Ex-president's wife Lady Bird Johnson dies at 94

Lady Bird Johnson, America’s former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon Johnson, has died.

Lady Bird Johnson, America’s former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon Johnson, has died.

Johnson, 94, who suffered a stroke in 2002 that affected her ability to speak, died yesterday at her Austin, Texas, home from natural causes, surrounded by family and friends, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Christian.

Even after the stroke, Johnson still managed to make occasional public appearances and get outdoors to enjoy her beloved wildflowers. But she was unable to speak more than a few short phrases and more recently did not speak at all, Anne Wheeler, spokeswoman for the LBJ Library and Museum, said last year. She instead communicated her thoughts and needs by writing.

Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, four years after the Johnsons left the White House.

The longest-living first lady in history was Bess Truman, who was 97 when she died in 1982.

US president George Bush and first lady Laura Bush remembered Mrs Johnson as a “warm and gracious woman”.

“President Johnson once called her a woman of ideals, principles, intelligence, and refinement. She remained so throughout their life together, and in the many years given to her afterward,” Bush said.

Other former first ladies remembered Johnson as deeply devoted to her family and the environment.

“Her beautification programmes benefited the entire nation. She translated her love for the land and the environment into a lifetime of achievement,” Betty Ford said.

Nancy Reagan said that when Lyndon Johnson was called upon to take the oath of office in the face of tragedy after the assassination of John F Kennedy, “he did so with his courageous wife beside him”. She said Lady Bird Johnson served the nation with honour and dignity.

“I believe above all else that Lady Bird will always be remembered as a loyal and devoted wife, a loving and caring mother and a proud and nurturing grandmother,” Reagan said.

Johnson, the daughter of a Texas rancher, spent 34 years in Washington, as the wife of a congressional secretary, US representative, senator, vice president and president. The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947.

The couple returned to Texas after the presidency and Lady Bird Johnson lived for more than 30 years in and near Austin.

Former president George Bush senior once recalled that when he was a freshman Republican congressman from Texas in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson and the president welcomed him to Washington with kindness, despite their political differences.

He said she exemplified “the grace and the elegance and the decency and sincerity that you would hope for in the White House”.

“Like all Americans, but especially those of us who call Texas home, we loved Lady Bird,” Bush said.

As first lady, she was perhaps best known as the determined environmentalist who wanted roadside billboards and junkyards replaced with trees and wildflowers.

She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to beautify Washington. The €235m Highway Beautification Bill, passed in 1965, was known as “The Lady Bird Bill” and she made speeches and lobbied Congress to win its passage.

Lady Bird Johnson once turned down a class valedictorian’s medal because of her fear of public speaking, but she joined in every one of her husband’s campaigns. She once appeared for 47 speeches in four days.

She had a cool head for business, turning an €12,900 inheritance from her mother in 1942 into a multi-million-dollar radio corporation in Austin that flourished under family ownership for more than half a century.

She was with her husband in Dallas on November 22 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, and was at his side as he took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One.

In her book, A White House Diary, she recalled seeing Jacqueline Kennedy with her husband’s blood still on her dress and leg.

“Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights – that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood,” she wrote.

In addition to her two daughters, survivors include seven grandchildren, a step-grandchild, and several great-grandchildren.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox