National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Lady Bird: A Great First Lady

WASHINGTON — Lady Bird Johnson knew the demands on a first lady long before she was catapulted into that role after the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy.

I can still hear her saying sadly, "we didn't want to be president."

Lady Bird shared her husband Lyndon B. Johnson's political life from his earliest days as a Texas congressman all the way to the White House — a Washington career marked by extreme highs and plummeting lows.

Not only did Johnson receive advice from her on his ambitious objectives, he pushed Lady Bird to become a leader in her own right. She achieved that goal well beyond her own expectations.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Tex., this shy woman attended the University of Texas and aspired to be a newspaperwoman. Maybe that's why the female reporters in Washington felt a great affection for her.

We knew it was tough for her to follow the glamorous Jackie Kennedy on the world stage and she spoke of her own sense of trepidation. But her role model was Eleanor Roosevelt, a doer, who set the tone for all her successors.

From Roosevelt on, first ladies felt they had to have a cause. They couldn't just sit there. The days were long past when a first lady could simply be the mistress of the White House.

As first lady, Lady Bird Johnson started a national beautification campaign and the flowers that bloom in the spring in Washington and so many other places will be her legacy. She detested the mammoth billboards along the nation's highways, and the auto junkyards even more.

She never could have reached the heights she did without the help of brilliant Liz Carpenter, her press secretary and a former Texas reporter whose showmanship could have given P.T. Barnum a run for his money.

Lady Bird put the spotlight on our national parks and historic landmarks. She exhausted the band of reporters who climbed every mountain and rode the Snake River rapids in rubber rafts with her.

I remember when we reached the Vermont home of the poet, Robert Frost, I sighed that we had "promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep." Lady Bird cracked up.

Congress heard her testimony against billboards and set new standards that lessened the blight of commercialism along the highways. She also helped her husband initiate many of his "Great Society" programs designed to help alleviate poverty in this country.

I covered her when she opened several Head Start programs for pre-school children, some of whom were so deprived they had never seen a chair or a book before.

But no first lady can match what she achieved on her remarkable four-day whistle-stop train trip through the south in 1964. Johnson was running for the presidency against Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his conservative Republican rival.

Lady Bird's drawl became stronger as we rolled into the deep South. Even the southern politicians, locals who did not agree with Johnson's liberalism and drive for civil rights, hopped aboard the train and showed her tremendous respect.

But there were moments when she had to face taunts along the way: "Lady Bird, black bird, go home!"

We reporters were sorry for her. But if she felt any anguish, it was not apparent to us.

We saw the signs "SOLD ON GOLDWATER" on the front lawns of the beautiful antebellum homes with the shades drawn in Charleston, S.C.

But she took it all in stride– a political pro whose husband was following her journey by phone and our news reports.

Lady Bird's graciousness never failed her. She had to face the anti-Vietnam War pickets in public more than her husband who would make his appearances at military bases and on aircraft carriers. And she had to endure the hecklers chanting: "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today."

LBJ could be gentle as a lamb at times but also was given to explosions when things went wrong. Whoever was around got the brunt of his temper. Long before Johnson felt any remorse, Lady Bird would take the wounded staffer by hand and offer a soothing cup of tea.

She understood her husband, his frustrations, his insecurities but she always said: "Lyndon is a good man in a crisis."

Her daughters, Lynda Bird Robb and Luci Baines Johnson were a source of great joy to her and they were always with her when she needed them.

The first lady and her daughters were in the Oval Office when Johnson made his electrifying televised announcement in 1968 that he would not seek reelection.

There were smiles and tears all around. But the announcement was not a surprise for the family. They knew what to expect and were relieved, believing that Johnson could not go on another four years in view of the war and his failing health.

At that stage, Lady Bird was looking forward to leaving the White House and going home to the LBJ ranch in Texas, where an inviting hammock and a good book awaited her.

But she was not one to rest on her laurels. When she went home, she built a wildflower center outside of Austin, and served on the advisory board of the National Park Service. She also kept planting flowers, especially her beloved Texas bluebonnets.

We know Lady Bird fulfilled her mission in life. We won't have to wait for the history books to tell us she was a great first lady.

             

© 2007 Hearst Newspapers