Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
Shattered Dreams: 1965 - 1969
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Additional FeaturesShattered Dreams January 1965 - January 1969
President Johnson deep in thought
President Johnson pauses for a moment during a National Security Council Meeting in 1968, one of his presidency's most tumultuous years. Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Lady Bird launches a nationwide beautification campaign.

Part IV: Shattered Dreams

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.


As 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 vote.

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, said.

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 in 1968.

"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 together.

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. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg, Mrs. Johnson and President Johnson review policy aboard Air Force One.  Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Mike GeissingerWhen 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 five years."


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