Springtime in Washington wouldn’t be the same without Lady Bird Johnson

Mar 18, 2015

By John Kelly
March 18, 2015
Originally published in the Washington Post

Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Lady Bird Johnson was born with a golden shovel in her hands.

At least, that’s what you might think if you were to look at photographs of the first lady from the mid-1960s, when she spearheaded — or spadeheaded — a campaign to beautify the United States, starting right here in Washington. Picture after picture shows Lady Bird putting her shoulder into it as she ceremonially digs a hole for a lucky sapling.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Highway Beautification Act, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson to curb billboards and other forms of blight along federally subsidized roads in the Interstate Highway System. It was a law that the outdoor advertising industry fought bitterly, and when it stalled, President Johnson made an announcement to his Cabinet: “You know that I love that woman. And she wants that highway beautification bill, and by God, we’re going to get it for her!”

A Life: The Story of Lady Bird Johnson” is one of the films screening as part of the Environmental Film Festival, through March 29 at Washington-area venues. The 51-minute documentary was made by Charles Guggenheim in 1992. Guggenheim died in 2002. I spoke with his daughter, Grace, who met Lady Bird while working on the film with her father.

“She’s just an amazing woman,” Grace told me. “And I think the beauty of this film is that she is such a captivating speaker and storyteller.”

Lady Bird didn’t have the glamour of Jackie Kennedy, just as LBJ didn’t have John F. Kennedy’s suavity. But the Johnsons were a formidable team.

Lady Bird, born Claudia Alta Taylor, lost her mother at age 5. A maiden aunt was brought in to help raise her, though it seems that Lady Bird raised herself. She started driving at 13 so she could get herself to school, and at 17, she pestered her relatives to let her take a ride in a barnstorming airplane. She earned several college degrees and thought of being a teacher in Alaska or Hawaii — not yet U.S. states — before throwing her lot in with an ambitious would-be politician.

The documentary includes footage of Washington in the 1940s, much of it shot by Lady Bird, including the Jefferson Memorial under construction. It seems prophetic that those scenes include the cherry trees ringing the Tidal Basin, since the first lady was to become so instrumental in improving the look of Washington.

“It sort of hit me that when her mother died at a young age, the environment probably gave her a lot of solace,” Grace said.

Lady Bird’s beautification campaign started in the spring of 1965. She was involved with a group called the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, which, among other things, aimed to improve hundreds of little oddly shaped parcels of land that dotted the District, and to build playgrounds. By the spring of 1966, 750,000 tulips and daffodils, 50,000 mums, 220,000 annuals, 3,000 roses, 12,000 azaleas, 2,400 cherry trees, 1,000 magnolias and 1,000 dogwoods had been planted in the District.

As syndicated columnist Marquis Childs wrote at the time: “She has contributed above all to a realization that this once beautiful land is being converted into a tunnel of concrete arched over with billboards and lined with beaten-up hamburger shacks and old automobile dumps.”

Lady Bird was not totally successful. Critics complained that beautification efforts seldom extended into Washington’s neediest neighborhoods. And it’s often easier to build a playground than to maintain it.

Still, as Interior Secretary Stewart Udall put it when dedicating Columbia Island in the Potomac River in her honor: “If everyone put into their home towns the energy and leadership Mrs. Johnson has put into Washington, we would have no major environmental urban problems in this country.”

Lady Bird died in 2007, at 94. Besides a more colorful Washington, her greatest legacy is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She co-founded it in 1982 to encourage the spread native plants.

It’s easy to dismiss Lady Bird because of her focus on the aesthetic — pretty flowers — but she recognized that the environment shapes our lives. Being impoverished can mean more than just not having enough money. In the documentary, she says that all our landscape needs is “joyous use and good maintenance.” It’s a simple prescription worth keeping in mind today.