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Lady Bird Johnson dead at 94

Wife of LBJ set beautification tone

Lady Bird Johnson at the White House in October 1967. Lady Bird Johnson at the White House in October 1967. (REUTERS/Robert Knudsen/Johnson Library)

Lady Bird Johnson, whose warm, gracious manner and devotion to beautifying the United States made her one of the nation's most beloved public figures, died yesterday at her Austin, Texas, home. She was 94. Mrs. Johnson died of natural causes, according to a family spokeswoman.

Mrs. Johnson, the widow of Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, had been in declining health since suffering a stroke in 2002. She continued to make occasional public appearances, despite difficulties speaking. In May, she attended an event at the LBJ Library featuring Robert Dallek , a biographer of her husband.

President Johnson died in 1973.

Mrs. Johnson was initially seen to suffer by comparison with her immediate predecessor in the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy , whose high style and continental elegance seemed far removed from Mrs. Johnson's plainer, less cosmopolitan style. Yet the nation soon learned what a remarkable individual Mrs. Johnson was and that undergirding her Southern gentility and warm personality were sturdy discipline and a keen intelligence.

"Lady Bird Johnson was a wonderful first lady," Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in a statement yesterday , "and one of the kindest and most caring and compassionate people I've ever met in politics."

In a statement, President Bush and his wife, Laura, remembered Mrs. Johnson as a "warm and gracious woman."

"President Johnson once called her a woman of 'ideals, principles, intelligence, and refinement.' She remained so throughout their life together, and in the many years given to her afterward," President Bush said. He praised her work on behalf of the environment, civil rights, and early childhood education.

His father, former president George H.W. Bush, said: "Like all Americans, but especially those of us who call Texas home, we loved Lady Bird."

It was Mrs. Johnson who set the pattern for a president's wife having an identifiable cause. Later presidential wives might have to scramble for a crusade to associate themselves with, but that was not so for Mrs. Johnson. Her dedication to beautifying the nation's public spaces was patent -- and patently effective. For all that the Secret Service would teasingly call her wildflower excursions another "walk in the weeds," those walks helped transform Americans' awareness of the environment and produced legislation whose effects are still felt today.

"In terms of impact on social policy," Lewis L. Gould, the author of "Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment," has said, "Mrs. Johnson is premier in the 20th century's first ladies." Quietly combining the activism of Eleanor Roosevelt with the matronliness of Barbara Bush, Mrs. Johnson brought a unique balance to the difficult role of president's wife.

Born on Dec. 22, 1912, to a well-to-do family in Karnack, Texas, Claudia Alta Taylor received her celebrated nickname when her nursemaid said Mrs. Johnson was "as purty as a lady bird." The designation stuck, and only her husband and close friends, who called her "Bird," ever referred to Mrs. Johnson by any other name. "Long ago I made my peace with the nickname," she later said.

Mrs. Johnson had a lonely childhood. Her two brothers were 11 and eight years older, and her mother, Minnie (Pattillo) Taylor, died when Mrs. Johnson was 5. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, owned a general store.

A bookish, retiring child, Mrs. Johnson later confessed her relief at discovering she ranked third in her high school class -- because she "would rather have caught small pox" than have had to deliver a valedictory or salutatory address.

After two years at St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls, a Dallas junior college, she transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.

"When I went to the University of Texas, I had no firm intention of being anything," she recalled many years later.

She graduated among the top 10 in her class, obtaining a bachelor's degree in 1933 and then another degree, in journalism, a year later. "What I wanted to do was get several tools or skills so that I could make a living in an interesting fashion, and then I would just see what happened," she said.

What happened was a young congressional aide named Lyndon Johnson. The two were introduced by a mutual friend a few months after Mrs. Johnson received her journalism degree. The future president arranged a second meeting for the next day.

"We wound up spending practically the entire next day together," she once said, and Johnson proposed marriage then and there. "I just thought it was sheer lunacy. And I really didn't think he meant it." They were married two months later, on Nov. 17, 1934.

When her husband ran for US representative in 1937, Mrs. Johnson financed the campaign. She further proved her worth to her husband's career by becoming a great favorite of House majority leader Sam Rayburn, who made her husband his protégé.

Though it was little noticed at the time, the Johnsons very much formed a political partnership -- even if hers was the far less visible half. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream," observed that "Without [her] devotion and forbearance," any thought of Johnson's "ascent in the world of politics becomes inconceivable."

The future president also prized his wife's counsel.

"Somebody else can have Madison Avenue," Johnson once said when asked about the value of public opinion research. "I'll take Bird."

The Johnsons perfectly complemented each other, her refinement and deference tempering his rawness and ambition. As Liz Carpenter, who later served as her press secretary, once described it, "If President Johnson was the long arm, Lady Bird Johnson's was the gentle hand."

Nor did she let her husband's famously overbearing manner or personal peccadilloes daunt her. Whenever the subject of his infidelities would come up, she had a standard response. "Lyndon loved people. It would be unnatural for him to withhold love from half the people," she'd say with a smile.

Mrs. Johnson once again demonstrated her usefulness to her husband when, during his brief service in the Navy during World War II, she managed his congressional office and then, in 1943, purchased a small Austin radio station, KTBC, with money from her inheritance.

It became the foundation of a broadcasting and real estate empire worth $6 million by 1964 (at least $40 million in today's dollars).

Although she took an active part in her husband's successful campaign for the US Senate in 1948, and then oversaw his office when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1955, Mrs. Johnson remained plagued by shyness. In 1959, she enrolled in the Capital Speakers' Club. This stood her in good stead a year later when, as the wife of the Democratic nominee for vice president, she traveled 35,000 miles and delivered hundreds of addresses for the campaign.

During her husband's vice presidency, Mrs. Johnson accompanied him to 33 countries and made numerous speeches and public appearances.

Even so, she felt overwhelmed when the assassination of President Kennedy put her and her husband in the White House. In her 1970 book, "A White House Diary," Mrs. Johnson recalled how on Nov. 22, 1963, she embraced Jacqueline Kennedy in the Dallas hospital after her husband's death. "I don't think I ever saw anyone so much alone in my life."

Yet a sense of aloneness assailed her as well, and Mrs. Johnson confided to a friend a few days later: "I feel I am suddenly on stage for a part I never rehearsed."

Nonetheless, Mrs. Johnson broke new ground by campaigning independently for her husband during his 1964 presidential campaign. She undertook a courageous whistle-stop tour of the South, where his civil rights agenda was widely reviled. Two months later, President Johnson won one of the largest landslides in US history. She held the Bible at his swearing-in, a precedent followed by all her successors.

A great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs. Johnson dealt with her anxieties by deciding to work for a cause: natural beauty. Her crusade took two specific forms, removing billboards from interstate highways and providing plantings throughout the District of Columbia.

It is a mark of Mrs. Johnson's influence that both causes should now be taken for granted. But at the time matters stood otherwise. In fact, the president had to use all of his legendary powers of persuasion to get Congress to approve the relevant legislation. "You know I love that woman," he announced, "and she wants that Highway Beautification Act. By God, we're going to get it for her."

Get it she did, and the word "beautification" became attached to her name. Mrs. Johnson did confess in 1967 that she found the term "stiff, institutional, and sort of prissy," and said if "anyone can find a better word than 'beautification,' I'd rise up and call you blessed."

She also championed Head Start, the early childhood education program that was a major component of his War on Poverty, and she served as its first national chair.

As her husband's popularity plunged during the Vietnam War, Mrs. Johnson remained untouched by controversy. That changed on Jan. 18, 1968, when the singer Eartha Kitt publicly castigated her over the war at a White House luncheon. The incident elicited widespread sympathy for Mrs. Johnson, but the scar it left might be discerned in the qualifying adverb Mrs. Johnson included in the final words of her "White House Diary": "I have loved almost every day of these five years."

In these latter days of his presidency, she worried that he would suffer another heart attack and insisted that she or their daughters accompany him any time he was not in a meeting. She was deeply involved in his decision not to seek a second term. His famous words -- "I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party" -- were written with his wife.

Returning with the president to the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas, Mrs. Johnson led a largely private life, but not one of seclusion.

After her husband's death, Mrs. Johnson served as executrix of his will. Two years earlier she was appointed to the University of Texas's board of regents. In 1977, President Ford awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

She campaigned for her son-in-law, Charles Robb, in his successful runs for lieutenant governor, governor, and US senator in Virginia.

She attended the occasional public ceremony, such as the 1979 dedication of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the 1981 dedication of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., the 1991 dedication of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and the 1997 dedication of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.

On April 8, 1994, Mrs. Johnson saw a cherished project come to fruition when the National Wildflower Research Center opened in Austin. In 1982 she had donated 60 acres of land and $125,000 to the facility, which is dedicated to preserving native prairie plants.

"I just hope we look around us, want to keep the Lord's world as good as we found it, and maybe enhance it and hand it down better," she said in a 1993 New York Times interview.

Mrs. Johnson leaves two daughters, Lynda Bird Robb and Luci Baines Johnson; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

The public will be allowed to pay final respects to Mrs. Johnson tomorrow and Saturday at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin. A private funeral service will be held later Saturday.

On Sunday, her body will be taken from the State Capitol to the Johnson family cemetery in Stonewall, Texas, where she will be buried next to her husband.

Material from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.