Lady Bird Johnson was a lady to remember

Published 6:14 pm Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson died last week at the age of 94. As we viewed the funeral proceedings on television Johnie and I remembered the autumn of ’61 when we met Lady Bird. The event was memorable, not because she was the wife of the Vice President at the time, but the fact that she was accompanied by an odd looking little man that we had seen on the covers of several news magazines.

My wife and I were in Washington to conduct youth leadership workshops. My assignment was to conduct a week-long workshop for professional and volunteer youth workers of the Baptist Association while Johnie conducted classes for the Bible teachers of young teens. Since the meetings were held during the evening hours we were free to explore the Capitol City every day for a period of five full days.

We enjoyed visiting the wonderful historical sites in the Capitol but the most unusual event was touring the White House in the company of Lady Bird Johnson and her guest, the camel driver from Pakistan. He had become the Johnson’s house guest in an unusual way. It seems that President Kennedy, sensing his Vice President’s need for action, sent Johnson on a string of foreign missions and goodwill tours. Johnson attracted enthusiastic crowds and reveled in the press attention.

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Traveling in Pakistan in 1961, Johnson repeated a line that he often used while campaigning:

“You-all come to Washington and see us sometime.” To his surprise, an impoverished camel driver, Bashir Ahmed, took the invitation literally and set out for America. When the press turned the story into a joke, Johnson arranged for the People-to-People program to pay the camel driver’s costs, personally met him at the airport in New York and flew him to his Texas ranch, turning a potential joke into a public relations coup.

One of the highlights of our week in Washington was a special tour of the White House. Ours was a small group consisting of less than a dozen people who were pleasantly surprised when we were joined on the first floor elevator by Lady Bird and Basher Ahmed. There were no formal introductions, just a nod and a smile as they joined the party. Someone asked, “How’s Mr. Johnson doing?” His wife’s hearty response was “Top of the World!” I was impressed with the way the wife of the Vice President of the United States was able to blend in as just another member of a tourist group.

Many today view her as a vague figure from history, the smiling wife of President Lyndon Johnson with that odd name, “Lady Bird”. She got the name early in life when a nursemaid described her as “purty as a lady bird”. She explained later that she was just a baby at the time and was in no position to protest.

Visitors to the capitol today are bound to be impressed by the millions of flowers Mrs. Johnson caused to be planted all over the city, in tourist spots and bleak neighborhoods, by roads and public buildings, in parks and on other patches of land where nothing had bloomed before and where today it would be unthinkable not to have a bed of flowers. Her effort led to the planting of flowers in the cities, improving the national parks, and alleviating some of the uglier by-products of commerce and industry: strip mining, overhead power lines, litter clean up, and the restriction of billboards along the interstate highways. Mrs. Johnson’s commitment to spreading wildflowers and the establishment of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre near Austin set a wonderful precedent for the nation.

It has been 46 years since Johnie and I saw Lady Bird Johnson in Washington.

Last week we watched as that remarkable woman was given well-earned credit for the way she handled her role as the marriage partner of President Lyndon Johnson.

Former Johnson White House aide Bill Moyers said her shy demeanor and grace had greatly benefited the colorful president at a time of great tumult.

“He needed her,” he said. “Lady Bird truly loved the man she often found impossible … She often found herself in the path of his Vesuvius eruptions.”

Someone recalled a breakfast years ago at a hotel in New York when Mrs. Johnson showed her generous nature.

At a nearby table were members of the far-out disco group, the Village People, in full gay costume- a policeman, a construction worker, an Indian in full regalia, and a cowboy.

Recognizing Mrs. Johnson, the leader of the group came over, introduced the group, expressed his admiration and asked if she would agree to having her picture taken with them. After the picture was taken she asked who those people were. When she was told she smiled and said, “Well, I wonder if we just made the cover of their next album.”

Mrs. Johnson actively supported the causes of her husband that she thought most important — first and foremost was the civil rights legislation that stands as one of the greatest presidential achievements of all time. She also took a highly active role in her husband’s war-on-poverty program, the Great Society, and strongly advocated the Head Start project for disadvantaged preschool children.

Lady Bird brought to the White House dignity and warmth and grace,” President George H.W. Bush once said. “And she was never on stage, never acting out some part, always the same genuine lady no matter what the setting. It was because of these qualities that her presence at the center of the nation’s great battles over voting, public accommodations and other vital issues of the day was so important. She was a first lady who deserves to be remembered, and of course she is. Every year when springtime comes around.”

She was buried beside her husband on the LBJ ranch near Austin Texas.