Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I always thought Lady Bird Johnson looked like my grandma. Not exactly, of course, but close enough. She certainly reminded me of her in a lot of ways, even though the trajectory of Lady Bird’s life would send her far away from a dusty, relatively poor life lived on the land, the kind of life my grandma would lead until her dying day. (My grandma would never be caught dead wearing her hair in any way like that patented Lady Bird two-fisted flip either.) In my earliest recollections of her, watching her on TV standing next to that grumpy-looking fella who was apparently the president, she sounded enough like her that I would often imagine she was my grandma.

When I was a little older and had a little more understanding of the political arena of the time (1968-1972), I became fascinated with Richard Nixon. So naturally I was a big fan of David Frye and his classic comedy albums I Am the President and especially Radio Free Nixon, his brilliant fever-dream satire of a day of programming on a radio station (WNIX) owned and operated by Tricky Dick and featuring a host of Washington politicians and Hollywood celebrities. It was on Radio Free Nixon that I gathered my first awareness of William F. Buckley and Truman Capote, and just how Henry Fonda and George C. Scott fit in to the Nixonian scene (Fonda was a Republican supporter, Scott the star of Nixon’s favorite movie, Patton). The album also featured a spot-on vocal parody of Lady Bird by radio actress Bryna Raeburn. The bit occurs early on the album during the radio station’s “Farm Report,” which is hosted by LBJ. But before he can get to the skinny on the morning wheat future numbers, Lady Bird comes fluttering through the studio and takes over the show. “Bird,” LBJ (Frye) intones in a familiarly molasses-slow manner that could be mistaken for lack of intelligence, “what are you doin’… rattlin’ around… so early… in the mornin’?” “Beautifyin’, Lyndon!” she replies impatiently, “It’s my life’s work!”

(You can hear Raeburn’s wonderful Lady Bird here: just click on track 4, “Farm Report.” Unfortunately, the 30-second snippet fades out before she can deliver the punch line to her appearance, so imagine her continuing thusly as the audio disappears: “I believe for every drop o’ rain that falls, a flower grows. Flowers, trees, bushes are beautiful things. Have you ever seen an ugly bush?!””)

Of course, Lady Bird was known for her efforts to beautify the nation’s highways, parks and the nation’s capital, including the poverty-stricken sections far outside the Beltway. She was also recognized as a powerful ally in the struggle for civil rights that consumed, as did the Johnson Administration’s grappling with the Vietnam War, the energies of the nation, brutally dividing its populace. Even so, Mrs. Johnson’s attempts on behalf of the landscaping of the nation often brought on criticism from those who felt the administration had more important things to worry about, and it’s true that sometimes it was easy to suppose that her white-glove campaign was a way of whitewashing the problems of an imploding country, as if a coat of paint and some lovely wildflowers were enough to spruce up the joint and make the political landscape look nicer, tidier. But Lady Bird was far less na├»ve, and much more self aware, than such claims might make her out to be. She knew the term “beautification” was a prissy one that made her efforts seem trivial, that the term itself was wanting for something more substantial. But as pointed out often in the legacy-friendly hour-long TV documentary Lady Bird Naturally, Johnson stood her ground and spread her influence to like-minded movers and shakers who, as the beautification programs began to extend to lakes, national parks and natural preserves, helped her to lay the groundwork for a worldview now known as environmentalism, a worldview now championed by many of the same generation that might have once laid into her for her perceived frivolities. She wasn’t a radical, but she also didn’t deserve our ire. Turns out she was more forward thinking that many at the time, those fueled by cultural and regional biases based on her Texas cadences and origins, or by a disdain for her bringing a rurally-tinged lifestyle to the halls of Camelot, were able to see.

A mere week after I viewed Lady Bird Naturally, Mrs. Johnson has died at the age of 94 of natural causes. Many will publicly remember her in the days and weeks to come; we will be reminded of many of things she said; and we will even be reminded of the legacy of her roadside beautification programs and the wildflower research center she founded that would be named after her in 1985. Lady Bird was no indiscriminate Johnny Appleseed; she was acutely aware of what the indigenous plants and flowers were for any given region and planned her rejuvenation efforts accordingly. "I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont," she once said. "I just hate to see the land homogenized." In a modern world 40 years removed from her tenure as first lady, where every square inch seems to be threatened by cookie-cutter mall complexes and WalMarts and drive-through Starbucks and Burger Kings blanketing urban and rural areas like weeds, Lady Bird Johnson’s vision of what this country ought to look like, and the urgency of her attempts to keep its landscapes from ruination, seem not frivolous at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Strange coincidence, as I treated myself to a double feature of "Path to War" and "The Fog of War" just yesterday. Actually, I had no idea she was still alive. So thanks for this little obit.