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Lady Bird Johnson Remembers
The former First Lady looks back on the years with Lyndon and discusses her life today
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Yes, back in a way I didn’t anticipate or want, and yet I must rather grudgingly say that I am enjoying it.
I know you also spend a lot of your time working at the LBJ Library. Do you assign yourself certain days when you come into Austin and work, and certain days to stay out at the ranch?
The weekends—prolonged, if possible, by a day or so—I just cling to the ranch, and hardly anything—it has to be a big obligation that I owe—will get me into town on Saturday or Sunday.
And Highway Beautification, are you still busy with that? Incidentally, I’ve read that you hated the term “beautification,” is that right?
Absolutely so. It sounds cosmetic and trivial and it’s prissy, but try as we would we couldn’t come up with anything better.
Yes, I am still involved. It gave me more pleasure than anything I did in the White House years, except perhaps seeing America. My interest now is certainly on a smaller scale—Austin and Texas. Here in Austin I work in a project on the riverfront where the Lower Colorado River flows right through our town. The Lower Colorado is not any kin to that big river that hewed out the canyon. Colorado just means “muddy red,” and I dare say there are several Colorado Rivers. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department had already, a year or two before we came back in '69, told me about their hopes to build a parkway along the banks of the river, which at that time was neglected. Part of it had been a trash dump, part a gravel pit, all of it was just overgrown with rank weeds and unattended and unloved but potentially a beautiful place. We spent about five busy years raising funds. The general idea was that we wanted to have a succession of native, indigenous, hardy, blooming shrubs along the riverfront with a hike-and-bike trail and some picnic tables.
There is a tablet that marks the time at which we dug the first spadeful of dirt—I think it must have been December of '71, because Lyndon was very much alive—and he made me see that I could make some pretty sizable donations myself of money as well as time and love and spreading the gospel.
What it is really used for now is running. This town is mad about running.
How far does the trail go?
Twelve miles, I think, counting both sides of the river. And if you don’t get out and walk part of it you’ll miss a big piece of my heart.
With all those activities, is there much time left to enjoy your leisure?
Well, yes and no. Somewhere or another I came across a quote—I think it’s E. B. White—‘When I wake up in the morning I wonder if I should try to save the world or savor it today. ” And more and more I find that I want to savor it.
Do you ever miss your White House years?
No. I regret the things I didn’t do, but not the timing of walking out, no indeed. Can you imagine a more grueling summer than the one of ’68?
No, I can’t. And the actual position of First Lady, do you miss that?
I loved it, I loved every day of it. A lot of it was desperately painful, but on balance, I loved it. And respected it and thought—had that “pinch-me” feeling, “My Lord! Me?” But the moment you begin, you know this is a temporary state, a temporary thing, and that you’d better just give as much to it as you can every day and get as much out of it as you can—but you’re also counting the days until it’s over.
Did you emerge from your White House years with a philosophy of what the First Lady’s role should be?
Well, I think it’s an absolutely personal thing. Nobody elects her except one man. And nobody pays her. And her obligation—I think you have to feel an obligation, indeed I do—her obligation is inescapable. But I think it’s a personal one. At any rate, I’m sure that every one of them feels first and primarily the obligation of trying to make a comfortable area, an island of peace, if you will, a setting in which her husband can do his best work.
And I think that is common to all of us, but from then on it’s just whatever makes your heart sing. What do you know about? What do you care about? What can you do to make this a better administration?
When you became First Lady, did you consciously try to model your role on anybody else’s?
No, I didn’t. I had read a good deal of history, and oddly enough, some of the sightseeing that had attracted me had been going to the homes of former First Ladies, but then I’m just a natural sightseer. But I think it would be sort of presumptuous to pattern yourself on somebody. I really wanted to serve my husband and serve the country, and if that sounds—geesy, well …
Did you particularly admire any previous First Lady? Eleanor Roosevelt, for instance?
I had an awful lot of respect for her hard work, and her caring, and her knowledge. But then I had a very sympatico feeling for Dolley Madison simply because she enjoyed it so much. And a lot of respect and admiration for Abigail Adams, who intellectually made her husband’s work part of her work.