Just a year after Lady Bird Johnson's death July 11, 2007, her environmental mission has become more critical than ever. As we hear more about the competition for scarce resources, climate change, pollution and ecological degradation, it becomes more urgent to understand and fulfill her environmental legacy, just as the Wildflower Center strives to do.
Lady Bird Johnson was one of the leading environmentalists of our time. That we know and understand her contributions so well is due in large part to the scholarship of a university historian, Dr. Lewis Gould, Eugene C. Barker professor in American History and author of Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment and Lady Bird Johnson, Our Environmental First Lady.
In the first book, Gould said: "If a man in the 1960s had been involved with an environmental movement such as highway beautification, had changed the appearance of a major American city, had addressed the problems of black inner-city youth and had campaigned tirelaessly to enhance national concern about natural beauty, no doubts would be raised that he was worthy of biographical and scholarly scrutiny."
Mrs. Johnson's accomplishments, he said, were a catalyst for the environmental ideas that emerged during the 1960s and thereafter.
At the time when Gould first met Mrs. Johnson in 1982, he was a scholar of the American presidency who had already written a biography of President William McKinley. He was teaching an undergraduate course on first ladies of the 20th century, and she agreed to talk to his class. The class came just as Mrs. Johnson and actress Helen Hayes were founding the National Wildflower Research Center (which became the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center), and CBS News taped the class.
"That taught me about first ladies and celebrity," Gould said. Shortly after that, he was asked to write an essay on Mrs. Johnson for Robert Divine's second volume on the Johnson years. Gould visited the archives and "where I went to find a little creek, I found Lady Bird Lake--a vast reservoir of untapped material, including 17 boxes just on beautification projects, Liz Carpenter's files, staff files and 2,142 social file boxes." Gould decided to write a book.
His research took him across the country, visiting with those who had worked with Mrs. Johnson on her beautification and environmental projects. In 1984, he started interviewing the environmental first lady herself.
During a discussion with her, he mentioned that historians were now in 1984 giving more credit to Richard Nixon as an environmentalist than President Johnson. Mrs. Johnson responded with a review of the Land and Water Conservation fund as a key piece of policy about the environment that the Johnsons crafted. Gould recalls that "she knew everything about how the system worked, all the details. She was a master of the legislative process who took me behind the curtain to see how government operates at the highest level. After five dazzling minutes, she closed the curtain and our talk went in other directions. I have never forgotten that moment." Gould concluded that Lady Bird Johnson had "figured out that she was smarter than any man she had ever met except Lyndon, but if she let it show, it would prevent her from getting things done."
"I never asked her about that, and she never would have admitted it, but she truly was an intellectual," Gould continued. "She read all sorts of things. In the mid-1930s she read Hitler's Mein Kampf to learn about the Nazi menace earlier than most Americans understood the threat Hitler posed. She read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. She read the books of the conservationist Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
"Part of her genius," Gould said, "was that she didn't care who got the credit. I really think she didn't have an ego that way. It was an admirable trait of character.....She faced a lot of misogyny and she let it wash off her."
Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment was published in 1988. Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady, followed in 1999 as part of the Modern First Ladies series Gould edits for the University Press of Kansas. He is currently working on a biography of Helen Herron Taft, the wife of President William Howard Taft.
Gould also credited Mrs. Johnson with creating the modern structure of how presidential wives operate. In an article for the History News Network in July 2007, Gould said Mrs. Johnson brought "an adroit style to her duties that had been fashioned in running a radio and television station in Texas and in watching her husband's campaigns in the state.
She had her own press secretary, Liz Carpenter, and she paid attention to mass media--even though sometimes the White House refused to fund the media trips she made to focus attention on wilderness areas. She borrowed expert staff from federal agencies to help her with her policy agenda. First ladies who followed her built upon her model of how a White House spouse should perform, Gould said.
Gould took note of all the tributes to Mrs. Johnson after her death, and he thinks she would have become impatient.
"I think if she were alive today, she would say: 'Enough of the ceremonies, let's go plant some trees.' She has become a secular saint, and that has bleached out a very important message, which was, ‘let's do something important'. She never rested on her laurels. She was always looking at what she was going to do tomorrow."
A year after her death, Gould said, it is likely she would look at the monuments and, the eulogies and she would say, "That's all very well, but what have we done to advance my agenda? What has happened?"