That belief -- that beauty can improve the mental health of a society -- and her determination to make the United States a more beautiful place became Lady Bird's true legacy. Throughout her time in the White House, she fought to make American cities more beautiful by planting flowers or adding park benches and by removing billboards and junkyards from the nation's highways.
Lady Bird's efforts in these areas pushed her further into the political arena that any First Lady before her. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird's declared role model, had not sat in on a legislative strategy session or been given assignments to influence Congressional votes. Lyndon Johnson, however, supported Lady Bird's efforts and they appeared to be his own, promoting her projects in his State of the Union speeches or during Cabinet meetings.
Lady Bird herself saw her conservation and beautification work as deeply interwoven with President Johnson's Great Society agenda.
"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."
Lady Bird focused much of her efforts on cleaning up Washington, DC, believing that beautifying the dilapidated capital city could become an example to other cities across the country. The District had long been crumbling as poverty and racial tensions ate away at its neighborhoods and Lady Bird believed such improvements could only help the population.
February 1965, Lady Bird sent out an invitation to possible donors and
activists to attend a White House meeting to "stimulate new interest
in making our city truly beautiful for the people who live here and
Lady Bird supported the two camps and allowed them to operate separately.
"My criteria for the project are that it receive the fullest use, that it can be maintained easily, and that the desire emanate from the neighborhood and its people," she said.
Many philanthropists earmarked their donations with specific locations in mind. One active member, Mary Lasker, focused her efforts on the beautification of downtown and tourist areas with the donation of thousands of dollars and trees and plants.
"In a nutshell, her program is, 'masses of flowers where masses pass.' Water, lights and color-mass of flowers-those things spell beautification to her," Lady Bird wrote in her diary after a meeting.
Walter Washington, on the other hand, was another active participant who focused on Washington's inner city. He was the executive director of the National Capital Housing Authority, and was later elected mayor during Johnson's term. He described one of his programs as "an attempt to motivate the children, youths, adults and family units in a long-range program of self-involvement for enhancing the physical appearance of the community."
He also rallied children in junior high schools and elementary schools to "clean-up, fix-up, paint-up and plant-up."
Lady Bird also wanted to "make a showcase of beauty on the Mall, which would be used by the American people, instead of just looked at. Take the small triangles and squares with which Washington abounds, now quite barren except for a dispirited sprig of grass, and maybe a tottering bench, and put shrubs and flowers in them, through the volunteer help of neighborhood associations or business firms (it would take some cutting of red tape to do that); perhaps have a volunteer committee of landscape architects to draw up plans, so that we can have continuity and good taste and a wise choice of plants."
Washington indeed gained hundreds of landscaped parks and planted thousands of daffodils, azaleas and dogwood trees during Lady Bird's tenure that endure to this day.
Lady Bird also saw her beautification projects as helping soothe the nation at a time when the Vietnam war, civil rights and other highly charged political topics fomented division. Lady Bird believed that a cleaner, more beautiful country could calm people and bring them together.
Taking Her Mission Nationwide
Lady Bird and her husband had driven many times from their home in Texas to Washington, DC, and had been frustrated by the increasing number of junkyards and billboards along the way. In his State of the Union address in 1965, President Johnson addressed the issue by saying "a new and substantial effort must be made to landscape highways to provide places of relaxation and recreation wherever our roads run."
The interstate highway system was built largely during the Eisenhower administration, and the billboard industry had been booming ever since. In 1958, Congress had passed a highway bill that gave states an extra half percent in funding if they controlled billboards, but the incentive appeared ineffectual in stopping highways from being blanketed with billboards.
Lady Bird wanted the highways clear of billboards and junkyards, and filled with green landscaping and wildflowers.
"Public feeling is going to bring about regulation," she told reporters, "so you don't have a solid diet of billboards on all the roads."
The power of the billboard industry, however, was a tough match for the White House and the battle to pass the Highway Beautification Act was fierce.
President Johnson told his cabinet and staff members "You know I love that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act" he said, when it looked as if the bill might not pass, and "by God, we're going to get it for her," he said.
The eventual bill was a compromise between the White House and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. It stated that billboards would be banned "except in those areas of commercial and industrial use." Further pressure from the industry caused an additional amendment that required the government to provide "just compensation" to owners for losing their billboards.
Critics said the bill was so watered down by the time it passed that it did more harm than good to the landscape. The legislation, however, was considered a victory for the Johnson team and for the Lady Bird's beautification efforts.
In one of her last meetings with the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, Lady Bird talked of the accomplishments.
"Over the past three years, the people in this room have produced nearly two and a half million dollars to take steps toward making this nation's capital more livable and more beautiful. Not only is your handiwork enjoyed by the three million people who live and work in this city, it can be seen also by seventeen million visitors who come here each year, and our work has inspired other cities across the country," she told the group. "This has been one of the most lovely springs I can remember in Washington's history. It has also been one of the most poignant and grave. That fact underscores the urgency of improving our environment for all people."