News, History and Opinion According to Real Clear Politics

Good morning, it’s Thursday, July 11, 2019. Twelve years ago today, a great woman died of natural causes at age 94. Although christened Claudia Alta Taylor, we knew her — the whole world knew her — as “Lady Bird.”

Lady Bird Johnson served as first lady of the United States from November 1963 until January 1969 before returning home to Texas with her husband, who lived only four more years. As president, Lyndon Johnson had great failures and great successes. He was decidedly uneven as a husband, too, but in Lady Bird he had the right partner.

“In our case, we were better together than we were apart” is how she put it in a 1988 interview with NBC News. “And I knew that, and I loved my share of life with him.”

While riding on the highway this summer, take a moment and look out the window. Unless you’re an American of a certain age, you won’t remember this, but taking a drive in this country, even on the most scenic route, once meant gazing at endless billboards and trash on both sides of the road for mile after mile. Thanks to Lady Bird’s “beautify America” push — her signature issue as first lady — that’s no longer true.

“There is a growing feeling abroad in this land today,” she explained at the time, “that ugliness has been allowed too long — that it is time to say ‘enough’ and to act.”

I’ll have more on Lady Bird Johnson’s actions and words in a moment. First, I’d steer you to  RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:


Steyer: From Impeachment Agitator to 2020 Candidate. Phil Wegmann tracks the newest Democratic aspirant’s efforts to first kick Donald Trump from office and now to succeed him.

At Senate Hearing, Space Advocates Shoot for the Moon. Jack Beyrer has the story as the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 prompted this expert assessment of America’s space future.

A “Nixon Going to China” Moment for Trump on Immigration. Julia Mullins reports on a panel discussion this week about the border crisis and related issues.

Northam’s Latest Gambit to Change the Subject Flops. Jenny Beth Martin argues that a special session of the Virginia legislature called by the governor to address gun violence was a charade.

Who’s Going to Clean Up America’s Voter Rolls? In RealClearInvestigations, Mark Hemingway explores the national problem of untended and overgrown voter rolls.

How a Pop Music Documentary Undercuts the IP Theft Narrative. RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny spotlights the “Echo in the Canyon” message that good ideas are always appropriated by others, which benefits all in the long run.

Separating Fact From Fiction About Short-Term Coverage Plans. In RealClearHealth, Jeff Smedsrud counters claims that the plans are junk insurance.

How to Grow Your Hippocampus. RealClearScience editor Ross Pomeroy examines theories about reversing decline of the brain structure essential to cognition and memory retention.


Born in 1912 in the East Texas town of Karnack, the future wife of the 36th U.S. president always gravitated toward the outdoors. Often solitary, but rarely lonely, she would paddle a canoe under the shade of ancient cypress trees on the bayous of Caddo Lake, developing a love of natural beauty that never left her.

She earned her famous sobriquet as a little girl for being “purty as a lady bird,” but we know Lady Bird by her works, specifically her labors on behalf of nature. These efforts began with the creation of the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital. As I mentioned above, it was a time when taking a drive along the highways and byways of this country was like driving through a municipal dump. Litter cluttered the roadsides, junkyards dotted the landscapes, and billboards were the main vista.

Mrs. Johnson expanded her efforts beyond the Washington area to the entire nation. The upshot was legislation, officially called The Highway Beautification Act, but known on Capitol Hill simply as “Lady Bird’s Bill.”

To get it passed, Lyndon Johnson cajoled his former Senate colleagues, twisted arms, and issued all the earthy threats he was famous for. The bill was signed into law on Oct. 22, 1965.

Liberal magazine writer Meg Greenwood tipped her cap to the “deceptively sweet and simple-sounding name of ‘beautification.'”

Still, Mrs. Johnson fretted that the term could be construed as “cosmetic” and “trivial,” and made a point of telling people that her vision encompassed so much more, including “clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas.”

Jacqueline Kennedy, her predecessor as first lady, had instilled in Americans an appreciation for historical buildings. Lady Bird and her husband, who came to power as a result of the ugliest day in Dallas history, expanded this focus to the outdoors. One of our most eloquent first ladies, Lady Bird left a trove of quotes and written observations about nature, America, and her life in politics. Here are a few of them:

ON THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION

— “I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw in the president’s car a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat,” she wrote in her diary. “It was Mrs. Kennedy, lying over the president’s body.”

— “My own reaction was anger and shame that this should happen in my state.”

ON LIFE WITH LYNDON

— “He made me try harder and do more, and for the natural indolence I had, he was its mortal enemy, and I think perhaps sometimes I made him persevere or take a gentler attitude toward people or events or be less impatient.”

— “We both helped each other laugh. He could be one of the funniest people in the whole wide world. He was a great mimic and he played just as vigorously as he worked. He did not play enough.”

ON THE VIETNAM WAR

— “Lyndon’s abilities and his agenda and desires were in the fields of health and education and equal rights. He’d repeat over and over the phrase about the only war this nation wants to wage is the war against poverty, ignorance, and disease, and he really took overwhelming pleasure in prosecuting that war. But this other quicksand … would not go away. You don’t write on a blank slate. You take the world as it is when you walk in that door and try to deal with it.”

ON CIVIL RIGHTS.

–“I know the Civil Rights Act was right, and I don’t mind saying so,” she told crowds during a four-day rail trip through eight Southern states, trying to bolster support for her husband’s 1964 election.

–To hecklers who met her train, dubbed the Lady Bird Special, she’d listen for a while then reply, “You’ve had your say. If you’re finished, I would like to talk.”

ON NATURE

— “I grew up listening to the wind in the pine trees of the East Texas woods.”

–Upon landing in Austin for the first time and seeing from her plane window a field of bluebonnets in full bloom: “It was as though the gates of the world flung open for me. I felt in love with life itself.”

–“The subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool. All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health and the crime rate and rapid transit and highway beautification and the war on poverty and parks — national, state and local. It’s hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line because everything leads to something else.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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