Austin, Texas — The blossoms of Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets are still just flirting with the rain-hungry ranches in the Texas hill country. But Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the 36th President of the United States, surely knows they will soon carpet her beloved central Texas landscape, as they always do each spring.
Indeed, one afternoon recently at her office at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library here, her bright red suit and pale gold blouse seemed almost a personal tribute to the wildflower beauties she champions so vigorously.
The interview, she had been promised, would center on her deepest interests: matters of family, home, children, values, her inner convictions, her hopes for the nation - and wildflowers.
This week, Mrs. Johnson has been at the Williamsburg, Va., Garden Symposium to speak about wildflowers, and next week she will take part in a conference at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., on ''Modern First Ladies: Private Lives and Public Duties.''
On a credenza just behind her desk is a candid black and white photo of her and Lyndon Johnson. On the main floor of the library, several display cases project a comfortable, family-album feeling. Pictures of the seven children of the two Johnson daughters are prominent. Her diary about the White House years is ''if anything,'' she says, ''the story of a family in a unique set of circumstances at a significant point in history.''
So much emphasis on family prompts one to wonder if she might counsel or comfort American parents trying hard today to guide families through intimidating times?
''I never see myself as a pundit or an adviser,'' she replies after prolonged contemplation of both question and questioner.
''All I know is what a joy my own family is, and my children - they're my best friends and companions. I want it to be that way with my grandchildren.''
She had heard a discussion earlier in the day about the very large percentage of American schoolchildren who come from one-parent homes and was startled by the great number of those single parents who must work full time.
''The time you spend together setting values, establishing discipline, playing games, going on picnics, having fun, can be so limited. I don't know what to do about it. But I know that we are missing one of the most valuable of life's experiences if we do miss these times.''
The attentiveness to family must have been instilled in her own childhood and youth. Back in 1934, Lyndon Johnson inscribed a picture to her (he met her one day and proposed the next): ''For Bird, a lovely girl with ideals, principles, intelligence, and refinement from her sincere admirer, Lyndon.''
Years later, on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1963, handwritten on White House note paper , Jacqueline Kennedy remarked on Lady Bird's ''extraordinary grace of character, her willingness to assume every burden. She assumed so many for me. . . .''
Four days earlier, at 2:38 p.m. on board Air Force One in Dallas, Lady Bird Johnson had stood at Lyndon's elbow as he took the oath of office of President of the United States, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
''There's hardly been a time of such concentrated change as the period that Lyndon and I did live through,'' Mrs. Johnson said quietly.
It was 50 years ago - and ironic in the light of the years that lay ahead - that Lady Bird wrote to her husband-to-be: ''I would hate for you to go into politics. Don't let me get things any more muddled for you than they are, though , dearest.''
''At a pretty young age,'' she reminisces on this early 1984 spring day, ''I fell in love and found myself joined in a life that had a lot of direction. Lyndon knew public service was what he wanted to do. He loved being a secretary to a congressman and then head of the National Youth Administration, then in Congress. All that was as far from my bringing-up, my ambitions, my thoughts, as the North and South Poles.''
When Mrs. Johnson says ''loved'' - as in Lyndon ''loved'' being in Washington - the ''o'' spreads out to hug the whole sentence.
''But I learned about it (public service) and with learning, acquired interest and some usefulness, I hope. All the time, though, I was putting on the shelf a lot of things I wanted to do. I wanted to follow autumn from Maine down through New England to Virginia and the Carolinas and on south back here to home, and in a reverse way to follow spring toward the north. And see far parts of the world and read lots of books and lie in a hammock and watch the clouds. And I've done a lot of that and I have been me in all of these senses.''
Lady Bird once said, ''I just want to be me.'' What did she mean?
Her eyes gleam a bit and a rolling laugh unfurls.
''I could mean a lot of things by that,'' she says. ''I hope I gave respectful deference to what was expected of me in all the roles in life. I didn't want to follow any precise pattern. If I didn't want to spend a whole lot of my time shopping and caring about makeup and would rather go for a long walk in the woods, well, gee, I can indulge myself and be me then.''
She concedes though: ''I am naturally a shy and timid person.
''I passed up some opportunities because they took more hours or daring or courage than I had, and I wish I had tried some of them. But I filled my days just about as full as I could. So I guess there just wasn't any of me left over.''
Her days are still full. She's been called the country's ''most gracious'' hostess. Although extending Hill Country, ranchwide, Texas-barbecue hospitality to world leaders is no longer on her schedule now that Lyndon is gone, national figures and kinfolk and longtime friends do come to the LBJ ranch (a working ranch, by the way) at Stonewall, Texas. Henry Kissinger, a congressman, a couple of college presidents, and enough old and new friends to fill several tables recently shared a country meal with her along the banks of the Pedernales.
''For the joy of it, I am spending a lot of my time in these last years trying to just keep for my own children, and every one else's, a piece of the great open fields, the woodlands, the wildflowers and scenery.''
In remarks last year at the University of Texas, home of the Johnson Library, Lady Bird told students that ''what survives the years is a greater capacity to enjoy the world,'' revealed by courses in the arts and humanities. Her own studies had provided ''an elasticity for exploring new ideas . . . a daring to doubt . . . to cherish unchanging inner truths while being willing to consider new ones. Knowledge,'' she said, ''is a celebration of man's humanity - an enticement to travel and enjoy new intellectual avenues - and it is yours for a lifetime.''
Mrs. Johnson recently gave 60 acres east of Austin alongside Texas' Colorado River for a National Wildflower Research Center, where its first beds of flowers are beginning to bloom.
She rallied help for the center - she says she never thought she could raise money for anything - but, she adds, ''if you care about an objective you can face up to doing it. I do it always with the full knowledge that all my friends have done more for me than I have for them. And they don't owe me anything.''
She gathered support for a lovely riverside park in Austin where dogwoods, bluebonnets, paintbrush, coriopsis, and ''the whole Persian carpet'' of the hill country will be aglow in a few weeks. According to Mrs. Johnson, there are about 5,000 varieties of wildflowers right in her home state.
There's a last question about her Washington years. She has described the capital as a ''self-important'' city. Could it ever become a more selfless place?
''I loved Washington (extra looooving, this time) and love it still. But sometimes it doesn't realize that America is way out yonder in all those country towns and middle-sized towns and villages and even in all those places that are burgeoning.''