In 1982, Lady Bird Johnson and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center — and it is this commitment to the environment and the beauty of nature that, for me at least, is the legacy for which she will be most remembered. From the NYTimes:
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 $320 million Highway Beautification Bill, passed in 1965, was known as ”The Lady Bird Bill,” and she made speeches and lobbied Congress to win its passage.
”Had it not been for her, I think that the whole subject of the environment might not have been introduced to the public stage in just the way it was and just the time it was. So she figures mightily, I think, in the history of the country if for no other reason than that alone,” Harry Middleton, retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum, once said.
In a political arena where whole careers are made and lost in tearing things apart or trashing those around them, Lady Bird Johnson chose a legacy of conservation of the beauty of our natural world. Brava to her for this choice.
UPDATE: The WaPo has more on Lady Bird’s legacy.
UPDATE #2: As snowyegret reminded me in the comments, Mrs. Johnson was also a great champion of the Head Start program, and often lobbied for it both publicly and, more often, quietly but firmly among members of Congress. For at risk kids, Head Start can be such a lifeline, and I ought to have applauded her publicly for this work as well. Thanks much to snowyegret for the reminder — much appreciated.
UPDATE #3: Rick Perlstein has a fine tribute to Lady Bird up. Do go and read it. She had a spine of steel, encased in the finest silk, and a heart of pure gold, as one reader who knew her in her later years e-mailed to tell me a few minutes ago. Lovely phrase, I thought, and I wanted to pass it along to everyone here.
(Beautiful wildflower shot via jikamajoja.)