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Published: 7/15/2007

Lady Bird made LBJ a better man, nation a better place

AHEAD OF her time, she was behind all of the big things that her husband tried to do Almost 90 years old, almost blind, the world she knew almost gone, her husband almost forgotten, Lady Bird Johnson was sitting in her home, sharing with a perfect stranger her private thoughts on how she approached perhaps the most public tragedy of her time. "This situation," she said of the terrible events she had witnessed in Dallas in November 1963, "called on you for loss of self and total concentration on the job at hand - just the total giving of your mind and heart."

Now, years later, the Johnson years enjoying something of a revisionist revival, those mid-morning remarks seem as much an epitaph as a memory. Mrs. Johnson perfected the forgotten art of loss of self, the total concentration on the job at hand, and the total giving of mind and heart.

Her death last week brought it all back - the memories of the beautiful Texas day ruined by gunshots, the frantic hurtling of the limousine toward Parkland Memorial Hospital, the hollow eyes of the men and women gathered around the new president as he took the oath of office, the gloom of the darkness at Andrews Air Force Base when President Lyndon B. Johnson's plane brought John F. Kennedy's body back to the capital. Through it all there was Lady Bird, the new first lady whose first mission always had been to be a lady.

Mrs. Johnson was, of course, the lady of Lyndon, a man so idealistic and so manipulative, so capable of the grand vision and the small indecency. He dreamed of a Great Society and presided over a great crisis of society. He wanted to be remembered for his War on Poverty and was doomed to be blamed for the war in Vietnam. He was always described as earthy, and yet his eyes were on the stars, quite literally, as he was even greater a patron of the space program than its founding philosopher king, President Kennedy.

American politics, dominated by domineering men, is peculiarly populated by the women who gave grace, courage, and a few rounded edges to their men. Abigail Adams was one, Dolley Madison was another, and no list of these leading ladies is complete without Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush. No one disputes that Hillary Rodham Clinton saved her family, and maybe the Clinton presidency, but that argument is for another day. This remembrance is about Lady Bird Johnson, and about the truth that perhaps no one played a bigger role in any president's outlook and ambition.

"In her quiet way, she made him come to heel," Hubert Humphrey, who served a tumultuous term as Johnson's vice president, once said. "Lyndon Johnson would be bluffing and snorting around, and Lady Bird in her quiet way would get that big old moose under control."

Mrs. Johnson was a presence, even when she was absent. President Johnson, who was loyal to her despite moments of private disloyalty, knew that, was wracked with guilt by that, was elevated and enlarged by that. Part of the man's motivation was to make a difference - this animated so much of his early years, teaching what were then known as the underprivileged; making the New Deal work in Texas and then ensuring its survival in the Congress; enacting civil-rights legislation against the instincts and then the filibusters of his closest allies; daring to create a Great Society where the poor, the hungry, the infirm, and the old would be comforted; fighting to offer freedom for Asians even after his own party allies had turned on him, angrily, bitterly, permanently.

Making a difference was part of his motivation; he could be a big man. Getting his way was part of his motivation; he could be a stubborn man. But making Lady Bird proud of him was his principal motivation. The historians may say otherwise, but the people who knew the president and Mrs. Johnson will agree.

She was a businesswoman when that was unusual and an environmentalist when most of her allies were still called conservationists, and in later years she was the guardian of the Johnson legacy and the Johnson legend. Many of us in our profession never forgot that she held a degree in journalism, which wasn't exactly common for women born in 1912. In Austin after the death of her husband a third of a century ago, she was part of the landscape, a prominent part of the social aristocracy, an important impresario at the Johnson Library, which became a yeasty center of historical examination and evening programs.

During her first week as first lady, Mrs. Johnson told Nellie Connolly that she felt "like I am suddenly on stage for a part I never rehearsed." That comment, like so many in Merle Miller's Lyndon: An Oral Biography, showed that she was a natural, even at those times when she didn't feel very natural in the role, at least in the public part of it. The private role she mastered from the start.

"Mrs. Johnson, I think, was the most valuable asset he had," Wilbur Cohen, a New Deal veteran who helped build the Great Society, once said. "She was the one person that could talk to him and he would listen, knowing that she had no ulterior purpose."

Richard Nixon told the story of visiting the White House in the years before his own presidency and being escorted into the president's bedroom, where he was greeted by Johnson in pajamas. Mrs. Johnson was in her night clothes, as well, and, with Nixon standing there, joined her husband in bed. The Johnsons were a power couple but, it must be said, they were also an informal couple.

She was the woman who accommodated her husband when he unexpectedly invited a crowd home for dinner; who understood the ripples of tension that congressional debate on the foreign-aid bill could send through the White House; who calmed and comforted a president angry at war protesters, heartbroken by the chants that called him a ruthless killer, grief-stricken at the death he knew he had caused. She was the better angel of his nature, and of ours.



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