Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
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Lady Bird Johnson
Remarking once that she "feels like a top winding down," Mrs. Johnson now spends much of her time at home at the family ranch.


Winding Down

The history of the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center.


Winding Down

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Johnsons went directly from Washington to the LBJ ranch. Lady Bird saw suitcases piled up behind the ranch house. For the first time in five years, there were no presidential aides to carry them in. She laughed, saying, "The coach has turned into a pumpkin, and the mice have all run away."

Lady Bird knew that her husband's decompression from power would be painful. For the first time since his massive heart attack in 1955, LBJ resumed smoking, even though his doctors warned it would kill him. He scrapped his diet and gained 40 pounds.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: He felt, in these days of retirement, that it was time to enjoy life, because I think he really honestly didn't know how long life was going to be.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They both wrote books about their White House years. In 1971 came the opening of the LBJ Library at the University of Texas. Then, in 1972, Johnson suffered another serious heart attack. This time, the doctors told him, he did not have long to live.

He said good-bye to old friends, made peace with old enemies, and put his finances in order. He told Lady Bird that, soon, she would be the richest and the prettiest widow in the state of Texas.

TOM JOHNSON: The phone rings and she says to me, and I think these were her exact words, "Tom, we did not make it this time."

WALTER CRONKITE: I'm talking to Tom Johnson, the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson, who has reported that the 36th President of the United States died this afternoon in an ambulance plane on the way to San Antonio.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird was away at a meeting. She raced to the hospital, but it was too late. It was January 22, 1973 -- exactly four years and two days after they left the White House.

HARRY MIDDLETON: During the time of President Johnson's death, she was calm, serene, very much in control of herself. Surely, what she was feeling was deep, but it was not visible. I have never seen Mrs. Johnson show emotion visibly at all.

LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB: The Lord knew what he was doing when he took daddy first, because I don't think daddy could have gotten along without mother. I really don't think he could have lived without mother. He depended on her so much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In spite of her loss, Lady Bird was starting to live on her own terms. LBJ had been bored by sightseeing, But now Lady Bird was free to tour the world.

She also had time to establish her own legacy. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a working farm and research facility that studies wildflowers from every region of the country.

LEWIS J. GOULD: If one considers other First Ladies who had causes, admirable as that's been, they've tended often to not carry them on past the time they're in the White House. But Mrs. Johnson -- it's all of a piece from 1965 onward.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Nowadays, Lady Bird Johnson does what she rarely had time for as a political wife. She is absorbed in her family -- seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, who call her "Nini." Catherine Robb lives in Austin to be near her grandmother.

CATHERINE ROBB: We have sort of a standing Tuesday night dinner-date and either one of us can cancel if, as she says, "If we get a better offer," but she's the only one that gets a better offer. (laughing) I don't think there is a better offer.

NICOLE NUGENT COVERT: She's not one to reveal a lot. The older I've gotten, I have found myself, you know, bringing my video camera and saying, "Nini," you know, "tell me about this." And the home movies I've started doing lately to see her really interact with the kids.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: She's 88 years old. Her core vision is gone, so her world of reading is gone.

RELATIVE: You know how to smile. You really know how to smile.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: Getting old is not for the faint of heart. It takes an extraordinary stamina to do it with exceptional grace, and mother is doing just exactly that.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The LBJ ranch now belongs to the National Park Service. Lady Bird keeps a home in Austin, but has the right to use the ranch house for the rest of her life. She comes out mainly on weekends, to be surrounded by what she loves.

Thirty years after leaving the White House, she feels she still belongs to the American people.

LESLIE STARR HART: If she's home and a tour bus comes by, she'll come out on the porch and wave and say hello and, of course, that just thrills the visitors.

I have this sense about her that she doesn't like to go indoors until that last glimmer of light is gone. She loves being out in this world.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Not long ago, Lady Bird said, "I feel like a top winding down." She had always told her family, especially in bad times, "Just think of life as an adventure."

Now she spends a lot of time here at this ranch, looking back on that life. Watching the birds from her breakfast table at the ranch, she had come full circle.

From a child, comforted by nature, to a partnership with one of the most overwhelming men in the western world; urging Americans as first lady to preserve their natural splendor; finally, as a widow and matriarch.

LEWIS L. GOULD: And in the old saying, "If you seek her monuments, look around," people in the rest of the country will talk about, "Well, there's this little courthouse square that we redid in the Sixties," or "There's a highway that-- oh, it looks so much better because those billboards aren't there." You can go across the whole United States and somewhere, there's something that Lady Bird Johnson touched. What more could one first lady have done?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: More than she could ever have imagined. The sheltered little girl from east Texas has left her mark.


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