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Lady Bird Johnson
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Lady Bird Johnson

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The wife of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson served as first lady from 1963 to 1969.

Who Was Lady Bird Johnson?

As first lady, Lady Bird Johnson supported the "war on poverty," the Headstart Program, and worked for the beautification of Washington, D.C. Following the presidency, Lady Bird Johnson wrote the 800-page White House Diary. She also remained active in beautification projects and women's rights issues.

Early Life

Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas, on December 22, 1912. As a child, a family nurse declared that Claudia was as "pretty as a ladybird." The nickname stuck. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in art followed and continued on there studying journalism, with the plan to become a newspaper reporter.

In the summer of 1934, Claudia met Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was working as a congressional aide at the time. Claudia and Johnson married in November 1934, just seven weeks after their first date. She borrowed from her inheritance to help finance his first election campaign.

U.S. First Lady

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas while traveling in a motorcade. Vice President Johnson was only two cars behind Kennedy when the shots rang out. Just a few hours later, Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president aboard Air Force One on its return to Washington, D.C. Subsequently, Claudia became first lady of the United States. She would serve as first lady from 1963 to 1969; in 1964, Johnson would win election to the presidency against conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. (With public sentiment largely for Democrats and Goldwater's staunch conservatism, Johnson won by a landslide; he received 61 percent of the popular vote—the biggest margin of victory in U.S. election history.)

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As first lady, Claudia, better known by this time as "Lady Bird Johnson," supported the "war on poverty" and the Headstart Program, and worked to improve the beautification of Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, Lady Bird planted bulbs and trees along roadsides to call attention to the growing crisis of habitat and species loss. She created the First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, and her work became the first major legislative campaign launched by a first lady: the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

In June 1968, Lady Bird traveled to Portland, Oregon, along with then-Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, to deliver a lecture regarding a new type of conservation before a convention of the American Institute of Architects. There, she discussed a conservation that is concerned with the entire community to solve the problems of growing urbanization. "The answers cannot be found in piece-milled reform," Lady Bird stated. "The job really requires thoughtful interrelation of the whole environment. Not only in buildings, but parks, not only parks, but highways, not only highways, but open spaces and green belts. A beautification in my mind is far more than a matter of cosmetics. To me, it describes the whole effort to bring the natural world and the manmade world to harmony. To bring order, usefulness, delight to our whole environment. And that of course only begins with trees and flowers and landscaping."

Final Years and Legacy

Following the presidency, Lady Bird wrote the 800-page White House Diary, which detailed her husband's life including the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. She also remained active in beautification projects. Her love for native wildflowers inspired her to create the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982, near Austin, Texas. It was renamed in her honor in 1998.

Lady Bird also remained outspoken on women's rights issues, calling the Equal Rights Amendment, "the right thing to do." She was honored with the country's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom in 1977, and was given the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

Lady Bird suffered a stroke in 2002 that left her with difficulty speaking. She died on July 11, 2007, at the age of 94, in West Lake Hills, Texas.

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