Lady Bird: Matriarch For an Era

Of all the stories Cactus Prior likes to tell about Lady Bird Johnson, his favorite is when Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, called his wife to tell her to expect guests for supper. "How many?" she asked.

"Congress," he replied.

Unfazed, she called a few friends, cooked up corn bread and black-eyed peas, and fed the masses.

"She could make a Palestinian feel at ease at a bar mitzvah," laughs Mr. Prior, who was the first lady's press secretary and is now a talk-show host on the Austin radio station she owns, KLBJ.

Despite maintaining the image of the Southern wife, bearing her husband's torments as her own, Mrs. Johnson was no doormat.

"Some said she was the real president," says Prior. "In truth, she was a good critiquer. She'd listen to his speeches and tell him, 'You need to be a little more forceful here.' "

Today, 30 years later, she remains a powerful icon in Texas politics. Folks here revere her out of nostalgia for the golden days of the Democratic Party and for her major media influence. It's a status she uses to gain attention for the cause she has backed for a lifetime: the environment.

For historians, this is a time to reflect on the 30 years that have passed since President Johnson left the White House - and politics.

The Johnson years ushered in issues and programs that still resonate in American politics: the rise of the Great Society, that structure of federal welfare initiatives Congress has been dismantling of late; the maturing of a civil rights movement, and adoption of affirmative-action programs for higher education; an escalation of the Vietnam War and student protests that shaped a generation.

BUT for Lady Bird Johnson, 1998 has too much excitement of its own to dwell on the past. She'd rather talk about the spring graduation of two granddaughters, Claudia Taylor Nugent and Cathy Robb from Boston University and University of Texas law school, respectively, or the planned marriage of a third granddaughter in the fall.

And most of all, Johnson likes to talk about her most recent child, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center, located out in the ranchland south of Austin.

"I think you have to consider, when you come by the unbelievable chance of being a first lady, what makes your heart sing? What are you reasonably good at and life-long devoted to?" she says, in an office at the wildflower center. In 1964, when her husband assumed the presidency after the assassination of John Kennedy, Johnson used her bully pulpit to push environmental causes, from highway beautification to wiser use of water and pesticides in agriculture. "It was what came naturally."

And now, she says, "more people are more aware" of the environment, "and determined to do something about it." Evidence of this new environmental conscience is found in the rise of recycling programs, the more careful use of water resources in arid communities, and the growing acceptance of native plants in public and private landscapes.

And Johnson continues her crusade, putting in appearances to lend support to the cause and her center.

But the changes in society over the years haven't always been to her liking. Take the current culture of politics with its all-or-nothing partisan tilt.

"It's just sorry to see how Washington has changed," she sighs, adding that when she has visited her daughter, Linda, wife of Virginia Sen. Charles Robb, many of the senator's colleagues were deciding to leave office. "They were not seriously troubled by opponents, but the juice had gone out of it, the pleasure."

Even her husband, a man not known for delicacy, "would have been appalled at it," she says, "Mad!"

Yet, Johnson steers the conversation to positive changes in the past 30 years, from today's lower consumption levels of tobacco and alcohol to men helping more in child-rearing.

But the best news is that more people are paying attention to nature - and coming to her wildflower center, even after spring bluebonnets have turned scruffy and given way to blooming prickly pear, coreopsis, and yucca.

"I hardly ever miss a week here," she says, stopping at the exquisitely landscaped entryway, donated by her friends Laurance and Mary Rockefeller. She pulls off her stylish sunglasses and grins. "I like to call this Rockefeller Plaza."

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