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Lady Bird Johnson’s Life, Interests Remembered

July 13, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The former first lady was 94 years old when she died on Wednesday from natural causes, a full 34 years after her husband’s death in 1973. In a moment, we’ll talk with presidential historian and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss.

But, first, an excerpt from a 2001 PBS documentary hosted by Michael looking at Mrs. Johnson’s life outside that of her husband’s.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON, Former First Lady: 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, Presidential Historian: 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.

LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB, Daughter of LBJ: 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, Granddaughter of LBJ: 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. 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, Daughter of LBJ: 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.

"A top winding down"

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 '60s," 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.

Her partnership with her husband

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was from a 2001 PBS documentary. Lady Bird Johnson will be buried on Sunday next to the former president at their Texas ranch.

And now to Michael Beschloss, who joins us from Idaho.

Michael, hello. She was the wife of a congressman, then wife of a senator, wife of a vice president, but abruptly thrust into the job of first lady. How did she manage?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She did it really well, because, you know, she had been a political spouse for an awfully long time, from the time that she was the wife of a congressman, taking Texas constituents through the U.S. Capitol and Washington tourist attractions, probably a thousand different times. She was used to this.

But the interesting thing is that this was not someone who hankered to be a political wife. When she was courting Lyndon Johnson, when he was courting her, she wrote him, "Please, Lyndon, don't tell me you're going into politics. I don't think I could stand it if you were going into politics."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, I talked today to somebody who worked in the Johnson White House, Harry McPherson. And he talked about their partnership. He talked about the time there was this really serious, sober meeting about Vietnam and with a bunch of the president's advisers. And he said, "In walked Lady Bird with a new dress on, and the president stopped everything to admire the dress and talk to her." What kind of a relationship did they have?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I think she really helped him to function as president. And without her, I don't think he could have done it, especially as the trauma of Vietnam began to wear on.

You know, he was someone of these enormous mood swings. When he got angry, he sometimes got too angry. When he got depressed, he would go into these real depressions. She was the one person who can really pull him out of these things.

In the summer of 1964, you can hear it on these tapes that LBJ made of his private conversations, Johnson was really thinking, "Maybe I'm not going to run for president against Barry Goldwater at all." He almost got into bed and pulled the sheets over his head. He was very subject to melancholy.

She was the one person who was able to go to him and say, "You know, if you don't run now, your enemies will say, 'We've defeated you.' They'll be jeering. You'll go back to Texas to the catcalls of your enemies. Do you want that?" And Johnson got the message. And, of course, he ran.

Lady Bird's impact on the president

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much influence did she have over him, Michael, both in terms of policy and politics?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think big influence. And here's a case where both of them knew that, in the 1960s, especially for people to think that the first lady had enormous influence over a president, would not have helped him politically. But you can hear it on these tapes. You can see it in her diaries, all sorts of evidence that she was someone who advised him constantly on the words he used in public, on the kind of strategy he used to get things through Congress, and especially on his personal relationships. Oftentimes, I think she almost had better judgment of the people around Lyndon Johnson than he did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was her thinking, Michael -- one of the issues that we know Lyndon Johnson struggled with mightily, civil rights, civil rights legislation, what was her role in all that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think she progressed. I think by the time LBJ sent a civil rights bill or backed it in 1964, and then voting rights in 1965, she was very much at his side. But she would have been the last one to pretend that at the beginning of her life she was that way.

She came from east Texas. Her family was from the Deep South. She grew up in a house that, as she ruefully noted later on, was built with slave labor. And the telling thing, Judy -- I asked her in her later years, what senators did you admire that you had met? And you know, it wasn't northern liberals, the kind of people who might have been expected to be, you know, in the favor of the Johnsons. She said, "One senator I really admired was Lister Hill of Alabama," someone almost forgotten now.

But what was interesting was, she mentioned Hill, because Hill was someone who ran from Alabama. In those days, he would have had a terrible time being openly and eagerly for civil rights. But she knew that privately he wanted to do the right thing. And what was interesting to her and what she admired was that he was struggling with, you know, how do you really help civil rights as a southern senator without getting defeated?

Living through Vietnam

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Vietnam? We looked at some of this on Wednesday, the day she died, Michael. She was there during the darkest days of the Johnson presidency.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It made his life hell, of course, and it made hers hell, too. She heard those words outside the White House coming in through her bedroom windows, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" And he, of course, got more and more melancholy and angry and upset.

And she writes in her diary, she says, "I don't know if Lyndon really has the right temperament to be commander-in-chief in wartime," because she said he goes down to the situation room at night, he waits for those fliers, American fliers to get back from North Vietnam from their bombing runs, hoping and praying that they won't be killed. It was torture for him. And I think the only way he got through it was the fact that he was able to be centered emotionally by this wife who understood him so well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, she felt it was the time for him to leave the White House when he did.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She demanded it. When he ran in 1964, she made him pledge privately that he would not run again in 1968. She knew that member -- men in the Johnson family tended to die before the age of 65 of heart disease. She thought it would happen to him. He had a massive heart attack in 1955.

And in the winter of 1968, he began to waver, you know, "Well, maybe if I don't run in '68, my enemy, Bobby Kennedy, might be president, or Richard Nixon. Maybe I should run to try to bring peace in Vietnam." And she really went to him and said, "You made me a promise. You're never going to survive this term if you run again."

And she was right, because he didn't run. Four years and two days after the day he would have been inaugurated for that term, he died of a massive heart attack in Texas. He never would have survived that term. She spared the country a presidential funeral.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we just heard Luci Johnson just a moment ago saying that -- I think she said the good lord took the one who -- she said left the one behind who could manage without the other. Michael Beschloss, thank you very much, helping us remember Lady Bird Johnson.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, Michael.