Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Claudia Johnson

Claudia "Lady Bird" Taylor Johnson believed a First Lady needed to be a "showman and a salesman, a clothes horse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart, and a real interest in the folks." Satisfying these conditions would be a tall order for any woman, and even more so in the wake of the popular and well-heeled Jacqueline Kennedy. But Lady Bird rose to the occasion with an equanimity and a grace that rivaled her predecessor. Like Jackie Kennedy, however, Lady Bird was confident in her direction and her agenda as First Lady.

She asserted that, ideally, the First Lady should work in tandem with the President to promote his policies. But she also maintained that each presidential spouse "makes her own path," especially since "There are no requirements of the job...you do what makes your heart sing." She recognized that it was the President who was elected, not the First Lady, and since both were "there as a team," it was "much more appropriate for her to work on projects that are a part of his Administration, a part of his aims and hopes for America." At the same time, she understood that "time will pass, and she'll get around to hers later on!"

Lady Bird assured that she got "hers" sooner rather than later. She worked to continue the White House renovations begun by Jackie Kennedy, drew attention to the accomplishments of working women, and supported a number of her husband's Great Society programs -- especially Head Start, a preschool education program for the working poor. She networked among congressional wives and urged the President to appoint women to government positions. Though she did not weigh in on the debate surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment, she showcased the abilities of women at her "Women Do-er Luncheons," where she invited female experts to speak on a wide range of issues.

Though active in a number of areas, Lady Bird's major focus was on the environment. Famous for her commitment to the "beautification" of the country, Lady Bird's program encompassed a much greater goal than simply planting flowers and removing ugly billboards. Indeed, it also included the preservation of historic sites, the conservation of natural resources, and the promotion of environmental protection. Lady Bird first pursued her project on a local level, hoping to use Washington, D.C., as a model for other cities and states. In 1964, she allied with philanthropists, environmental advocates, and African-American leaders in building parks and playgrounds, planting flowers, and establishing open spaces throughout the city and the Capitol. A year later, she expanded her focus, embarking on a national crusade to ensure the passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which would preserve the nation's natural beauty by controlling the explosion of billboards along highways and roads.

From the beginning, Lady Bird played an integral part in the crafting of the Highway Beautification Act and in lobbying lawmakers to pass the bill. Not even Eleanor Roosevelt had been so directly involved in policymaking. But Lady Bird confidently pursued her course and in doing so expanded the institutional role of the First Lady. Thousands of Americans rallied to her cause, including the President, who threw the weight of his administration behind his wife's campaign. Lyndon Baines Johnson announced, "I love that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act...By God, we're going to get it for her." Whether it was due to the President's activism or that of the First Lady, the Highway Beautification Act became law, though it was a considerably watered-down version of the one Lady Bird had envisioned.

Lady Bird's environmental activism was not limited to the nation's highways. She traveled to endangered areas throughout the nation, focusing attention on wilderness refuges and lobbying to preserve the California redwoods and the Grand Canyon. She lent her support to a youth conference on natural beauty and satisfied a flood of requests to discuss beautification projects throughout the nation.

Active in her own sphere, Lady Bird was also a presence in her husband's administration. Indeed, Lady Bird believed that "as a public figure, my job is to help my husband do his job." To that end, she read and edited many of the President's speeches, stayed informed about the political issues facing his administration, supported and promoted his Great Society programs, and closely monitored his health. She refused to be protected from criticism of her husband's administration, realizing that her role would occasion "tragedies" as well as "triumphs." As a result, she endured the jeers and boos from antiwar protestors who opposed America's involvement in Vietnam.

Although Lady Bird is often associated with the arguably small-scale achievement of planting flowers along America's highways, her legacy for future First Ladies is truly exceptional. Lady Bird was not only the first presidential spouse to be involved directly in policy planning, but was the first First Lady to have a staff director and a press secretary on her staff. In doing so, she expanded the powers of the First Lady in an administrative as well as a legislative capacity. She also contributed to the historical legacy of the first ladyship by keeping a formal record of what she had done each day during her tenure in the White House. She maintained a file of clippings, dictated her recollections, and kept a journal, ultimately publishing part of her collection as A White House Diary, which appeared in 1970.

When asked about previous First Ladies, Lady Bird Johnson expressed her regard for Dolley Madison, commenting, "I've always liked her very much because she seemed like she enjoyed her role. To be there, and not enjoy it is a great sadness." Lady Bird Johnson not only enjoyed being First Lady, she expanded the powers of the post, allowing future First Ladies to "enjoy" the same kind of influence -- in every sense of the word -- that she delighted in herself.