Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
Shattered Dreams: 1965 - 1969
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The President and Mrs. Johnson
Mrs. Johnson whispers to the president during the 1967 White House visit of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.  Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Shattered Dreams

Lady Bird launches a nationwide beautification campaign.

The President's remarks at signing the Beautification Act.

The President announces he will not run for re-election.

Selection from Lady Bird's Diary on the president's decision not to run.


Shattered Dreams

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: As Lyndon Johnson's new term began, Lady Bird quietly began to expand the terrain of the First Lady.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I would hope our President's wife would always have the freedom to do what comes naturally.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She soon became the most activist presidential wife since her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt.

LEWIS L. GOULD: When we look at First Ladies in the 20th Century-- the modern variety-- I would rank Lady Bird Johnson as one of the most influential and important First Ladies of this century.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She championed the Head Start program for preschool children. Most of all, she called the American people's attention to enhancing the environment. For the rest of her life, she would be identified with this cause.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: One of the fires in my life is just a considerable admiration and love of this country, and I looked at our national capital. It sure needed some color.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She started her campaign to beautify America in Washington, D.C. There, she raised private money to bring the city alive with plants, trees, and flowers, in both public areas and the inner city. To this day, when the daffodils emerge, many Washingtonians think of Lady Bird Johnson.

Her campaign spread to other cities. Then, with LBJ's support, Lady Bird did battle with powerful business and political interests, pushing congress to restrict ugly highway signs and billboards and the squalor of junkyards.

LEWIS L. GOULD: They had, somewhat unknowingly, stepped into one of the great political thickets of Washington, because the billboard lobby is second only to the National Rifle Association in clout. When the situation in Congress was very dicey about the passing of the Highway Beautification Bill, Johnson said to a meeting, "I love this woman. She wants this bill. I want this bill."

LIZ CARPENTER: And I got this call one morning while I was sitting at the White House, saying, "Liz, I want you to put on the tightest girdle and the best perfume, and go up to the hill and go see these two West Texas Congressmen," whom he knew I knew very well, "and tell them I want Lady Bird's bill passed."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was a compromise, but it was an important start. "Lady Bird's Bill" was the result of the first open political partnership between an American President and First Lady.

LEWIS L. GOULD: She did go further than any other First Lady had done. She was in on the strategy meetings. She was assigned Congressmen to call. That had not occurred before, in this explicit a way.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird was criticized for going too far. Some asked why she didn't mind her own business. Some complained that beautification was trivial. They wondered why the president's wife couldn't do something more serious while the country was fighting a dangerous war in Vietnam.

The war was taking its toll on LBJ. He was moodier than ever, and he took it out on his staff. Lady Bird patched up hurt feelings. Sometimes, she confronted her husband. One friend observed that the only thing that could calm Lyndon Johnson was two words from Lady Bird: "Now, Lyndon."

Lyndon Johnson had always surrounded himself with beautiful women. Lady Bird said much later that her attitude was to make friends with them and learn from them. She once said, "I like for women to like Lyndon, and I like him to like them."

TOM JOHNSON: He was a flirt, big-time. He really loved the women on his staff. He loved women who were correspondents there. He enjoyed women.

BARBARA WALTERS, April 1974, NBC: Mrs. Johnson, I want to ask some questions about your marriage.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: After LBJ's death, Barbara Walters asked Lady Bird about her husband's reputation. Lyndon Johnson--

BARBARA WALTERS: A lot of people say "That Lyndon Johnson, he really was a ladies' man. He was quite a flirt." How did Mrs. Johnson Feel about that?

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: (laughing) Oh, Lyndon was a people lover. And that certainly didn't include-- did not exclude half the people in the world -- women.

DIANA MACARTHUR: That statement was as much about her as it was about him.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: And if all those ladies had some good points that I didn't have, I hope I had the good sense to try to learn those good points.

DIANA MACARTHUR: She was letting you know that, "Yes, my husband liked women. So?"

TOM JOHNSON: There is no doubt who was the most important person in his life. No matter what other women may have been in his life at any given time, there was never any doubt about his respect, affection, and in his own way, his love for her.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I'm being interrupted. Here's a friend of mine. [applause]

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I came here today to have a chance to see her again. [laughter and applause]

LADY BIRD JOHNSONS: Lady Bird's devotion to her husband became even more fierce as the country sank deeper into Vietnam.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I have today ordered to Vietnam the air mobile division and certain other forces, which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men.

ANNOUNCER: Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War assembled in the…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: By 1967, college students were burning the President in effigy. Even in the White House, the Johnsons couldn't escape the protests.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: We heard in all the full agony the protestors of the Vietnam War. I went to bed at night hearing protestors on the street saying, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?"

TOM JOHNSON: I was with him many, many nights when he would call the situation room to get the casualty count for the day. I never saw a person so anguished.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: My mother always tried to have one of us on daddy duty. Either she was there to be around daddy or Lynda was there to be around daddy or I was. There was a sense in the family that the women owed that much to him.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird once told me, "You want to know when the Vietnam War really came home to me?"

She said she was on a train from New York to Washington, and she saw another train on another track and realized, with a shock, that its cargo was coffins -- the coffins of American boys just back from Vietnam. She said, "That was the moment I knew that this war was going to affect every American family."

Lady Bird felt the fury against the war firsthand. When she went to college campuses, there were protestors. At a White House luncheon she gave, the actress Eartha Kitt stood up and denounced LBJ for sending children off to die in Vietnam.

Lady Bird was shaken, but stayed calm. Mostly, she feared that the pressures of the war would cause LBJ another heart attack, but that this time, it would be fatal. She kept a black dress in her closet, in case she suddenly needed it.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: You finally acquire a sense of fatalism. You're going to do everything you can to prevent it, and you know it may happen.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird insisted that LBJ take himself out of the 1968 presidential race. By then, both Luci and Lynda were married. She wanted LBJ to live to see their grandchildren grow, but Johnson wavered.

Finally, on March 31, 1968, He promised his wife that he would pull out of the race at the end of a speech on the war. That morning, Lynda had seen her husband, Chuck Robb, off to Vietnam.

LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB: I got back at 6:00 in the morning or so, and daddy and mother met me in nightgown and robe.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: And he saw his little girl, three months' pregnant and 100 percent shattered. And you could see that -- there was a president there, but there was a daddy there.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Good evening, my fellow Americans.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: There's a part of me that wonders if that didn't cement the decision for that day.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That evening in the oval office, LBJ spoke the words his wife wanted to hear.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird had inserted the phrase "and I will not accept" to make sure that LBJ did not leave himself an escape hatch. She felt wounded that he would never achieve his dreams as president: For the American people to love him and to end the war in Vietnam.

As they left the White House on January 20, 1969, she was certain that they had made the right decision. She and Lyndon had had five years in the center of action, and she had gotten her husband through the presidency, alive.


Production of Lady Bird had been funded in part by the generous support of The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston; The Belo Foundation; The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, Inc.; Mr. Ralph S. O'Connor; The Marjorie Kovler Fund; and The Ms. Foundation For Women.

Lady Bird is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU - Austin.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved