LBJ Library at 50: "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Willdflowers"

The LBJ Library exhibit shows sides of the First Lady you may not know

If all you know about Lady Bird Johnson is that she has a lake and a wildflower center named after her, then you may think her story begins and ends with her efforts to better society with nature’s beauty – a belief that was widely shared while her husband Lyndon was President and trailed her through the decades after he left the Oval Office.

Photo by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library & Museum

But just as there was more to LBJ than “the Vietnam President,” there was so much more to Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (she was stuck with the nickname Lady Bird when she was a child) than “the Beautification First Lady.” And just as his life and legacy have been reconsidered by biographers and historians in recent years, so hers are receiving fresh consideration now. In the last six years, two books have done a powerful job of of bringing Lady Bird out of LBJ’s shadow – Betsy Boyd Caroli’s Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President and Julia Sweig’s Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight – and recasting the pair’s marriage as a full partnership in all areas, the political and the personal, as well as revealing Lady Bird’s individual character, her intellect and independence. Joining them now is the LBJ Library & Museum exhibit “Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers,” which acknowledges up front the public’s preconceptions about the former First Lady and also promises to “paint a full picture of the person,” as exhibit curator Nikki Diller puts it.

“Beyond the Wildflowers” is a first for the Library; it had never created an exhibition that covered Lady Bird’s entire life and every aspect of it. And it looks to have made up for lost time by drawing from its full collection of Lady Bird materials: gowns and other outfits that she wore as First Lady, gifts of state that she and Lyndon received while they were in the White House, awards and honors, historical photos, personal memorabilia, letters, home movies that she made, her speeches, oral histories, and the diary recordings she kept in the White House from the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the day she and Lyndon left Washington, D.C. – the last being especially important for the way they allow visitors to the exhibit the chance to hear Lady Bird telling her own story in her own voice.

Hearing that voice drift through the galleries like the Colorado on an April afternoon adds a deeply personal quality to the exhibit, and yet it’s also a reminder of what a double-edged sword that Southern sound was for Lady Bird: On the one hand, its honeyed charm could beguile, but on the other, its country flavor led many to see her as less sophisticated, especially after the East Coast cosmopolitan glamor of Jacqueline Kennedy. It was just one of the ways in which people underestimated and were dismissive of Lady Bird.

Lady Bird Johnson kept some favorite books from her childhood, including a book about opera, one of her mother's passions. The suitcase was used by Lady Bird during her time attending St. Mary's College for Girls in Dallas, Texas as well as at the White House. (Photo by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library & Museum)

The truth was altogether different, as “Beyond the Wildflowers” shows. Since her Deep East Texas hometown of Karnack had no high school and her father couldn’t drive her to the one in Marshall every day, he bought her a car and had Lady Bird drive herself – starting at age 13. At age 15, she graduated third in her class. At UT-Austin – a school she attended only after graduating from St. Mary’s Episcopal College for Women in Dallas – she earned two bachelor’s degrees, not the norm for women in the early Thirties. On display is a letter proposing possible stories for a journalism class, and their thoughtfulness, detailed approach, and the sharpness of her writing show that Lady Bird could have been the next Adela Rogers St. Johns. She got into the broadcasting business instead, using $17,500 of the inheritance from her mother’s estate to buy the KTBC radio station in Austin just after she turned 30. A decade later, she added a local television station to her holding company, for which she served as president, and those media acquisitions eventually earned Lady Bird millions. She demonstrated the same kind of hands-on involvement and business acumen with them as she did in almost all of Lyndon’s political campaigns. That all of this is all set out in the first few rooms of the exhibit lays the foundation for seeing Lady Bird as someone with a keen intellect, will and discipline, and political savvy, all of which she applied to her husband’s career in partnership with him.

Lady Bird Johnson's Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library & Museum)

By the time visitors reach the rooms with the flashier items from the White House years – the gowns, the replica of the Taj Mahal, the pens LBJ used to sign legislation significant to her, the trowel used by Lady Bird in her beautification efforts, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, et al. – they will have seen so much of the life and character of this strong, smart woman that the Lady Bird most familiar to them, to all of us, the First Lady Lady Bird, will have taken on new depths and dimensions. This is the Lady Bird of the grueling eight-state whistle-stop tour through the South in the 1964 Presidential campaign – the first such campaign by a First Lady. This is the Lady Bird who was so much a part of her spouse’s political life that she held the Bible he swore the Oath of Office on during his inauguration – the first First Lady to do so. This is the Lady Bird who championed the Head Start program. This is Lady Bird the environmental activist as much as the beautifier, who said, “The environment is where we all meet, where we all have mutual interests.”

One photograph in “Beyond the Wildflowers” captures the strength and grace and poise of Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson perhaps better than any other. It was taken during what’s called the Poverty Tours in the spring of 1964, when she and Lyndon paid visits to economically depressed areas and households to garner support for LBJ’s War on Poverty programs. In May, Lady Bird went to the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Kentucky, where she had arranged to visit a family named Robertson in their home up a hill. She was riding in a school bus accompanied by a large contingent of the press when it stopped by a creek . A county school superintendent acting as guide informed Lady Bird that the Robertsons’ home was about a mile up the creek and that she thought the bus could make it up the hill but wasn’t sure. In her White House diary recording from that day, Lady Bird describes what happened this way: “I said ‘No, I’d much rather walk.’ So I put on my black boots, which have walked many a mile around the ranch, and led my small army up the winding path along Warshaw Branch to the three room house of the Arthur Robertsons.”

Lady Bird Johnson and entourage walking on the way to visit the Arthur Robertson family during her visit to economically depressed parts of rural Kentucky. (Photo by Robert Knudson/Courtesy of the LBJ Library)

The photo shows Mrs. Johnson at the front of a sizable group of men in suits and women in business dresses through a lush green hollow with a shallow muddy stream snaking through it, the city folk comically out of place and almost all looking down at the creek to avoid stepping in the water. Mrs. Johnson is out of place, too, though her dress is a bright green that ties her in with her surroundings and on her feet she does have on those sensible black boots. But what distinguishes her even more in the picture is her poise and demeanor. She’s standing as straight as a queen, but her body is at ease, she’s smiling, and her eyes are looking straight ahead, toward the direction of the Robertsons’ home. She’s carrying a purse and wearing pearls and yet totally at home in this part of the world. As Nikki Diller says, “She’s got her pearls and her boots on.” And she has her eyes on something bigger than getting mud on her shoes: a family in need.

And that’s the Lady Bird you can see if you venture beyond the wildflowers.

“Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers” is not open to the public at present because the LBJ Presidential Library & Museum is closed over COVID concerns. The exhibit is scheduled to run through August 2023. For more information, visit the Library website.

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LBJ Library, LBJ Presidential Library, "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers", Lady Bird Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, LBJ, KTBC, Poverty Tour, Betsy Boyd Caroli, Julia Sweig, Nikki Diller

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