a writer and much of her legacy in the revolutionary early 1960's may be revealed with an old, out of print copy of "A White House Diary," which she meticulously penned during her residency there.

In his roots as a "New Dealer," Lady Bird's husband's preoccupation for much of his tenure as an elected official, beginning in the House of Representatives in 1937, were social-welfare issues. He began his political career as a strong advocate of rural electrification, but he also quickly became proficient in military matters.

Many younger readers of history often come across President Johnson's name as a function of the history of Vietnam War; and although he was well versed in the workings of the military, it has been suggested that he resented being entangled in the South-East Asian conflict as it was distracting from his domestic agendum.

When it came to shepherding his civil rights initiatives through a reluctant Congress and skeptical nation, Mr. Johnson's secret weapon was his wife and Lindy Boggs, the wife of the then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.

Relatively unreported, but captured by Michelle Miller, a CBS correspondent, these two southern belles did a "car-stop" tour of the Deep South to convince people "of the merits of civil rights."

Memorialized by Ms. Miller, "astonished locals couldn't quite understand how these white gloved lily-white women could believe such things. But their husbands' instincts were right on the money: as belles of the South, they still held the respect of the people. But don't believe it didn't take bravery on their part. Ambassador Boggs said they were anxious. But Lady Bird's philosophy was to never let them see you sweat!"

It is understandable why a grateful nation has paused to pay its respect to a formidable but paradoxically shy and graceful woman. Lady Bird Johnson was a steel magnolia, who had the backbone to stand by and, at times, stand up to and greatly influence an equally great president of legendary volatility in an era of "great tumult and uncertainty."

We benefit every day for the fact that she lived and vowed to make a difference.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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