President Johnson took his second oath of office, this time elected
in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history, both he and Lady Bird
had bold plans for the nation. The President intended to use his enormous
victory to push for the economic, educational and welfare programs that
made up his Great Society.
The President signed his programs into law one after another in 1965,
including the major federal education law on April 11 and the Medicare
program on July 30.
The newly inaugurated President also pushed for what he would later
call his most important piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act
of 1965. A follow-up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the new law provided
for direct federal action to enable African Americans to register and
Through it all, the senior White House team knew the President had one
key adviser - Lady Bird.
"What we knew, at all times, was that she was the most trusted,
most loyal, most dependable person that President Johnson could turn
to on any issue, but her presence was never one of intruding,"
Tom Johnson, a top former aide to the President and future head of CNN,
Lady Bird, emboldened by her 1964 whistle-stop tour in the South, focused
on a new campaign of her own, one that would reach across the nation
and become her lasting legacy.
In early 1965, she began a series of efforts to raise public and private
dollars to plant trees and flowers to improve the tourist areas and
the neighborhoods in and around the nation's capital. She took a $40,000
donation from the Democratic National Party to plant 400 dogwoods and
hundreds of flowers across the Potomac River from the capital. The park
was named the Lady Bird Johnson Park in 1968.
All her work in DC served as prelude for the first major legislative
campaign ever launched by a First Lady, the Highway Beautification Act
of 1965. As Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson traveled back and forth between
the capital and Texas, she had noticed that unsightly billboards and
junkyards were spreading all along the nation's roads. Lady Bird firmly
believed in making the roadsides more lovely and protecting the natural
flora and fauna of the nation.
Lady Bird saw her conservation and beautification as part of President
Johnson's Great Society.
"Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a
tangled skein of wool," she wrote in her diary on January 27, 1965.
"All the threads are interwoven -- recreation and pollution and
mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification,
and the war on poverty, and parks -- national, state and local. It is
hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything
leads to something else."
With the full support and political backing of the President, Lady Bird
worked to pass the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Although the
final bill was not as far-reaching as Lady Bird had envisioned, what
came to be known as "Lady Bird's Bill" did have a dramatic
impact on the American landscape.
But even as the President and First Lady celebrated their legislative
achievements, U.S. involvement in Vietnam took its toll at home. As
more troops were deployed to the region and the number of those killed
in action mounted, larger and larger crowds descended on Washington
to protest the war. Lady Bird watched the rising tide from the White
House and saw the pressure on her husband increase.
From 1965 on, more and more of the president's time and the nation's
attention focused on the war in Vietnam. The number of troops that had
hovered around 30,000 through the first few months, exploded upwards,
hitting 184,000 by the end of 1966, 463,000 by the end of 1967 and 495,000
by the end of 1968.
Lady Bird struggled to stabilize her husband's turbulent emotions and
worried constantly that the incredible pressure would kill him. As early
as March 1965, she was hoping LBJ would not run again for president
"Lyndon lives in a cloud of troubles, with few rays of light,"
Lady Bird wrote in her diary, adding later, "I am counting the
months until March 1968 when, like Truman, it will be possible to say,
'I don't want this office, this responsibility, any longer, even if
you want me. Find the strongest and most able and God bless you. Good-bye."
She became so sure he would suffer another heart attack that she bought
a black dress that she kept in her closet in case LBJ did not survive.
She knew he continued to sneak drinks, against doctors' orders. But
she focused on keeping him alive until they could leave the White House
When March 1968 finally arrived, the president acted in accordance with
his wife's wishes. With nearly 500,000 U.S. troops battling the Viet
Cong and North Vietnamese forces, the president made the fateful decision
not run again. But Lady Bird, who had been planning for this announcement
for three years, knew it needed to be final and non-negotiable. When
she saw his speech declaring he said he would not seek his party's nomination,
Lady Bird insisted on an additional definitive clause.
"With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future
under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes
for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote
an hour or a day of my time to any partisan causes or to any duties
other than the awesome duties of this office - the presidency of your
country," Mr. Johnson told the television audience. "Accordingly,
I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party
for another term as your president."
With that one phrase insisted upon by Lady Bird, "and I will not
accept," the book was essentially closed on the 36th presidency
of the United States.
Although it was now clear the Johnsons would leave the White House at
the end of his term, the remainder of 1968 was a bloody and tumultuous
time. Just five days later, on April 4, civil rights leader Martin Luther
King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots in many cities.
Upon hearing the news of King's shooting, "the evening assumed
a nightmare quality," Lady Bird wrote in her diary. "A few
moments later Lynda came in and said, 'Mama, he's dead!' Everybody's
mind began racing in its own direction, as to what this would mean -
to racial violence in our country, to the work of so many who were trying
to bring us together - how far would it set us back?"
Then, as the campaign to replace President Johnson struggled on, Robert
Kennedy was shot and killed in June. Through it all, the Johnsons worked
to bring stability to a nation rocked to its core.
With the narrow election of Richard Nixon, 38 years of living and working
in the nation's capital came to an end; on January 20, 1969, President
and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson boarded Air Force One and traveled back to Texas,
to LBJ's beloved ranch.
As Lady Bird went to bed that first night, she closed her White House
diary, "with a line of poetry reeling in my mind. I think it's
from India's Love Lyrics. 'I seek, to celebrate my glad releases, the
Tents of Silence and the Camp of Peace.' And yet it's not quite the
right exit line for me because I have loved almost every day of these