Did I mention that we considered Lady Bird Johnson to be a family friend?
- Ladybird Johnson in a field of Texas wildflowers, gaillardia and probably coriopsis, 2001; photo by Frank Wolfe, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU-TV production, “Lady Bird”
We didn’t know her that well, really. But for the two years prior to our move to Texas, when I staffed the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, she was a solid presence. A passionate advocate of wildflowers, she was well aware of the possibilities that the commission might make recommendations regarding gardening and walking and hiking, and preserving natural beauty. She had already convered Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander to the cause — he issued an executive order that Tennessee should not cut down wildflowers along roadsides, saving the state a bunch of money on mowing and adding to the beauty of the state’s roads all at once. Alexander chaired the commission.
But she went to work on the vice chair, too — Gil Grosvenor, the president of the National Geographic Society. And she worked on the commission director, Victor Ashe, who had recently lost a U.S. Senate campaign to Al Gore and would go on to be mayor of Knoxville and chairman of the National Conference of Mayors. Lady Bird did not want to let any potential ally go unpersuaded. She had the phone numbers, and she made the calls, especially the late-in-the-day-catch-the-big-fish-without-a-secretary calls. Some of the people who go out of channels that way are very obnoxious. Lady Bird always produced smiles.
She persuaded them and the other commissioners to her cause, the commission staff, and probably anyone who ever bothered to read the reports of the commission or who attended any of the several public hearings where the joys and value of wildflowers was discussed.
And then we moved to Texas, and in the spring time we could see what Lady Bird’s passion was all about. It helped that Kathryn decided to chase her own passion for horticulture, and fell in with a great bunch of landscape designers and nursery people who emphasized Texas native plants. We joined the wildflower center Lady Bird set up in Austin, and actually met her on a couple of occasions. Kathryn and I both worked in the U.S. Senate, and we know stuffy people. Lady Bird was not stuffy, but always a woman of infinite charm and grace.
Most recently, when our son James earned his Eagle rank in Scouting, Lady Bird’s name was on the list of those public figures who would be gracious enough to drop a note of congratulations if asked. We know how to recognize the letters signed by machines, and we know how to recognize letters written by software that mimics handwriting. So it was a pleasant surprise to get a hand-addressed note from Austin, and see that the handwriting on the note matched the envelope. That’s the way a lady does it.
In Texas now, in the spring time there are bluebonnet watches, maps in newspapers showing a path to drive to see the best blooms, festivals, and trinkets galore. An entire industry of photographers revolves around getting families to sit among the flowers at the side of the road for a portrait. The flowers, other than the bluebonnets, show brilliantly to incoming airplanes. A flight from Houston or Austin to Dallas gives a passenger a floral sendoff and a floral welcome at the other end.
You can read the stories. Lady Bird was the financial manager of the Lyndon Johnson family fortune. She was also the peacemaker, the one who got LBJ calmed down from his frequent flights of passion, calm enough that he could be the best legislator our nation ever had, including James Madison, and a great legislative master even as president, as no president before or since.
Steel magnolias have nothing on Lady Bird Johnson, who understood the power of a blanket of flowers, the importance of roots and family, and how much grace can mean to those who get it.
Teachers in Texas should hit the newstands today and get the papers with the special features — the Dallas Morning News front page and front section are full of good stories. Teachers should get to the news websites and get the stories that will disappear in a week downloaded for later use. U.S. history teachers would do well to do the same, to get the information about the American environmental movement, and to pick up additional history on Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, the successes of the civil rights movement, and the amazing decade of the 1960s.
America is better because of Lady Bird Johnson. She worked to be, and was, a family friend to the entire nation.
Here are sources you can check from contemporary news:
Dallas Morning News coverage
• Remembering Lady Bird Johnson (WFAA-TV)
• Kay Bailey Hutchison on Lady Bird Johnson (WFAA-TV)
• John Cornyn on Lady Bird Johnson (WFAA-TV)
• Mrs. Johnson’s impact on Central Texas (KVUE-TV)
• Lady Bird Johnson’s Legacy (KVUE-TV)
• Family friend and spokesman Neal Spelce shares his memories of Mrs. Johnson (KVUE-TV)
• Reaction from the LBJ Library and Museum staff (KVUE-TV)