One of the most talented and influential and yet underappreciated First Ladies in U.S. history.

Lady Bird Johnson at the 1966 dedication of the new Watts Branch Park in Northeast Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy LBJ Library.

In her biography of Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (1912-2007), Julia Sweig suggests that she was one of the most talented and influential and yet underappreciated First Ladies in U.S. history.

Lady Bird Johnson worked tirelessly for the conservation and the environment. More than 200 laws related to the environment were passed during the Johnson Administration, many of which are credited to Mrs. Johnson’s work. Among the major legislative initiatives were the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the 1965 Highway Beautification Act and many additions to the National Park system.

For 50 of those major initiatives related to conservation and beautification, President Johnson thanked his wife on July 26, 1968 for her dedication by presenting her with 50 pens used to sign these laws. She also received a plaque that read: “To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon.”

I am grateful to Mrs. Johnson’s website for providing this selection of her insightful observations:

o “Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me…beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.

o “Some may wonder why I chose wildflowers when there are hunger and unemployment and the big bomb in the world. Well, I, for one, think we will survive, and I hope that along the way we can keep alive our experience with the flowering earth. For the bounty of nature is also one of the deep needs of man.

o “The environment is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.

Speech at Yale University, White House Diary, Oct. 9, 1967.

o “My hope for what lies ahead in the field of landscape design—our own and that of the professionals—isn’t a revolution against the use of non-natives, but a resolution to educate ourselves about what has worked for Mother Nature through the ebb and flow of time and to put that knowledge to work in the planned landscapes that are everywhere a part of our lives.

Letter from Mrs. Johnson on the Wildflower Center website. Date unknown.

o “When I go into the poorest neighborhoods, I look for the flash of color – a geranium in a coffee can, a window box set against the scaling side of a tenement, a border of roses struggling in a tiny patch of open ground. Where flowers bloom, so does hope – and hope is the precious, indispensable ingredient without which the war on poverty can never be won.“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.

o “My special cause, the one that alerts my interest and quickens the pace of my life, is to preserve the wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land-to encourage and promote their use in appropriate areas and thus help pass on to generations in waiting the quiet joys and satisfactions I have known since my childhood.

AARP Convention Speech, 1992.

o “Wherever I go in America, I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent.

Wildflower Center Board of Directors meeting, May 9, 2003.

o “I know that the nature we are concerned with ultimately is human nature. That is the point of the beautification movement, and that finally is the point of architecture. Winston Churchill said, ‘First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.’ The same is true of our highways, our parks, our public buildings, the environment we create. They shape us.

B.Y. Morrison lecture at the American Institute of Architects annual convention in Portland, Oregon. June 26, 1968.

o “The biggest decision of all concerns our highways, the greatest public works program of any civilization … our challenge is to see that these highways are not only superbly functional, but also in harmony with our landscape and a pleasant asset to our lives. After all, this is a civilization where our favorite recreation is driving for pleasure.

Presentation of beautification awards to highway department officials, East Room of White House, Feb. 16, 1967.

o “Too often we have bartered away not only the land, but the very air and water. Too often we have sacrificed human values to commercial values under the bright guise of progress. And in our unconcern, we have let a crisis gather which threatens health and even life itself … Today, environmental questions are matters for architects and laymans alike. They are questions, literally, of life and death. Can we have a building boom and beauty too? Must progress inevitably mean a shabbier environment? Must success spoil nature’s bounty? Insistently and with growing volume, citizens demand that we turn our building to a sensible, human purpose. They are asking, literally, for a breath of fresh air.

B.Y. Morrison lecture at the American Institute of Architects annual convention in Portland, Oregon. June 26, 1968.

o “For me, wildflowers are joy-giving. They have enriched my life and fed my soul and given beautiful memories to sustain me. Beyond their aesthetic value, there are other valid reasons for their increased use. As we experience problems with lowering water tables and increasing maintenance costs, incorporating nature’s bounty into our landscapes may provide a viable alternative in suitable areas to our concept of manicured clipped grass.”

 Lady Bird Johnson letter in National Wildflower Research Center report, “The First Ten Years: 1983-1993.”

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To learn more about Lady Bird Johnson, please click here.

Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight was published by  Random House (March 2021)




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