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IN FRATERNAM MEAM
Monday, July 16, 2007
A LADY BY ANY STANDARD - Lady Bird Johnson, 1912 - 2007
DURING THE THREE DECADES AFTER LYNDON JOHNSON'S DEATH - a period almost as long as their marriage - Lady Bird followed her own heart. She established a world class wildflower center and summered among the glitterati of Martha's Vineyard, a place her husband once derided as "some female island". She bought a house for herself in Austin so modest that Lyndon would have felt claustrophobic. Even the LBJ ranch, where Lady Bird still spent much of her time, looked different. She banished some of the more egregious remnants of her husband's taste, such as the ubiquitous triple-television sets and his big executive desk chair at the dining table. I once asked if she still used the airstrip where the president used to land. "Heavens no!" she replied. "We did'nt use it after Lyndon's death. I think that runway was always unsafe, but the federal aviation people were too afraid of Lyndon to tell him to stop using it." She had filled the LBJ spacious old hangar with her grandchildren's toys.

Her years as Lyndon Johnson's wife remained the center of her identity. She preserved his bedroom as it looked the day he died there in 1973: his colognes still in the medicine chest and his many Stetsons, ranch suits and cowboy boots still in the closet. In the early 1990s she was told that her husband had taped roughly 10,000 of his private White House conversations. Warned that such cache might include embarrassing exchanges, she asked her great friend, the LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, to open them anyway. Proud of her husband and respectful of history, she believed the good would outweigh the bad.

Mrs. Johnson was one of our most important First Ladies. Quietly but firmly she advised LBJ on rhetoric, strategy and personal relations, and helped to dampen his volatile mood swings. Years later she shook her head modestly when people praised her for helping to found the modern environmental movement with her efforts for "beautification" ( a word she hated) - cleaning up cities, highways and air. But they were right.

She did not romanticize her time as First Lady. she recalled riding a train between Washington, D.C. , and New York City and realizing with a shudder that the cargo on a parallel train was the coffins of men killed in Vietnam. "The fist year or two in the White House was wine and roses," she told me. "But later it was pure hell."

Under LBJ's tutelage, Lady Bird had grown far more liberal than she was as a girl in an east Texas Mansion "built with slave labor" (as she ruefully noted). But she remained an elegant Southern woman. She presided like a benevolent aunt over the galaxy of political talent her husband had discovered, such as ex-White House aides Jack Valenti, Joe Califano and Tom Johnson. At 87, fearing she might never see them together again, she had them down for a grand spring dinner on the Pedernales - even Bobby Baker, the onetime Johnson Senate protege who had gone to prison. She was appalled that politics had grown so toxic, recalling how Lyndon, as the Senate majority leader, had dined so amiably with his Republican counterpart, Everett Dirksen. "My dear husband thought that serving in the U.S. senate was one of the most noble things on earth", she said, "but these days I barely recognize what i see".

Mrs. Johnson maintained her lifelong strict standards for herself. The autumn after that alumni dinner, after watching a C-Span interview she had done, she decided that her diction and word choices were not as precise as they used to be and that she would grant no more TV interviews. In the past five years, successive strokes robbed the once-so-eloquent Lady Bird of her speech. Yet she managed to express herself to daughters Lynda and Luci and close family and friends. Until very recently, she had herself wheeled into the LBJ Library for lectures.

In 1972, when he knew he was dying of heart disease, Lyndon Johnson gibed that his wife would soon be "the richest and prettiest widow in Texas". When Lady Bird died last week at 94, she was much more than that. He would have been unsurprised - and very proud.


(Source: NEWSWEEK MAG by: Michael Beschloss who also wrote the newly published "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1978 - 1989" (Simon and Schuster)
posted by infraternam meam @ 4:44 PM  
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Name: infraternam meam
Home: Chicago, United States
About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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