IT was one of those cold and windy December days in 1968 in the nation's capital and spring seemed too far away to think about. But it was an appropriate time for the First Lady to bring her work on the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital to a close, for within a month she would be returning to her native state.
The scene was Hains Point, which juts out into the Potomac like a thin sword; the purpose was the dedication of fountains in a city of fountains. The gathering was scarcely a crowd, and prominent vistors who accompanied the First Lady would find one of their buses stuck in the mud as they departed. And it was difficult for all participants to forget for very long the larger stage on which they operated, which included the emotionally draining act of the Vietnam war.
Lady Bird Johnson's imprint on the nation's capital would be recognized, however, in the springtimes to follow. Cab drivers still make note of her blossoming trees as they shuttle tourists. Old-time Washingtonians even have statistical data on her handiwork, and participants in her beautification project can recall her getting down on her knees, for example on Columbia Island near National Airport, ''planting and planting'' daffodil bulbs. After one such experience, Mrs. Johnson wrote in her diary, ''I think we will all look at this display next spring with a more proprietary, more special feeling, because it's a little bit 'ours.' ''
More than 1 million daffodil bulbs were planted by Mrs. Johnson's committee during the late '60s, as well as countless numbers of other flora, from azaleas to chrysanthemums to dogwoods - all made possible by more than $3 million in private donations. In her first two years as First Lady, Mrs. Johnson's accomplishments were as impressive as her husband's Great Society scorecard; ''cherry trees and willows around Hains Point, the double alley of pink magnolias on Pennsylvania (Avenue) headed toward Anacostia, freeway planting, the sophisticated brick paving and the crepe myrtle of New York Avenue, one of the schools, several of the small triangles and circles where the streets meet.''
Historians rarely devote much attention to first ladies, in part because their activities simply don't measure up to the responsibilities of the president, or, more cynically, because they are expected to confine themselves to tea parties, honorary chairmanships, and redecoration of the White House. Mrs. Johnson, however, charted a new course that merits praise: ensuring a legacy for the average citizen.
One need not wait for a White House tour to take advantage of her legacy or go to a congressman's office for tickets to the gallery of the House of Representatives, or even know the right people for a glimpse at the furnishings in Blair House. One only has to come to Washington in the spring and gaze at the blaze of color along streets and waterways.
As residents of the nation's capital, we relish each spring that unfolds the tangible work of Mrs. Johnson and know that we speak for many Americans in extending our appreciation - and in recalling her words on that cold December day in 1968. ''I wish everything wonderful for this city,'' she said. ''Peace and beauty and so many, many things."Mallie Z. DiBacco is a free-lance writer; Thomas is a historian at the American University.