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2428NYT: Lady Bird Johnson, 94, Dies; Eased a Path to Power

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  • Ram Lau
    Jul 12, 2007
      July 12, 2007
      Lady Bird Johnson, 94, Dies; Eased a Path to Power
      By ENID NEMY

      Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was
      once described by her husband as "the brains and money of this family"
      and whose business skills cushioned his road to the White House, died
      yesterday afternoon at her home in Austin, Tex. She was 94.

      Mrs. Johnson was hospitalized for a week last month with a low-grade
      fever. She died of natural causes, surrounded by family, including her
      two daughters, and friends, said a family spokeswoman, Elizabeth

      Mrs. Johnson was a calm and steadying influence on her often moody and
      volatile husband as she quietly attended to the demands imposed by his
      career. Liz Carpenter, her press secretary during her years in the
      White House, once wrote that "if President Johnson was the long arm,
      Lady Bird Johnson was the gentle hand."

      She softened hurts, mediated quarrels and won over many political
      opponents. Johnson often said his political ascent would have been
      inconceivable without his wife's devotion and forbearance. Others
      shared that belief.

      After Johnson became the Democratic nominee for vice president in
      1960, James Reston, the Washington columnist of The New York Times,
      said, "Lyndon could never have made it this far without the help of
      that woman."

      Mrs. Johnson was often compared to Eleanor Roosevelt, a first lady she
      greatly admired but did not emulate.

      "Mrs. Roosevelt was an instigator, an innovator, willing to air a
      cause without her husband's endorsement," Ms. Carpenter said. "Mrs.
      Johnson was an implementer and translator of her husband and his
      purpose — a wife in capital letters."

      Mrs. Johnson had one major cause during the Johnson presidency,
      highway beautification, and her husband pushed Congress into passing
      legislation to further the program.

      Mrs. Johnson made many trips to explain her husband's programs like
      Head Start, the Job Corps and the War on Poverty. But, Ms. Carpenter
      said, she "never hesitated to admit that during the early years of
      their marriage, her husband expected coffee and newspapers in bed and
      his shoes shined and that she was happy to comply."

      Bonnie Angelo, a reporter who covered Mrs. Johnson for Time magazine,
      said, "She took a lot from him, but she always said, `Lyndon is larger
      than life,' and she took him with equanimity. She was the eye of the
      hurricane, the calm center of the maelstrom that was Lyndon Johnson."

      Mrs. Johnson developed her own public projects. She was an early
      supporter of the environment and, in championing highway
      beautification, worked to banish billboards and plant flowers and trees.

      The Lady Bird Johnson Park in Virginia, across the Potomac River from
      Washington, is an outgrowth of her First Lady's Committee for a More
      Beautiful Capital. She founded the $10 million National Wildflower
      Research Center in Austin, Tex., which opened in April 1995 and
      changed its name to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1998.
      The center conducts research and provides information on plants,
      landscaping and conservation.

      Mrs. Johnson was known for her even temper, although she did not
      always consider it an asset. "I think it might be better to blow up
      sometimes," she once said.

      She was a stoic, rarely admitting pain, a trait her husband
      characterized as perhaps her only fault. She had four miscarriages but
      never indulged in self-pity.

      Mrs. Johnson financed her husband's first campaign for Congress in
      1937 with a $10,000 loan against a small inheritance from her mother.
      She began taking an active role in politics in 1941, after he lost his
      first bid for the Senate and returned to the House. While he was on
      active duty in the Navy during World War II, Mrs. Johnson managed his
      legislative office. From that point she shared his public life,
      representing him, speaking for him and answering questions with
      unusual candor.

      When Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, rather than his rival
      Johnson, was nominated for the presidency in 1960, a reporter asked if
      she was disappointed. "I'm relieved," she said, then immediately
      confessed: "That isn't true. I'm terribly disappointed. Lyndon would
      have made a noble president."

      Although Mrs. Johnson was less than enthusiastic when her husband
      accepted the nomination for vice president, she campaigned tirelessly
      and accompanied the women of the Kennedy family on many of their
      appearances, particularly in the South.

      Once the election was won, she threw herself into the role of second
      lady, traveling to 33 countries in the 34 months of Johnson's vice
      presidency. She also made 47 trips in the United States in that time,
      attending social and political gatherings and promoting her husband's
      programs and her environmental interests.

      "My role," Mrs. Johnson said, "was to be an extra pair of eyes and
      ears for Lyndon."

      She also substituted for the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, on many

      Johnson openly expressed affection for his wife. He often planted a
      quick kiss on her forehead and held her hand when they were being
      driven somewhere. In public, Mrs. Johnson referred to her husband as
      Lyndon; when they were alone or with friends, he was Darling. She was
      always Bird.

      She was with her husband in the motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963,
      when President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Later
      that afternoon, she was beside Johnson in the executive suite of Air
      Force One as he took the oath of office as 36th president. It was she
      who suggested to Mrs. Kennedy that she remain in the White House to
      wind up her affairs.

      "I wish to heaven I could serve Mrs. Kennedy's happiness," she said.
      "I can at least serve her convenience."

      Mrs. Johnson took up residence in the White House on Dec. 7, 1963,
      feeling, she said, "as if I am suddenly on stage for a part I never
      rehearsed." She converted a small corner room overlooking the
      Washington Monument into an office and set aside an hour a day to
      record her life as first lady. She wrote about 1.7 million words in
      her years in the White House; 800 pages of them were published in 1971
      as "A White House Diary."

      It was only then that she publicly acknowledged that it was not until
      Mrs. Kennedy's remarriage in 1968, to Aristotle Onassis, that she felt
      liberated from the former first lady's presence and influence. "I feel
      strangely free," Mrs. Johnson wrote. "No shadow walks beside me down
      the hall of the White House."

      Although she had attended many state dinners in the Eisenhower and
      Kennedy administrations, Mrs. Johnson made no effort to copy the style
      of previous first ladies. Her first state dinner, for the president of
      Italy and his wife, combined Italian opera and American hootenanny.

      The Johnsons enjoyed entertaining official guests at the L.B.J. Ranch
      in Stonewall, Tex. Their Texas background inspired the menus and
      entertainment for many White House events. The South Lawn, which the
      president referred to as the backyard, became a setting for barbecues.

      Mrs. Johnson's Texas heritage was often evident in her speech. "I'll
      see you next week if the Lord be willing and the creek don't rise" was
      one expression. Her description of someone who acted without thinking
      was "the type who would charge hell with a bucket of water."

      Johnson won election to a full term as president in 1964 with a
      lopsided majority. But as his term neared its end, he was the
      beleaguered and increasingly unpopular leader of a country divided
      over Vietnam. The war came to overshadow the legislation he had pushed
      through — strong measures on civil rights, Medicare, urban
      development, federal aid for schools, the Head Start program and the
      War on Poverty.

      The president held to the conviction, however, that continuing the war
      was a course both honorable and in the national interest. Yet as the
      war grew more and more unpopular, so did the president. On March 31,
      1968, he surprised the nation by announcing that he would not seek

      Almost exactly a year earlier, Mrs. Johnson wrote in her diary: "I do
      not know whether we can endure another four-year term in the
      presidency. I use the word `endure' in Webster's own meaning, `to
      last, remain, continue in the same state without perishing.' I face
      the prospect of another campaign like an open-end stay in a
      concentration camp."

      Mrs. Johnson came to Washington in 1934 as the 21-year-old bride of
      Lyndon Johnson, then an assistant to a Texas congressman. By the time
      he became president, Mrs. Johnson had acquired more than a quarter
      century of experience in national politics, covering his 12 years in
      the House, 12 years in the Senate — 6 of them as majority leader — and
      almost 3 years as vice president.

      She also became a successful businesswoman in those years, using the
      final $21,000 of her $67,000 inheritance in 1942 to buy KTBC, a small
      radio station in Austin.

      Although the station was bought in Mrs. Johnson's name, her husband's
      political influence, even though limited at the time, helped in
      acquiring the license from the Federal Communications Commission.
      Johnson became the commission's champion at a time when Congress was
      about to cut its budget. Mrs. Johnson's application was speedily approved.

      KTBC had no nighttime franchise and no network connection, and it owed
      money to several banks. Mrs. Johnson went to Austin and reviewed the
      debts, the accounts receivable and the staff and made changes. Seven
      months later, the station showed its first monthly profit, $18.

      Within 20 years, the station and the affiliates bought with its
      profits became a multimillion-dollar radio and television enterprise.
      At one time, the Johnson interests included KTBC Television, which was
      sold to Times Mirror in 1973, Austin cable interests, which were sold
      to Time Warner Cable, and Karnack Cable System, cable interests
      outside Austin, which were sold to Tele-Communications.

      Both Johnson daughters were born in Washington, Lynda Bird Johnson in
      1944 and Luci Baines Johnson in 1947, and both had weddings while
      their father was in the White House. Lynda Bird is the wife of former
      Senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia; Luci Baines, divorced and
      remarried, lives in Austin, where her husband, Ian Turpin, is
      president of the Johnson family business, the LBJ Company, which owns
      KLBJ, an Austin radio station, and has land interests in Texas. Mrs.
      Johnson and her younger daughter owned the company, having bought Mrs.
      Robb's share some years earlier.

      Mrs. Johnson's survivors include her two daughters, seven
      grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

      Mrs. Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912 in a big
      red brick house in the East Texas town of Karnack (population 100).
      The youngest of three children and the only girl, she acquired the
      name Lady Bird as a toddler after a nursemaid described her as "purty
      as a lady bird."

      "I was a baby and in no position to protest," Mrs. Johnson said of her

      Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was the prosperous owner of two
      country stores and a cotton gin. But Mrs. Johnson recalled using an
      oil lamp until she was 9 and never forgot the big day "when we finally
      got inside plumbing." Her mother, Minnie Patillo, of Alabama,
      surprised her neighbors by listening to opera, reading voraciously and
      campaigning for women's right to vote.

      When Mrs. Johnson was 5, her mother died, and an unmarried maternal
      aunt, Effie Patillo, moved from Alabama to live with the Taylors and
      help rear the children.

      Mrs. Johnson's education began in a one-room school with a stove in
      the middle of the room for which, she recalled, "the big boys always
      brought in the wood." She graduated from Marshall High School at 15
      and enrolled in St. Mary's School for Girls, an Episcopal junior
      college in Dallas. Its influence led her to change her church
      affiliation to Episcopalian from Methodist. She went on to the
      University of Texas, graduating in 1933, and returned for another year
      to major in journalism.

      Her whirlwind romance with Lyndon Johnson began in the autumn of 1934
      in the office of a friend in Austin. They met for breakfast the next
      morning. After pouring out his life history, financial status, how
      much insurance he carried and his prospects, Johnson asked her to
      marry him. When she reported the first-date proposal to her father, he
      showed no astonishment. "Some of the best bargains are made in a
      hurry," he said.

      It took a few more tries before Johnson's persistence was rewarded.

      "He was the most outspoken, straightforward, determined person I'd
      ever encountered," Mrs. Johnson said of her suitor years later. "I
      knew I'd met something remarkable, but I didn't know quite what."

      They were married on Nov. 17, 1934, two months after they met, in St.
      Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio. The groom forgot the ring, and
      the best man was sent across the street to buy one at a Sears, Roebuck
      store for $2.98.

      The couple moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Washington. Johnson's
      salary, as administrative assistant to Representative Richard M.
      Kleberg, Democrat of Texas, was $267 a month. The next year they
      returned to Texas, where Johnson became administrator of the Texas
      National Youth Administration. But politics had cast its spell.
      Johnson ran for the House and won, and the couple returned to
      Washington in 1937.

      The Johnsons returned to the L.B.J. Ranch, a 438-acre spread on the
      Pedernales River in central Texas, in 1969. The ranch, bought in 1951
      from Johnson's aunt for $20,000, originally consisted of 245 acres of
      Texas hill country and a dilapidated house that Mrs. Johnson once said
      "looked like a haunted house in a Charles Addams cartoon." It was soon

      On their return to Texas, President and Mrs. Johnson helped establish
      the eight-story Lyndon Baines Johnson Library on the campus of the
      University of Texas. It opened in 1971. Less than two years later, on
      Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack. He is buried in the
      family graveyard on the ranch.

      In the succeeding decades, Mrs. Johnson lived in Austin and spent
      weekends at the ranch, though the Johnsons had donated it to the
      nation in 1972 as a National Historic Site. She oversaw the
      landscaping of the 15-acre L.B.J. Memorial Grove across the Potomac
      River from Washington. She campaigned for Mr. Robb as he moved up the
      political ladder. She was a member of the University of Texas Board of
      Regents, the National Parks Advisory Board and the Highway
      Beautification Board. And she was awarded a Medal of Freedom by
      President Gerald R. Ford in 1977 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

      Although she suffered a mild stroke in 1993 and in her mid-80's was
      declared legally blind, she remained active in the Wildflower Center
      and at the L.B.J. Library.

      A private family eucharist will be held at the Wildflower Center on
      Friday, after which Mrs. Johnson will lie in repose at the library for
      public viewing. On Saturday, a funeral service open by invitation only
      will be held at Riverbend Centre in Austin. A public funeral cortege
      on Sunday morning will take her to the Johnson family cemetery at
      Stonewall, Tex., but the graveside service that afternoon will be private.

      "It has been a wonderful life," she told Ms. Carpenter in 1992. "I
      feel like a jug into which wine is poured until it overflows."
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