- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007


Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the nation’s 36th president and one of the nation’s most engaging, astute and politically savvy first ladies, died yesterday of natural causes at her Austin, Texas, home, a family spokeswoman said. She was 94.

Spokeswoman Elizabeth Christian said Mrs. Johnson died at about 5:18 p.m., surrounded by family and friends.

Mrs. Johnson, who suffered a stroke in 2002 that affected her ability to speak, returned home late last month after a week at Seton Medical Center, where she had been admitted for a low-grade fever.

Even after the stroke, Mrs. Johnson managed to make occasional public appearances and get outdoors to enjoy her beloved wildflowers. But she was unable to speak more than a few short phrases, and more recently did not speak at all, said Anne Wheeler, spokeswoman for the LBJ Library and Museum. Mrs. Johnson communicated her thoughts and needs by writing, she said. Lyndon Baines Johnson died in 1973, four years after the Johnsons left the White House.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush remembered Mrs. Johnson as a “warm and gracious woman.”

“President Johnson once called her a woman of ideals, principles, intelligence and refinement. She remained so throughout their life together, and in the many years given to her afterward,” Mr. Bush said.

A gentle lady of the South, Mrs. Johnson lived with her dynamic husband through the divisive, hectic Vietnam War period and the bitter days after Mr. Kennedy’s assassination, when Vice President Johnson ascended to the presidency.

During her days in the White House, Mrs. Johnson was widely regarded as a calming influence on the volatile president and as a powerful presidential adviser. Historians of the presidency say her political influence rivaled that of Eleanor Roosevelt, the outspoken activist wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Tom Johnson, a former aide to Mr. Johnson, said, “What we knew, at all times, was that she was the most trusted, most loyal, most dependable person that President Johnson could turn to on any issue, but her presence was never one of intruding.”

Although shy and self-effacing, Mrs. Johnson stepped forward to manage her husband’s congressional office while he was fighting in World War II. She bought and transformed dying radio station KTBC in Austin into a thriving business. And when Mr. Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights legislation, she undertook her own whistle-stop campaign to help quell the anger of white Southerners.

Among her other achievements, Mrs. Johnson become the first first lady to initiate a major legislative campaign. She persuaded Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. On Capitol Hill, the measure was called “Lady Bird’s Bill.”

While first lady and for years after, Mrs. Johnson championed efforts to eradicate unsightly billboards and junkyards along the nation’s highways. She considered measures to spruce up and prettify public areas as part of her husband’s Great Society program, which also included such measures as Medicare, and federal aid to education and the arts.

Other former first ladies remembered Mrs. Johnson yesterday as deeply devoted to her family and the environment.

“Her beautification programs benefited the entire nation. She translated her love for the land and the environment into a lifetime of achievement,” Betty Ford said.

Nancy Reagan said deleted that when Mr. Johnson was called upon to take the oath of office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “he did so with his courageous wife beside him.” Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Mrs. Johnson for supporting her husband’s “fights for civil rights and against poverty.”

Mrs. Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas, near the Louisiana border. Her mother died when she was 5, and she was raised by her tough, domineering father, who was called “Mister Boss.” He owned 15,000 acres of cotton and two general stores with signs that read: “T.J. Taylor — Dealer in Everything.” A nursemaid nicknamed her Lady Bird, and the name stuck.

The Johnsons had two daughters, Lynda Bird, who was born in 1944, and Luci Baines, who was born three years later. Lynda Bird is the wife of Charles S. Robb, the former senator from Virginia who now teaches at George Mason University Law School. Luci Baines is the wife of businessman Ian Turpin. Survivors also include seven grandchildren, a stepgrandchild, and several great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Johnson will lie in repose at the LBJ Library and Museum from 1:15 p.m. tomorrow until 11 a.m. Saturday. A private funeral service will be held Saturday afternoon and a ceremonial cortege will carry Mrs. Johnson to Stonewall for burial in the Johnson family cemetery.

c This article was based in part on wire-service reports.

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