Lady Bird Johnson: First Lady Innovator


Mr. Gould is the author of Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady (University Press of Kansas, 1999) in the Modern First Ladies series, of which he is the editor.

The death of Lady Bird Johnson marks the passing of the most innovative first lady of the second half of the twentieth century. During her five years plus in the White House, Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson created the modern structure of how presidential wives operate. Though not the international celebrity that Jacqueline Kennedy was, Mrs. Johnson brought an adroit style to her duties that had been fashioned in running a radio and television station in Texas and in watching her husband’s campaigns in the state. In business she was, said an associate, “any man’s equal; she reads a balance sheet like most women examine a piece of cloth.” A well-read woman who loved books as much as her husband disdained them, Lady Bird Johnson had a sense of history as she came “on stage for a part I never rehearsed” in November 1963.

In the months that followed, she reshaped the institution of the first lady in ways that her successors have emulated. She brought in Elizabeth “Liz” Carpenter as staff director and press secretary to the first lady. Jacqueline Kennedy had hired informal press staffers, but Lady Bird Johnson made the position an official part of the White House bureaucracy. But Lady Bird Johnson did not stop there. Aware of the growing impact of television news which had just gone to a half-hour each night, she enlisted another staff member, Simone Poulain, to act as a link with the mass media. An articulate social secretary, Bess Abell, coordinated that aspect of Mrs. Johnson’s White House life.

These important steps were only a start. Lady Bird Johnson had an ambitious policy agenda in mind for her time in the White House. To achieve her goals for the environment, she had to make anew the functions of the first lady. With her business background, she envisioned a formal staff structure that would support her agenda. Since there was no Office of the First Lady in 1963, she borrowed federal employees from other departments and had them detailed to the White House. Out of the Department of the Interior came Sharon Francis first to help with the mail about outdoor issues and then to act as a intermediary with Congress, advocates of billboard control and more attractive highways, and the burgeoning number of lobbyists for environmental causes. The White House staff supplied Cynthia Wilson to coordinate correspondence, advance trips for Mrs, Johnson, and monitor public opinion for impending controversies and flaps. Assistants assigned to program objectives were a new step for a first lady as Mrs. Johnson stretched the institution to achieve her own goals and priorities.

She even took part in legislative strategy on such measures as the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Lady Bird Johnson joined a working group to parcel out specific lobbying assignments with wavering House members. She was given four congressmen to call, including John C. Kluczynski of Illinois, chair of the House subcommittee on Roads. After Mrs. Johnson applied her charm, the White House noted “the Congressman is all for anything we want.” During the New Deal era, Eleanor Roosevelt had not been inside the male-dominated conferences of her husband’s presidency.

Building on the example of Mrs. Kennedy’s White House Committee but also going well beyond it, Lady Bird Johnson set up a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital that gave her a way to involve philanthropists such as Mary Lasker, Brooke Astor, and Laurance S. Rockefeller in her program objectives. That strategy also allowed her to bring Walter Washington, the future mayor of the city, on board to provide links and ideas to the African American leaders of the District. Through Stephen Currier and the Currier Foundation in 1966, she launched an ambitious initiative to upgrade a Washington neighborhood. This mix of public and non-official personnel who collaborated on her committee enabled her to move easily between the government and the private sector. She also helped found a Society for a More Beautiful National Capital that functioned as an informal branch of her White House operation.

Her restless energy led her to enlist the wives of Cabinet officials and members of Congress to serve as surrogate speakers for her various campaigns. She sought advisory committees within the federal government as another means of advancing her policy goals for the natural world. There were photo opportunities for the press corps such as the rafting trip on the Rio Grande River in 1966, a television special, and a proliferation of magazine articles and newspaper stories about the out-of-doors from her publicity apparatus. Lady Bird Johnson formed a kind of miniature presidency and campaign headquarters within the White House to push the causes with which she has been identified.

Lady Bird Johnson’s successors as first lady have built upon her model of how a White House spouse should perform. The staff of recent first ladies has included the staff director, press secretary, speech-writers, and issue-oriented aides that Lady Bird Johnson first installed. To the extent that the wife of a president can promote a cause, serve as a surrogate for her husband, and even build a political base of her own, she draws on what Lady Bird Johnson initiated forty years ago. Mrs. Johnson properly gets credit for her campaigns for a more beautiful America. This talented and resourceful woman also gave all the first ladies who came after her effective and enduring institutional ways to play their ever-expanding role in the work of the modern American presidency.

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