Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) was an American first lady (1963-69) and the wife of Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. A strong believer in her husband’s political talents, Lady Bird used her own inheritance to fund his early campaigns, and overcame her aversion to public speaking to become one of his most successful surrogates on the campaign trail. Johnson did much to create the role of the modern first lady: She hired her own chief of staff, press secretary and East Wing employees; she advocated on behalf of her husband’s policies, including the “Head Start” early education program; and she actively lobbied Congress for legislation that would further her favored cause, the “beautification” of America’s cities and highways.
As a child, a family nurse declared she 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, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson who was a Congressional aide. They married in November 1934, just seven weeks after their first date. She borrowed from her inheritance to help finance his first election campaign.
As first lady, she supported the “war on poverty,” the Headstart Program, and worked for the “beautification” of Washington, DC. Following the presidency, Lady Bird Johnson 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. In the 1960s, she planted bulbs and trees along roadsides to call attention to the growing crisis of habitat and species loss.
Lady Bird Johnson 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. 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.
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Lady Bird Johnson 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. The widow of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson had suffered a stroke in 2002 that left her with difficulty speaking. She died on July 11, 2007, at the age of 94.