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

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