The Great, Bright Future of Lady Bird Johnson

On this day in 1912, a woman was born who would forever change the way Americans saw the First Lady of the United States: Claudia Alta Taylor, who would be known and loved by millions as Lady Bird Johnson.

Claudia Taylor was given the nickname “Lady Bird” as an infant after a nurse said she was “as pretty as a ladybird.” Her mother died when she was very young, and her father, a businessman, was known for his strong personality and stubbornness, qualities that would later be used to describe Lady Bird’s husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

From a young age, Lady Bird was studious and ambitious. She was a star student in high school who then went on to earn two Bachelors degrees in college. She was planning on a career as a reporter when she met Lyndon,a young congressional aide on the verge of starting his own political career. They married less than three months later.

Lady Bird would play an invaluable role in assisting with her husband’s political career, but she never abandoned her interest in the media. A family inheritance enabled her to buy a radio station and a television station, as well as invest in other business opportunities. Her shrewd business sense made her a millionaire.

Lady Bird assisted her husband’s political career while managing her own business interests, helping him in his climb from congressman and senator, to vice-president, and ultimately, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, to President.

Lady Bird Johnson reinvented the office of the First Lady by hiring her own press secretary and actively promoting legislation, most notably the Highway Beautification Act. She also toured the country speaking on civil rights issues and sometimes served as an intermediary between her husband and the media.

After her husband’s death in 1973, Lady Bird stayed busy managing her businesses and various nonprofits, including the National Wildflower Research Center. She died in 2007 at the age of ninety-four, leaving behind a legacy of statesmanship, business savvy, beautification and philanthropy that has been preserved in a great number of books, both about her and her husband, four of which are presented here as suggestions for further reading.

Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson by Jane Jarboe Russell (1999)

This controversial book (Lady Bird stopped cooperating with the author when it was learned that she had not portrayed the late LBJ in a very flattering light) features interviews with not only Lady Bird, but also many White House insiders, people who knew Lady Bird and LBJ. The former’s strong influence on the political decisions of the latter are featured, as well as her work as a businesswoman and conservationist.

Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History by Michael L. Gillette (2012)

Over the course of almost two decades, Lady Bird recorded dozens of interviews with Gillette, the former director of the LBJ Library’s oral history program. Their best of their conversations are reproduced here, giving readers an unparalleled look into the life of the First Lady and the White House under LBJ. New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner described Gillette’s book as “…absurdly entertaining.”

Wildflowers Across America by Lady Bird Johnson and Carlton B. Lees, featuring the photography of Les Pine. (1999)

Wildflowers were an enduring passion of Lady Bird’s, and in this book she makes her case for their preservation and cultivation. In addition to Lady Bird’s foreword, Wildflowers Across America includes advice for planting and growing wildflowers, and information on where to acquire seeds and other needed supplies.

Indomitable Will: LBJ In The Presidency by Mark Upegrove (2012)

Understanding LBJ and the Johnson White House will bring much to those who wish to know more about Lady Bird and her time as First Lady. This book portrays Johnson as a conflicted, controversial but canny leader leading the nation through one of the darkest eras of its history.