Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson was a lady. A great lady. But “lady” is a term many of us are uneasy with. Originating in an older, patriarchal world, “lady” conferred a certain female power, even as it contained it. “Lady” relegated women to the parlor and pedestal, away from public power.
The respect and honor accorded a lady was a consolation: The hand that rocked the cradle or poured the tea did not rule the world, and everyone knew it.
But “lady,” the word, as well as idea, has value, even as we contemplate the possibility of America’s first female leader. And there was no finer example of a lady than Lady Bird Johnson. Being a Southerner, she had a good start; Southern women of all classes and races know a lady when we see one. She combines a highly attuned sense of others’ needs with an awareness of how she is seen by others. Some women, in attending to others’ needs, efface themselves in lifelong sacrifice. Other women turn that knowledge of others and the power of their gaze into something greater than themselves.
Lady Bird Johnson embodied both kinds of ladies, the self-effacing and the self-amplifying. Shy and uncertain about her own abilities as a young woman, she was electrified by her association with her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was not only an outgoing, extroverted man, but one with a political mission.
The role of a good political wife is to keep the unofficial machinery of politics running smoothly, presiding over all the social events and “private” encounters in which politics gets “done.” Whatever her private reservations, over 34 years Lady Bird Johnson grew into the consummate political hostess, nurturing policy decisions and political ties over dinner and tea.
But the job of first lady, requires something more. As created by the first first lady, Dolley Madison, this role provides a chance to be the larger-than-life embodiment of the husband’s administration, imparting psychological and emotional messages of stability, reassurance, legitimacy and morality. Lady Bird Johnson, upon becoming first lady, made this part of the role her own. Long known for “softening” her rough-and-tumble Texas husband in the eyes of his constituents, she became a bridge between him and the world.
Lady Bird’s greatest success as her husband’s charismatic figure came during her four-day whistle-stop tour for her husband’s 1964 campaign. The Civil Rights Law of 1964, signed by Lyndon Johnson only months before, threatened his election to the presidency; indeed, eight Southern states were deemed too dangerous for campaigning. But Lady Bird Johnson went to all eight of them on a 1,628-mile journey on her own train, The Lady Bird Special.
Once so terrified of public speaking that she turned down her class’ valedictorian medal, Lady Bird Johnson delivered 47 speeches in 47 cities and towns, speaking to more than half a million people. As she stood on the platform, in her beautiful suits, smiling graciously and waving white-gloved hands, she carried messages of reassurance, reproach and, ultimately, faith.
To her sister and fellow Southerners, the sight of an instantly recognizable and certified lady reassured them that, whatever they felt about civil rights, they were being ruled by the right people. Lady Bird Johnson also stood as symbol for all Americans, a gentle reminder that none of us had it right on race, that it was time to change. After all, she, a daughter of the South, had learned to change, and we could, too. Like a perfect lady and mother, Lady Bird gently goaded us into being the best we could be and to live out our highest ideals.
By taking the public platform, she told us, “You will do the right thing, I know you will.” And, waved into the voting booth by her white-gloved hand, we did. We voted her husband president, we began to see people with different colored skins as more like us than different and awoke to the beauty of our own land.
We will miss Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson and know we are a better people for having had Lady Bird as our first lady.
A writer for the History News Service and history professor at the University of California at Riverside. She is the author of “A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation” (2006).
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