A Lady First

She was a small-town girl, a wife and mother, an environmentalist, a civil rights activist, a media mogul, and the only person who could tell the president of the United States to go jump in a lake. But more than any of those things, Lady Bird Johnson was, to her dying day, exactly what we always imagined her to be.

I first met Lady Bird on a rainy day in November 1994. I had gone to her home in northwest Austin to interview her for an article for this magazine on the occasion of her upcoming eighty-second birthday. We met in the kitchen, where she made coffee, leaning on a steel cane. Her hair was completely gray, her face creased with lines, and even though it was overcast and we were indoors, she wore a pair of sunglasses with large white frames. To be in her presence that day was both moving and unnerving. She was clearly arthritic and going blind from macular degeneration, and these ailments made her seem vulnerable; yet as she stood at the stove, dressed in a pleated navy skirt, cotton blouse, and black lace-up shoes with crepe soles, it was impossible not to feel intimidated.

Sam Rayburn called her “the darn greatest woman who ever lived,” and Lady Bird Johnson’s was indeed a remarkable life. Born in the small East Texas town of Karnack, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1934 as the 21-year-old bride of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was then a congressional aide; twenty-nine years later she became the first lady when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the wake of her death in July at age 94, tributes and speeches touted her graciousness and fortitude, her highway beautification campaign that helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement, and her dedication to racial equality.

Today, many younger Texans have no memory of Lady Bird at the height of her power, and those who do may be inclined to think of her as belonging to the past, a woman who brought her husband coffee and newspapers in bed, ironed his shirts, and quietly tolerated his excesses. But one of the secrets to Lady Bird’s success was that she always dealt from strength, never weakness. Publicly she pretended to

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