Lady Bird Johnson: A First Lady of the First Order

Lady Bird Johnson, photo portrait, standing at rear of White House. (Photo by Robert Knudsen, White House Press Office (WHPO) via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the birthday of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Here are some things you may not have known about her.

She was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas in 1912. When she was a baby, her nurse said that she was as “purty as a ladybird” and the nickname stuck. Her father was the son of a sharecropper, who became a wealthy landowner and businessman. Her mother died when Lady Bird was five years old of complications from a miscarriage suffered after she fell down a flight of stairs. Lady Bird was raised largely by her mother’s sister Effie, who moved to Texas after her mother’s death.

To attend high school, Lady Bird moved in with a family in the town of Jefferson, Texas. She graduated third in her class after letting her grades slip so she wouldn’t have to give a valedictorian speech at her graduation ceremony. She attended the University of Alabama for a summer before returning to Texas and enrolling at St. Mary’s Episcopal College for Women, a junior college in Dallas. After graduation, she enrolled at the University of Texas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history and another in journalism.

In 1934, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was working for Congressman Richard Kleberg. Johnson proposed marriage on their first date. Lady Bird accepted 10 weeks later and they were married in November 1934 in San Antonio, Texas. They had two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, meaning all four family members had the initials LBJ; five if you include their dog “Little Beagle Johnson.“

Lady Bird used $10,000 of her inheritance from her mother to help fund Lyndon’s first campaign for Congress, which he won. While in office, Lyndon enlisted in the Navy and Lady Bird ran his congressional office. In 1943, Lady Bird used another part of her inheritance to buy a radio station in Austin, Texas. In 1952, she bought a television station as well. The media properties made her the first president’s wife to become a millionaire in her own right.

Lyndon Johnson served in the House of Representatives from 1937 until 1949, when he won election to the Senate after a highly controversial Democratic primary election. He eventually rose to become the Senate Majority Leader. In 1960 he decided to run for president. He was unsuccessful, but ended up nominated to be vice president under John F. Kennedy. During the campaign, Lady Bird Johnson filled in for Jacqueline Kennedy at many events, during Kennedy’s pregnancy. Kennedy and Johnson were elected in November 1960 and took office the next January. Lady Bird continued to fill in at events the first lady couldn’t attend.

In November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson became the 36th President of the United States.

As first lady, Lady Bird Johnson became well known for several beautification projects. The first, the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, focused on improving conditions in Washington, D.C. She worked to protect wildflowers and plant them along highways. Later she pushed the Highway Beautification Act to limit billboards and plant flowers along highways across the country. The act became known as “Lady Bird’s Bill.” She also convinced her husband to run for his own term as president in 1964. She campaigned tirelessly for him and helped him defeat Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in the general election.

Lyndon Johnson did not run for re-election in 1968 and the couple retired to their ranch 50 miles west of Austin. Lyndon Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973.

Lady Bird Johnson continued to represent her husband at events for the next 30 years. She served on the board of regents of the University of Texas and on the board of trustees of the National Geographic Society.

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

She died on July 11, 2007, at the age of 94.

Our question, in 1982, a poll of historians ranked Lady Bird Johnson as the third most influential and important first lady. Who ranked ahead of her?

It’s Armed Forces Day in Vietnam, Mother’s Day in Indonesia and National Mathematics Day in India. It’s unofficially National Cookie Exchange Day and National Date Nut Bread Day. It’s the birthday of actress Barbara Billingsley, musicians Robin and Maurice Gibb; and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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