President: Lyndon Johnson
Preceded by: Jacqueline Kennedy
Succeeded by: Pat Nixon
Born: Claudia Alta Taylor
December 22, 1912
Karnack, Texas, U.S.
Died: July 11, 2007 (aged 94)
West Lake Hills, Texas, U.S.
Resting Place: Johnson Family Cemetery
Spouse(s): Lyndon Johnson (m. 1934; died 1973)
Children: Lynda, Luci
Father: Thomas Jefferson Taylor
Mother: Minnie Pattillo Taylor
Marriage and family
A friend in Austin introduced her to Lyndon Baines Johnson, a 26-year-old Congressional aide with political aspirations, working for Congressman Richard Kleberg. Lady Bird recalled having felt "like a moth drawn to a flame". Biographer Randall B. Woods attributed Johnson's "neglect of his legal studies" to his courting of Lady Bird.
On their first date, at the Driskill Hotel, Lyndon proposed. Lady Bird did not want to rush into marriage, but he was persistent and did not want to wait. Ten weeks later, Lady Bird accepted his proposal. The couple married on November 17, 1934, at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas.
After she suffered three miscarriages, the couple had two daughters together: Lynda Bird (born in 1944) and Luci Baines (born in 1947). The couple and their two daughters all shared the initials LBJ. The daughters lived in the White House during their teenage years, under close scrutiny of the media.
Both daughters held White House weddings. Lynda Bird married Charles S. Robb, who was later elected as governor of Virginia and U.S. Senator. Luci Baines married Pat Nugent and, later, Ian Turpin. Lady Bird had seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren at the time of her death.
When Lyndon decided to run for Congress from Austin's 10th district, Lady Bird provided the money to launch his campaign. She took $10,000 of her inheritance from her mother's estate to help start his political career. The couple settled in Washington, D.C., after Lyndon was elected to Congress. After he enlisted in the Navy at the outset of the Second World War, Lady Bird ran his congressional office.
Lady Bird sometimes served as a mediating force between her willful husband and those he encountered. On one occasion after Lyndon had clashed with Dan Rather, then a young Houston, Texas, reporter, Lady Bird followed Rather in her car. Stopping him, she invited him to return and have some punch, explaining, "That's just the way Lyndon sometimes is."
During the years of the Johnson presidency, Lyndon in one incident yelled at the White House photographer who failed to show up for a photo shoot with the First Lady. She consoled the photographer afterward, who said that, in spite of his feelings against President Johnson, he "would walk over hot coals for Lady Bird."
Second Lady of the United States
John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate for the 1960 election. At Kennedy's request, Lady Bird took an expanded role during the campaign, as his wife Jacqueline was pregnant with their second child. Over 71 days, Lady Bird traveled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) through 11 states and appeared at 150 events. Kennedy and Johnson won the election that November, with Lady Bird helping the Democratic ticket carry seven Southern states.
Reflecting later, Lady Bird said that the years her husband served as Vice President and she as Second Lady was "a very different period of our lives." Nationally, the two had a kind of celebrity, but they both found the office of Vice President to lack power.
As the Vice President's wife, Lady Bird often served as a substitute for Jacqueline Kennedy at official events and functions. Within her first year as Second Lady, she had substituted for Mrs. Kennedy at more than 50 events, roughly one per week. This experience prepared Lady Bird for the following challenges of her unexpected years as First Lady.
On November 22, 1963, the Johnsons were accompanying the Kennedys in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated; they were two cars behind the President in his motorcade. Lady Bird later said the day was unforgettable. Lyndon was sworn in as President on Air Force One two hours after Kennedy died, with Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy by his side. Afterward, Lady Bird created a tape on which she recorded her memories of the assassination, saying it was "primarily as a form of therapy to help me over the shock and horror of the experience." She submitted a transcript of the tape to the Warren Commission as testimony. LBJ advisor Abe Fortas had made notations on her document to add detail. In their plans for their trip to Texas, the Johnsons had intended to entertain the Kennedys that night at their ranch.
In the days following the assassination, Lady Bird worked with Jacqueline Kennedy on the transition of her husband to the White House. While having great respect for Jacqueline and finding her strong in the aftermath of the murder, Lady Bird believed from the start of her tenure as First Lady that she would be unfavorably compared to her immediate predecessor. On her last day in the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy left Lady Bird a note in which she promised she would "be happy" there.
First Lady of the United States
As First Lady, Lady Bird started a capital beautification project (Society for a More Beautiful National Capital). It was intended to improve physical conditions in Washington, D.C., for both residents and tourists, by planting millions of flowers, many of them on National Park Service land along roadways around the capital. She said, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope."
She worked extensively with American Association of Nurserymen (AAN) executive Vice President Robert F. Lederer to protect wildflowers and promoted planting them along highways. Her efforts inspired similar programs throughout the country. She became the first president's wife to advocate actively for legislation when she was instrumental in promoting the Highway Beautification Act, which was nicknamed "Lady Bird's Bill." It was developed to beautify the nation's highway system by limiting billboards and by planting roadside areas. She was also an advocate of the Head Start program to give children from lower-income families a step up in school readiness.
Lady Bird created the modern structure of the First Lady's office: she was the first in this role to have a press secretary and chief of staff of her own, and an outside liaison with Congress. Her press secretary from 1963 to 1969 was Liz Carpenter, a fellow alumna of the University of Texas. As a mark of changing times, Carpenter was the first professional newswoman to become press secretary to a First Lady; she also served as Lady Bird's staff director. Lady Bird's tenure as First Lady marked the beginning of the hiring of employees in the East Wing to work specifically on the First Lady's projects.
During the 1964 election, Lady Bird traveled through eight Southern states in her own train to promote the Civil Rights Act, at one point giving 45 speeches over five days. It was the first solo whistlestop tour by a First Lady. President Johnson initially said he would turn down the Democratic Party nomination for president, having been unhappy during his service in President Kennedy's administration and believing the party did not want him. Although aides could not sway him, the First Lady convinced him otherwise, reassuring him of his worthiness and saying that if he dropped out, the Republicans would likely take the White House.
Lady Bird continued her Whistlestop Tour in October 1964. She used a Braniff International Airways Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop aircraft to conduct a multi-state tour, with stops in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana, and Kentucky. Braniff dubbed the Lockheed Electra "The Lady Bird Special," after the ground Whistlestop Tour Train. "The Lady Bird Special" was painted on the sides of the aircraft, and a special route map of the tour was painted on the lower front part of the aircraft's fuselage near the main entry airstairs. Lady Bird became the first First Lady to hold the Bible as her husband took the oath of office on January 20, 1965 - a tradition which continues.
On September 22, 1965, Lady Bird dedicated a Peoria, Illinois, landscape plaza, President of the Peoria City Beautification Association Leslie Kenyon saying during the ceremony that she was the first presidential spouse "who has visited our city as an official guest in our 140 years of existence."
On September 22, 1966, Lady Bird dedicated the Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, fulfilling a goal that both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had been sought for but unable to accomplish. She said the dam belonged to all Americans amid an increasing concern for water that persisted in all Americans "no matter whether he lives in New York or Page, Arizona."
In late-August 1967, Lady Bird traveled to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to attend the Expo 67, a White House aide saying she had been urged by the President to travel there since his own trip three months prior.
In mid-September 1967, Lady Bird began touring the Midwestern United States as part of a trip that one White House described as "mostly agriculture during the day and culture at night." President Johnson was then declining in support by farmers, months before a planned re-election bid. Speaking to a crowd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 20, Lady Bird said problems within American cities were creating crime.
In January 1968 at a White House luncheon, Eartha Kitt, when asked by the First Lady what her views were on the Vietnam War, replied: "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot." Kitt's anti-war remarks reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment of Kitt's professional career.
Toward the end of Johnson's second term, Lady Bird was anxious for her husband to leave office. In September 1967, Lady Bird voiced her concerns that a second term would be poor for his health. President Johnson came to the decision not to seek re-election.
In 1970, Lady Bird published A White House Diary, her intimate, behind-the-scenes account of her husband's presidency spanning November 22, 1963, to January 20, 1969. Beginning with President Kennedy's assassination, she recorded the momentous events of her times, including the Great Society's War on Poverty; the national civil rights and social protest movements; her activism on behalf of the environment; and the Vietnam War. Johnson was acquainted with a long span of fellow First Ladies, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush. She was protected by the United States Secret Service for 44 years, longer than anyone else in history.
Biographer Betty Boyd Caroli said in 2015 of Lady Bird that
She really invented the job of modern first lady. She was the first one to have a big staff, the first one to have a comprehensive program in her own name, the first one to write a book about the White House years, when she leaves. She had an important role in setting up an enduring role for her husband with the LBJ Library. She's the first one to campaign extensively on her own for her husband.
Writing in 1986, William H. Inman observed that Lady Bird was considered by some "the most effective First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt", citing her battles against highway billboard forests, auto heaps, and junk piles as well as her support for American public landscapes maintaining beauty and sanity.
Lady Bird Johnson