Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Farewell to a Lady

"My mother," Lynda Bird Johnson once told me, "thinks well of everybody. She's even sure the Devil's been maligned. Just got a bad press.”

I got to know the First Lady during the time her daughter worked for me when I was editor of McCalls.

She was womanly in a way that has gone out of style. Without the chic of Jacqueline Kennedy or the country-club cool of Laura Bush, Claudia Taylor Johnson devoted most of her life to herding a bull-in-the-china-shop husband from the Texas panhandle to the White House.

When he had a massive heart attack in 1955, she slept for a month on a cot in his hospital room.

"I never turned over in the night," LBJ later recalled, "that I didn't hear Lady Bird's feet hit the floor coming to see what I needed." After that, she changed his diet, subdued his frantic schedule and kept him alive with her positive outlook.

She will be remembered for her dedication to beautifying America with wildflowers, but Lyndon Johnson was her life’s work. She never stopped.

Not long before he died, I spent a weekend at their ranch as she was managing his life down to the last millimeter to keep him from sliding into despair.

At dinner I watched Lady Bird covertly sliding serving dishes out of reach and subtly signaling the server to remove them before he could ask for more and keeping the conversation cheerful, making sure to focus on him so he would be forced to respond. She surrounded him with friends and grandchildren and, as always, kept him within bounds by softly saying, “Now, Lyndon...”

History will have mixed feelings about a President who changed race relations in America forever by pushing through Congress against all odds the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the rallying cry of the movement, “We shall overcome,” and then damaged the country with his stubborn refusal to end a disastrous war.

But whatever he achieved would never have been possible without the loving woman who died today at 94.

1 comment:

Rebel Without a Cause said...

Wonderful tribute to Lady Bird. I thought you might be interested in this anecdote from a piece I wrote about the Walter Jenkins scandal, which illustrates her grace and compassion.