Lady Bird Looks Back
In her own words, a Texas icon reflects on the lessons of a lifetime.
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 would have troubled Lyndon.
Then, of course, Lyndon died before John Connally became a Republican. That would have been hard for him to take, but he died in an era when party discipline meant something. To Lyndon, party discipline was everything. I don’t think he would have ever become a Republican himself, but he would have been sorely pushed if Nelson Rockefeller had been nominated because he liked him so much as a person and as a public servant.
Also, I just don’t think he would have believed that we had come to the point in our country when people were talking openly about the failure of the public school system. He couldn’t have swallowed that, because the public school system is one of the landmarks of America. We are perhaps the only country that has succeeded in offering an education to every child. Lyndon passed more than sixty bills about education as president—everything from Head Start to adult education—and he would never have given up the ideal of public schools.
LBJ was the first president in modern history to find himself hated as a person as well as for his policies. But since then every president, including President Clinton, has evoked the same kind of visceral hatred that Johnson did over Vietnam. What do you think triggered his unpopularity?
I think the reason that so many people got angry at Lyndon was because he stuffed so many changes down the nation’s throat. Don’t imagine that the Vietnam War was the hardest thing for him to take. Oh, no, it was not! The upheaval over civil rights was harder on him, I think, because it was our own people—the people we grew up with—who were waving the placards and glaring.
I remember some of Lyndon’s best advisers came to him when he was about to launch full-scale civil rights through the Congress. They told him, “You better not do this. You’re very popular right now, and you’re going to lose it all over civil rights.”
And I remember Lyndon told them, “What’s political capital for then, if you don’t use it?”
What would he think of the changes his legislative agenda has brought about?
Lyndon took great satisfaction in getting the Voting Rights Act through Congress. However, he seemed to know intuitively that the bill would make us more of a two-party nation. I remember that he walked into the family quarters of the White House, and there were a few people there ready to do a postmortem on the bill. There were always a few close friends who gathered around at the end of a long fight just to talk things over.
“Well,” Lyndon told them, “I think I just may have handed the solid Democratic South to the Republican party.”
As Lady Bird talked, we were seated on the back porch of her two-level home. She wore white-rimmed dark glasses to shade her eyes from the sun. In the distance stood the Capitol and the University of Texas tower. It was pleasant just to listen to the sound of her voice: Its rhythm is velvety, lilting, definitely Southern, but with hardly a twang at all. By the sound of it, she could be from Charleston or Atlanta. “That was a won-n-n-duh-ful day,” she said, recalling one of many days past. “I’ve had so many won-n-n-duh-ful days.”
I showed her a copy of a letter she wrote to Lyndon when he worked as an administrative aide to Congressman Dick Kleberg. It was written one month after their first date, over breakfast in the Driskill Hotel in Austin, and one month before they were married in San Antonio. Lyndon had asked her to marry him on that first date, and by the time she wrote the letter, the “wine of youth,” as Lady Bird described it to me, was clearly flowing.
Your letter Saturday morning just came. I think it’s funny nobody has noticed that I look different. I feel different.
Lyndon, please tell me as soon as you can what the deal is. I’m afraid it’s politics. Oh, I know I haven’t any business—not any proprietary interest—but I would hate for you to go into politics. Don’t let me get things any more muddled for you than they are, though, dearest! . . . [her ellipses]
Did you change your mind about politics?
Oh, yes, I did. I remember the first public utterance of mine was about politics. I guess it was in the first congressional race in 1937, when Lyndon and I were just starting out in public service.
I was sitting at a banquet when somebody leaned over and said, “You might be called on to say just a word or two.” So I wrote something down on the back of an envelope. It was very simple, about two sentences long, about how politics could be a wonderful life for a man and his wife. And so it did turn out for me, but I cannot say that’s true these days.
Many biographers have had unpleasant things to say about your husband’s private life. Some have suggested that he may have been a manic-depressive. Do you think that’s true?
I think the world is too strung up about psychology today and too intrusive into the private thoughts of public figures. When people ask me these sort of things, I just say, “Look to your own lives. Look to yourself, everybody. Fix yourselves, and keep your problems to yourself.” The public should weigh what their public servants are doing, not their private, innermost feelings. We need to ask, “Are these policies working for America, or are they doing harm?” I think we are getting into a state of wanting to know so much about the intimacy of everyone’s lives that we don’t judge people by what they do for the country.
Lyndon was certainly a man of high emotions and strong feelings, of strong joys and strong pains. Life with him was an adventure, always exciting! He was awfully happy about his victories and awfully crushed about his defeats, but I never saw him too crushed to keep working.
How did you feel about his accepting the vice-presidential nomination after he lost a chance at the presidency?
I cannot say that I really wanted Lyndon to accept the vice presidency in 1960. It all happened so fast, and I was uncertain that it was the wisest course, but his role as majority leader of the Senate had played out. He’d done all he could do. I guess you could say that the orange had been sucked dry.
Lyndon knew that it would not be the same job in a new administration. He had served with a Republican president and a sizable Democratic majority and a very powerful Democratic Speaker in the House. Those were political characteristics that allowed Lyndon to work and get a lot of things done. It would be a very different atmosphere to have a Democratic president and a Democratic majority. The White House would be setting legislative policies, not the majority leader.
On the other hand, he realized the vice presidency had no real power and wouldn’t be as important a job either. But the way I viewed it, at least as vice president he’d still [preside over] the Senate, and it could be the capstone of his career there.
Do you think Lee Harvey Oswald killed president Kennedy?
I have no doubt that the findings of the Warren Commission are correct. I guess the two oddest committees Lyndon ever had to put together were the one to decide what to do about Senator Joseph McCarthy and the one he appointed to look into the assassination.
Lyndon was very concerned about the possibility of a conspiracy when it first happened. The reason he wanted to get on that plane in Dallas and get airborne as soon as possible and get sworn in as president had to do with his fears about a conspiracy, but he certainly wasn’t going to get the plane in the air until the president’s body and Mrs. Kennedy were aboard.
He appointed the best people he could find to look into the matter, and they researched it until they sucked all the information dry. After the report came out, we just all wanted to get on with the business of the nation.
When did things start to return to normal after the assassination?
We didn’t move into the White House until December 7. The main thing I remember was how black it all was. The White House was full of beautiful chandeliers, but they were all swabbed in black net. Everywhere I looked, the house was draped in black.
It has long been the custom in our country to mourn the president for a month, and so on December 22—which happened to be my birthday—Lyndon saw to it that the black net came off. We put up Christmas decorations, and I walked the well-lit halls for the first time with a sense that life was going to go on, that we as a country were going to begin again.
What was your relationship like with Jackie Kennedy?
There was a distance of age between Mrs. Kennedy and me, and frankly she belonged in a different society frame than I do. However, I liked her, and I think she liked me. In private, she had humor and a laughing side. But I felt—and I think a great many people felt—that she came across as a little girl you wanted to help. On the other hand, I always recognized there was steel beneath that exceedingly youthful exterior.
After the assassination, Lyndon and I treated her exactly as she asked to be treated. She sent word to us that the house held too many sad memories [for her ever to visit there]. She wanted her privacy, and we gave it to her, although I was real proud of Lyndon for writing to her and to her children. She knew he would have done anything he could to ease her grief.
On the last summer of her life, I had lunch with her on Martha’s Vineyard. Her home had her unmistakable imprint, and oh, how she loved it. I guess one of the sad, sad things about her death was that she had finally attained what she had wanted and that was not to be a public figure.
Which former first ladies are you closest to, and how do you think the role of first lady has changed over the years?
Perhaps the fondest relationship I’ve had is with Betty Ford. She and I knew each other when our husbands were leaders in Congress. Both of us were members of the 81st Club [an organization for congressional wives], and we shared a lot of memories.
But all the first ladies have been nice to me. I’ve also had a warm, admiring relationship with Barbara Bush. I am closer to her than I am to Hillary Clinton because Barbara and I both come from Texas, we’re closer to the same age, and we’ve shared so much of history.
My relationship with the Clintons is totally from a distance. I think that Hillary Clinton is proving that the role of first lady has marched with the times. I saw my role as giving Lyndon a little island of peace, a comfortable setting in which to work. It’s a big, important role, and I don’t think that role should be denigrated. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton is a product of the cultural and social change of the last good many decades. I listen to her public speeches and I think she is a strong, intelligent woman who handles herself well. I tip my hat to both of the Clintons. As I used to say when things were at their worst in Lyndon’s presidency, the greatest courage is just to get out of bed in the morning and get back to work.
You defined yourself as a helpmate and extension of Johnson. Is that right?
Yes, absolutely, and I don’t think I was limited by that. I was able to continue to learn new things.
Personally, I regret that women these days don’t stay home with their children until the children are at least in school. I realize I have no right to express myself on this point because I’m not raising children in this day and age and I’m not undergoing the same economic pressures that young people today have to face. However, I think young mothers today are missing one of life’s greatest opportunities: to help babies grow up and train them well. I had a lot of help rearing my two daughters, and goodness knows I’m glad for every bit that I had. But these days people live so much longer than they used to, and women can have a career after their children are in school or even after they are in high school.
Do you have any advice for the first woman president?
Someday I think we will have a woman president, but since I’m almost 82, it’s not going to be in my time. She will have to overcome a natural, inborn cultural prejudice that the man is the leader of the family and therefore should be the leader of the nation. I hope for her sake that she is healthy, both spiritually and physically, and that she has a husband who is very understanding and supportive. I also hope she has a lot of smart daughters to help her out. A president needs somebody to help carry the emotional load that wives and families have traditionally carried.
Many times in our conversation, Lady Bird talked about how time has passed her by. She sounded cheerful but also resigned. Once I asked her about Johnson’s Great Society programs and whether a new kind of approach to social welfare was in order for the upcoming millenium, an approach based on something other than a handout. “Oh, my,” she said. “I’m going to leave such problems to another generation.”
Lady Bird is from a different time and place. I wanted to know what she remembered about her own upbringing. She was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack on December 22, 1912, and nicknamed at age two by a black nurse who pronounced the child “purty as a lady bird.” Both of her parents—Thomas Jefferson Taylor and Minnie Lee Patillo—came from Alabama. Her father, called Cap’n or Boss by his mostly black workers, was the richest man in Harrison County. Her mother died when Lady Bird was only five, and in her solitude, she made a connection with nature. In most of the early photographs of Lady Bird, she is standing among trees or near rivers. Her love of nature gave her a life of her own, which is probably how she survived the turbulence of the sixties and private hard times as well.
What was your life like after your mother died?
When I was six, my Aunt Effie came from Alabama to help Daddy raise us. She was my mother’s sister. As we said in those days, she was a maiden sister, a spinster. She was the sweetest person generally, but she had no idea of discipline, no idea of how to choose the right clothes or how to put a girl in the right society. She did, however, love beauty and nature, and she spent hours explaining how lovely the fields and meadows could be. She taught me how to listen to the wind in the pine trees and to the way birds sing.
My life consisted of roaming the hills, creeks, and woods, and playing with two little black girls who were my own age. Occasionally, in an effort to do what she presumed she ought to do, Aunt Effie would import the daughters of some friends for me to play with. The girls and I would sit around looking at each other. I can’t say it was a great success.
I was a child of nature. I went wherever I wanted to go, and if I got lost, I’d come across some black person, most likely, and they would recognize me. “Which way is it back to the Brick House?” I’d ask. And they’d show me the way home.
I’ve heard it said that you took as much pride in the passage of the Civil Rights Act as Lyndon did, because you grew up in such a segregated society. How were your attitudes about race formed?
I came from a part of Texas—deep East Texas—that was heavily populated by blacks, and it was the hardest place in Texas for civil rights changes to be made. The part of the world I grew up in was just like the Old South transplanted. It was cotton culture—plain, simple, hard country, just like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
I remember once when I was a little girl that a group of white men cornered a black man in the middle of the night and accused him of some crime. The poor man was so terrified that he just took off running. When he did, the white men shot him in the back. It happened near Karnack. I heard about it the next morning, and I was just a little girl, but I remember thinking to myself, “This isn’t right. Somebody ought to change this.” Lyndon did.
In The Path to Power, Robert Caro describes you as a wallflower. Were you a wallflower?
I never thought of myself that way, but I did wear saddle shoes when the other girls were wearing silk stockings and lipstick. I was always scared to death when some boy sat down by me and began to talk.
But this was the period when I was eleven to thirteen and going to school in Karnack, and thirteen to fifteen when I went to high school in Marshall. I did not have any beaus then, but when I got to Austin in the spring after my seventeenth birthday, I just blossomed. From the time I was seventeen until I left the university, I had all the beaus I could handle. I had a lot of fun. Crazy, wild, city fun. I think I fell in love every April.
Like most people, Lady Bird has built her life in retirement around memories. If her house caught on fire, she told me, there are only two items that she would grab before running outside. Both are black and white photographs that hang on the wall beside her bed: one of their daughter Lynda, after the birth of her daughter, Lucinda; and one of LBJ and their daughter, Luci, after the birth of Luci’s daughter, Lynn. Lady Bird’s bedroom is painted in soothing shades of pink and green. “I love all kinds of pink!” she told me as she walked through the room. A TV tray, with breakfast dishes still on it, stood near her bed. In the middle of the floor was a white towel on which she had done her morning exercises. Walking into a solarium dominated by an enormous hot tub, she exclaimed, “Here is my bow to total self-indulgence!”
Were you prepared for LBJ’s death?
Lyndon always told me, “You know, I’m not going to live to be an old man.” That would make me mad, but I knew it was true.
Lyndon had his first massive heart attack in July 1955. He had a second massive one in April 1972, when we were visiting Lynda and Chuck [Robb, Lynda’s husband] on our way up to see Mrs. Eisenhower. At the time, Dr. Willis Hurst, one of our marvelous friends and Lyndon’s doctor, took me aside and told me, “I want you to know that with as many blocked-up arteries as he has, he will die suddenly, and it won’t matter if the five best cardiologists in the United States are in the room. It just won’t matter.” For the next six months, there were repeated angina attacks. Lyndon described them as hurting almost as much as kidney stones.
So we lived the last bit to the fullest. On the last Christmas of his life he sat at his desk at the ranch and signed book after book [of his memoirs]. I said, “Lyndon, that’s more books than you can possibly give away this Christmas.” And he looked up at me and sort of smiled slowly and sadly and said, “The library can use them sometime.”
We had a happy Christmas together. He got to know four of his seven grandchildren. I have some funny pictures of him riding with some of the grandchildren on the lawn mower around the airplane terminal at the ranch. All the grandkids called him Boppa. I remember Lyndon dressed up like Santa Claus and one of the grandchildren climbed on his lap and looked at him and said, “This isn’t Santa Claus. It’s Boppa!”
What did you do when you were on your own, without LBJ?
The biggest thing that ever happened to me on my own was being a regent at UT for six years. I remember when Governor Preston Smith called in late 1970 and asked me to be on the board. I felt greatly honored, but I told him I couldn’t accept. Lyndon was pretty sick at the time, and I told Governor Smith that I did not want to be away from him a lot.
Lyndon was lying in bed resting. When I hung up the telephone, he said, “Come in here. I think I know what you were talking about, but tell me.” So I told him.
He said, “How did you feel when I would try to convince some really capable citizen to take a government job, a Cabinet post, or head an agency, anything in the service of his country, and he said no because his family didn’t want to move to Washington or because he was climbing the ladder in his company?”
I had strong feelings about that. Lyndon knew that. I always wanted him to get the best people.
So Lyndon told me to get back on the telephone and tell Preston Smith I’d be glad to do it, if he hadn’t already appointed someone else. So, after my usual protestations, I did.
You had a fundraiser for Chuck Robb at the ranch and went to Virginia to campaign for him in his Senate race. What do you think of his opponent, Oliver North?
Chuck’s race in Virginia was about as bad a campaign as I’ve ever seen. We’re in an ugly, contentious mood in America. I hope it will pass. These days I just turn my TV dial looking for something that’s not about O.J. Simpson. Maybe I look at politics through the veil of time, but when Lyndon and I were in it, there was a basic feeling of camaraderie. You traded philosophies. You talked about your part of the country. You talked about what you had to have. But you didn’t hate people who had different philosophies, and you didn’t oppose just to oppose.
I don’t think Lynda will wind up being marred by all this, in the sense of becoming bitter or angry. Lynda is one of the smartest people I know, and she has strong spiritual roots that she doesn’t wear on her sleeve. In politics, you see the best of people and sometimes you see the worst. Sometimes people that were your dearest friends may not be able to support you because of business considerations. It’s easy to be bitter or angry, but I don’t believe Lynda will fall victim.
I’ve never met Oliver North, and I’m not in the judgment business, but let me just say that I want to be represented by someone solid, stable, someone I believe to be looking out for the best interests of the country. I think what he had to say during the campaign [about President Clinton not being his commander in chief] was a wild and loose thing to say. Clinton is his commander in chief. He may not be his choice, but he is his commander in chief for another two years and two months. He may not like it, but that’s the way it is.
As we drove from her house to the wildflower research center, Lady Bird pointed out the hike and bike trail along Town Lake in Austin, one of the projects she helped raise money for when she returned to Texas in 1969. “What you want out of these kinds of places is use—joyous use,” she said. “We have to get more and more places where people can get exercise and fresh air.” These days, Lady Bird spends her days relaxing at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, attending events at the presidential library in Austin, and supervising construction and fundraising for the wildflower center.
Why have you devoted so much time to wildflowers?
I don’t like homogenized country. When Lyndon and I came back to Texas in 1969, I was dismayed that every place was starting to look like everyplace else. The meadows and hillsides were all being replaced by highway grids and shopping malls. I wanted to try to restore some of our native habitat. We in Texas are blessed with what we have. I just want Texas to keep on looking like Texas. It’s a modest ambition, but it’s mine.
What do you think your legacy will be?
I’m not interested in any legacy. The wildflower center is my love. I can’t control the purity of the air or solve the problem of acid rain, but the wildflower center is an effort to fill a little niche in the whole environmental picture. If we can get people to see the beauty of the native flora of their own corner of the world with caring eyes, then I’ll be real happy.
Do you believe in heaven?
Oh, yes, I do, but I don’t presume to know what heaven will be like. But I do know that there is something hereafter, because all this has been too significant, too magnificent for there not to be something after. I have some friends who believe that the pearly gates are really gates and really pearly. Not for me. I prefer to leave it as a great mystery.
I like adventure. I’ve gone through my life liking adventure, and that’s the way I like to think of heaven. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated, wonderful adventure.
Near the end of our day together, we were walking on the grounds of the wildflower research center. Lady Bird tapped her way across a field, using her cane to find two particular yaupon bushes she had planted earlier. She knew exactly where the bushes should be, but she couldn’t see them.
“My eyesight is deteriorating badly,” she said. “I’m legally blind in one eye and see very little in the other. I’ve got a condition called macular degeneration, something that ten million of us in the country have. Even nature dwindles now.”
The timbre of her voice was matter-of-fact, resolute. “Do you see any bushes in there that have any red berries on them?” Lady Bird asked me. I scanned the area, looking for the missing yaupons. “If they look gray to you, I’m going to slide in and butt my head against one of these rocks,” she said. “If they’re gray, they’re defoliated, and that’s a bad sign.”
At that moment I spotted the yaupons. “I see the red berries,” I told her.
She looked as relieved and contented as a farmer who had just been told her crops had been spared and she wouldn’t have to sell the family farm.
“Oh, good,” she said, staring at a patch of ground in the direction of the bushes. “Tell me what they look like.”