Lady Bird Looks Back

In her own words, a Texas icon reflects on the lessons of a lifetime.
Lady Bird Looks Back
At the Johnson Ranch in Stonewall (1990).
Photograph by Steve Carver

If Texas had a queen, Lady Bird Johnson would be it. But this is a state that loves wealth yet despises aristocrats, so she will have to settle for the lifetime title of first lady. It suits her. She looks plain, even common; she has rooted herself firmly in nature through her love of wildflowers, and she stands for the simple pleasures of daily existence.

Do you take your coffee black or with sugah?” she asked, replacing her r with a long Southern h. She was standing in the kitchen of her home, which is on a high hillside in Northwest Austin, and as she poured the coffee with one hand, she leaned on her steel cane with the other. Everything about her—from her pleated navy skirt, sensible cotton print shirt, and flat black lace-up shoes to the fresh sunflowers on her table—seemed a comfortable fit.

For 21 years Lady Bird has lived on her own, without her famous husband. Her stature was once derived from Lyndon Johnson’s position, but make no mistake: Today it comes from the force of her personality. Throughout their highly public marriage, Lady Bird benefited from the comparison with LBJ. He was ham-handed, gruff, often offensive; she was gentle, polite, always easy company. He was prone to excess and violent mood swings, and a careless pursuer of women; she was balanced, calm, and committed to the awesome responsibility of keeping him under control. In the hard times he gave us controversy over Vietnam; she gave us the Eden-like serenity of gardens.

Over the years, she became the embodiment of much of what we think about Texas women of her generation. To begin with, there’s her hair: rolled, teased, waved at the front, and sprayed into place. Go to any garden club in Texas on any day of the year, and you’ll find a room full of Lady Bird wannabes. Nellie Connally, John’s wife, copied her hairstyle. So did Janey Briscoe, Dolph’s wife. Ann Richards adapted it slightly, turning it into a silver helmet suitable for war. Then there’s Lady Bird’s manner: nice but unwavering, and always a little suspicious that a conversation is about to turn into criticism of Lyndon. Whenever I look at a photograph of her, I see a template of my mother and my grandmother, women who sacrificed their own wants and desires for their families and therefore would not allow anyone to say an unkind word.

By now, of course, many biographers have spoken ill of Lyndon Johnson, calling him everything from an adulterer to a thief. It’s not surprising, then, that Lady Bird has been reluctant to speak publicly. It has been several years since she gave an in-depth interview to the media, and this particular interview was first requested more than three years ago.

She moved into her high-ceilinged living room, its walls filled with pictures of flowers and scenes from nature, and looked out her window for deer among the scrubby woods below. “I’m in constant battle with the deer out here,” she said. “I feel sorry for the poor deer. The land is so built up now there’s nothing for them to eat. They’re starving, but they still make me mad!”

This is the way Mrs. Johnson naturally talks: of the outdoors, the deer, the weather, the way heavenly light ought to fall on the land near sundown, and a good deal about getting the colors just right for a meadow of wildflowers she’s thinking about planting. She will be 82 years old on December 22, and this year’s birthday signals the onset of yet another phase of her relationship with the earth. This spring she will open the new location of the National Wildflower Research Center on a 42-acre site southwest of Austin.

Our interview took place over an eight-hour period at her house in Austin, during lunch at an Austin restaurant, and on the grounds of the new wildflower center. Once she started talking, she seemed happy, even eager, to reminisce about her life.

Let’s talk awhile to history,” I said to Lady Bird as I placed a tape recorder between us before the interview began.

Oh, yes,” she said, staring into her coffee cup reflectively, “let’s do.”

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in Texas?

When we began in public service in 1937, Texas was a rural, agricultural state. The biggest voting bloc was the farmers and ranchers. Things really changed when Lyndon helped FDR get the Rural Electrification Act through the House in 1936. Until then, farmers and their wives had no electricity. Once they got dams, they got electricity and then farm-to-market roads. Then both men and women had a way to get to the city to work. It really opened up the state.

Fifty-eight years later, Texas is an urban, technological state. Some days I hardly recognize it. I’m not really sure that Lyndon could be elected today in Texas. For one thing, he was never really comfortable with television. Lyndon liked owning TV stations, but as far as using it as a tool of explanation, persuasion, a transfer of himself and his beliefs and desires into the public mind, he didn’t ever really make friends with television. He was a son of the courthouse steps. He loved going to the county seat on a Saturday afternoon and mingling with the old farmers with their drooping moustaches. They would chew tobacco and sit, looking very intently at you, as if they were peering into your mind to get whatever you were talking about.

What has happened since President Johnson died that would have made him angry or troubled?

In many ways I guess you could say Lyndon was lucky he died when he did. He couldn’t have borne to see the presidency denigrated in the minds of the people the way it has been since Watergate. I don’t mean to add to the many bad things that have been said about President Nixon. I just mean the public reaction to the office since Watergate has continued to decline. That

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