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Remembering Lady Bird

How one woman’s quiet strength changed us all.

By Barbara Rodriguez

I saw her in person only once. She was gliding through the airport in Austin at the rate of a Rose Bowl parade float, slowed by a flank of Secret Service and a small retinue of other folks. Her dress was classic and timeless; her shoes were sensible, but handsome; her hair was done up, neither cotton candy nor helmet, just attractively-no-nonsense. But it was her accessibility that impressed me. She spoke when spoken to, made eye contact with those she passed and smiled warmly in answer to greetings.

Her name was Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson. But from the time I was a little girl I knew her as Lady Bird. When, as a 6-year-old, I first learned her nickname it was no small thing to me. All the people in my family had nicknames. That people spoke of her simply as Lady Bird or even Bird, as Lyndon called her, planted the seed that she was “one of us.” It didn’t hurt that she looked enough like my mother to be her sister. Even had she not, she had a familiarity about her, not the least of which was the dogwood blossom East Texas accent. She spoke our language. As she said when rolling across the state in 1964, campaigning for the Civil Rights Act — the first solo whistle-stop tour of a first lady in history: “You may not agree with all I say, but at least you can understand the way I say it.”

She was one of the first public figures on my radar, but throughout her long life she was for me unlike any other. Most important in those early years of recognition was that my mother adored her. What I learned from my mother’s admiration for Lady Bird, first as the vice president’s wife and in those somber later years as a reluctant first lady, was a lesson in the powerful pull a “steel magnolia” can have on other women. My mother was not a liberated woman. She generally disliked public women who weren’t movie stars. She found the early voices of the women’s movement too loud, too stringent. The powerhouse women of the ’80s and ’90s appalled her. But Lady Bird she admired absolutely — enough to turn up the radio at the mention of her name and lay aside the ironing. Lady Bird’s strengths were recognizably her own: the quiet support of her husband, the steely resolve to protect and support him, the backstage mothering that nudged him in the right direction and showcased his strengths. That Lady Bird was a woman of wealth and business brains was admirable, but she won my mother’s highest accolades for being a lady whose compass point was good sense.

When in 1962 we named our first puppy Lady Bird, it was nothing but the purest sort of honor. All these years later it is one of the few family puppy names I remember. I remember, too, the day we were called from our classrooms at the Sacred Heart Academy, corralled in the sacristy of the church and told that the president was dead. I was too young to understand what this meant for me or for Lady Bird, but when I arrived home to the tears of my mother I knew something in my world had shifted dramatically. We watched the news, over and over, and I think that even then I could sense my mother identified more with Lady Bird’s burden than Jackie’s grief. Forever after, the photo of Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One was for me about the suffering in Lady Bird’s face, the face of a woman on a high ledge without a ladder.

During those tough first lady years, Lady Bird’s name was a dinner table feature in our military household, often spoken with more reverence than the president’s. It was a personal comfort to me when she attached her might to the civil rights campaign. At Sheppard Air Force Base the children I built forts and herded kittens with were black and brown and white. When my mother told me that Bobby, an African-American officer, would most likely not be my dad’s best friend had they each pursued other careers, I was confused and angry. So in 1964 when Lady Bird mortised the cause with the soft-mud comfort of her voice, my mother listened and nodded and told me how right and brave she was and why.

When Lady Bird pushed through the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (how she disliked the word beautification, which she called “prissy”), Mother rolled us kids out of the station wagon and onto the shoulder of the highway to make lessons out of hideous junkyards and ugly billboards. It was her salute to the first lady’s belief that “ugliness has been allowed too long — it is time to say ‘enough’ and to act.”

In this way I learned that Lady Bird was the first to say, in her own way, Don’t Mess With Texas — or natural beauty anywhere. For us, every patch of wildflowers was a blooming tribute to her vision and taste. But as much as she took the nation to her bosom as first lady, she did not want a sea-to-shining-sea, homogenized, manicured-lawn sort of beauty; she said she thought Vermont should look like Vermont and the Lone Star State must remain uniquely true to itself. She understood the link between landscapes and character, that far more than being simply a backdrop, a homescape was the context that defined its inhabitants in ways often unspoken.

Many accolades have been accorded Lady Bird since her death at age 94 last July, but for me her crowning glory is the bluebonnet portrait, the wildflower photographs that are the signature of the classic Texan rite of spring. These photographs of children bundled out of the car by mothers who thumb-lick bangs and straighten collars before settling them into pools of flowers are perhaps the truest legacy of Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson. These same children, surprised by their parents’ willingness to set them free alongside a highway or pasture — in their Easter finery! — will grow up to seize the spring with their own snapping shutters. Beauty and ritual are her legacy as sure as seeds travel on wind and spring follows winter.

That she had a flower named for her should surprise no one. More surprising, perhaps, is that it was not a magnolia, nor a dogwood, but a rose. But the Lady Bird Rose is not a typically delicate tea rose favored by the fainting couch or bridge club set. The Lady Bird hybrid tea rose is a deep coral-red, like the lipsticks she favored, with a scent more spicy than sweet. And like Lady Bird, it’s a working rose. It was developed by Lady Bird herself with Jackson and Perkins, the oldest garden nursery in the nation, as one of its line of “cause” roses; a percentage of all sales is donated to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

I didn’t know her. And yet I grieved when she died, along with the thousands of people waving flags and wildflowers in a final grateful salute as her funeral procession moved from Austin to the ranch in Stonewall in the slow glide of a Rose Bowl Parade float. It didn’t surprise me when her seasoned Secret Service detail said they felt they’d lost a family member; we all did. She was one of us.

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