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Lady Bird Johnson: First Ladies a CNN Special

Episode 5 looks at the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, the great Lady Bird Johnson, who was thrust into the limelight and the position of the First Lady after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Born on 22nd December 1912 as Claudia Alta Taylor she served her nation as The Second Lady, between 1961 and 1963, and then First Lady, between 1963 and 1969.

A Woman Of The Future

Being a well-educated woman during the early 1900s wasn’t commonplace but she moved into corporate circles, despite being seen as just a socialite, proving to be a successful manager and investor. By 1934 she would be married to Lyndon B. Johnson with a modest inheritance, she invested her time and money into her husband’s congressional campaign, helping him win. She would run his office while Johnson was away in the Navy during WWII.

Lady Bird Johnson was a smart businesswoman and invested her inheritance in many ventures, starting with KTBC, an Austin Radio Station. From there she served as president of JBL Holding Co. while her husband secured an agreement with the CBS radio network. Despite her husband’s objections, Lady Bird Johnson expanded into television in 1952, reminding him and the world that she could do what she wanted with her inheritance.

She was a woman who was financially secure, with her own money and mind, which wasn’t commonplace in 1950s America. The moves she made in business allowed the Johnsons to become millionaires, with Lady Bird being the first president’s wife to become one in her own right, this was even before Lyndon was elected as the leader of the free world. She continued to be involved in the company well into her eighties.

As First Lady, Lady Bird created the modern structure of the First Lady’s office, employing a press secretary, a chief of staff, and an outside liaison with Congress. She employed women in her office in powerful positions, spoke to congress directly, and even went on a solo electioneering tour. Liz Carpenter, her press secretary for her entire time as First Lady, was the first professional newswoman to hold this position. She was also her staff director, while this period of time marked the beginning of the First Lady hiring employees in the East Wing to help handle her duties and projects.

She really invented the job of the modern first lady. She was the first one to have a big staff, the first one to have a comprehensive program in her own name, the first one to write a book about the White House years, when she leaves. She had an important role in setting up an enduring role for her husband with the LBJ Library. She’s the first one to campaign extensively on her own for her husband.

Betty Boyd Caroli
Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson: A Strong Woman

Her husband suffered from bouts of depression and often didn’t feel good enough, this is very common amongst those who suffer from depressive episodes, often feeling like an imposter. As a First Lady and his wife. Lady Bird Johnson supported her husband emotionally and politically after he became the president of the United States. Mrs. Johnson was also very strong-willed making it a point of always telling him the truth and was unapologetically blunt towards him when he needed it. 

He wasn’t the nicest husband to Lady Bird Johnson and would often humiliate her in front of people, but she was a strong woman who stood by her husband and he loved her.  LBJ was a “manic depressive” now he would be diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder and even though he took that out on his wife she was strong enough to love him on the good and bad days, she was the softer side of his more intimidating and aggressive way of archiving his goals.

Because of his Bi-Polar Disorder Lady Bird became a mediating force between her husband and the people he encountered, both at work and in everyday life. Her softness with people helped the couple achieve their goals, with many willing to do anything for the First Lady because of her pleasant demeanor. She knew how to play the game and would often be heard saying “That’s just the way Lyndon sometimes is.” when consoling those he had offended.

Advocate, Trailblazer, Activist: Simply Birdy

She came from the south and the Johnsons were strong advocates for civil rights and against segregation.  In passing the Civil Rights Act they angered a lot of the southerners that had got them into the position they were in. Even though it was advised that they shouldn’t put money into campaigning in the south, Lady Bird Johnson felt that she couldn’t just not try.  She campaigned for more people of color to register to vote in the south and challenged the society she was brought up in, even receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

Walter Jenkins, the long-term top aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, was exposed as a homosexual and caused a scandal in the White House. This scandal resulted in Jenkins residing from his position a month before the election in 1964. Despite the fact that at the time homosexuality was widely condemned Lady Bird Johnson wasn’t about to sit back and watch a man’s life be destroyed. She wrote a statement in support of Walter and his recovery from his suicidal thoughts. Her support and Kindness towards Jenkins were looked on favorably by the LGBTQ community, who had to hide who they truly were at the time. We have made strides in that respect but the world is perfect.

After her husband’s death in 1973 Lady Bird would continue working towards her passions, traveling, and spending more time with her two daughters. Her passion for nature continued well after her time in the White House, where a bill was passed known as The Highway Beautification Act, focusing her attention on the Austin riverfront. She also served on the National Park Service Advisory Board and the National Geographic Society’s Board of Trustees, being the first woman to do so.

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and that same year spoke at the National Women’s Conference. By 1982 Lady Bird will have founded the National Wildflower Research Center alongside actress Helen Hayes, a non-profit organization focused on preserving and reintroducing native plants to Austin, Texas, she also received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1984. The center opened a new facility in 1994, being renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center the following year, it is now part of the University of Texas at Austin.

Lady Bird Johnson passed away on 11th July 2007 at her home, she was 94.

Where flowers bloom, so does hope

Lady Bird Johnson, Highway Beautification Act
Lady Bird Johnson

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