Lady Bird Johnson, The Environmental First Lady

Claudia Alta "Lady BirdJohnson 
(née Taylor; December 22, 1912 – July 11, 2007) was First Lady of the United States (1963–69), as the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States.

As First Lady Mrs. Johnson became a strong voice and passionate advocate for environmental issues. In the 1960’s, however, environmental issues were more commonly thought of as beautification issues. The scientific fervor in this area that we know today had not yet been realized. The term beautification concerned Mrs. Johnson. She feared it was "cosmetic" and "trivial." And there was nothing trivial about her concerns. She was deeply worried about pollution, urban decay, the need for outdoor recreation, setting the stage for good mental health, improving public transportation and the crime rate.

Through her efforts to clean up first the Nation’s Capital and later the nation’s highways and byways, Lady Bird legitimized environmental issues and made them a national priority.  She created the First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and then expanded her program to include the entire nation. Once started, she amassed a lifetime of achievement as the Environmental First Lady.

Lady Bird’s beautification projects made politicians and everyday U.S. citizens sit up and pay attention to the environmental conditions around them and the effect these conditions had on daily life. When the project began in Washington, DC some people wanted to focus on just cleaning up the areas where visitors frequented saying that the Nation’s Capital City should be a showcase of beautiful settings. Others saw an opportunity to clean up some of the worst areas of the city itself. Still others saw the beautification project as a way to instill city pride in local residents. Walter Washington, the executive director of the National Capitol Housing Authority and later the mayor of DC, described one of the programs he worked on with Lady Bird as “an attempt to motivate the children, youths, adults and family units in a long-range program of self involvement for enhancing the physical appearance of the community.” Attention to the many wide affects of the environment had begun.

Lady Bird also saw the beautification of America as helping soothe the nation at a time when the war in Vietnam and civil rights issues created strong, heated divisions. She believed that beauty could improve the mental health of the society.

Her efforts to create a more beautiful America pushed her further into the political arena than any former First Lady before her had ventured, even further than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Lady Bird’s opinions on the matter were passionate and she had the full support of her husband. She was the first First Lady to sit in on a legislative strategy session and she was even given assignments to influence Congressional votes. She and the president saw her efforts as part of his Great Society agenda.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was one of the most important results of Mrs. Johnson's campaign for national beautification. Known as "Lady Bird's Bill" because of her active support and passion for the bill, the legislation called for control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs along the nation's Interstate. It also required certain junkyards along primary highways to be removed or screened and encouraged scenic enhancement and roadside development. 

Other major legislative initiatives that resulted from Lady Bird’s efforts on behalf of the environment were The Wilderness Act of 1964, The Land and Water Conservation Fund, The Wild and Scenic Rivers Program and many additions to the National Park system, a total of 200 laws relevant to the environment.  Her efforts also spawned an anti-litter campaign all across the country.

Lady Bird received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian honors, for her work for the environment.

In 1982 Lady Bird Johnson and her friend, the actress Helen Hayes, founded The National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas. Here native plants were used to restore and create healthy, beautiful landscapes. The mission of the center was to inspire the conservation of native plants through their gardens, research, education, consulting and outreach programs. In doing so, they sought to improve water quality, provide habitat for wildlife and enhance human health and happiness. Today the Center, renamed The Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center, has been greatly expanded and is run by the University of Texas.

   Helen Hayes and Former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson at a press conference announcing the creation of the Wildflower Center on May 5, 1982 .    From the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center

   Helen Hayes and Former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson at a press conference announcing the creation of the Wildflower Center on May 5, 1982.   From the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center

For good reading about First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, pick up a copy of Ruffles & Flourishes by Liz Carpenter. Liz was Lady Bird’s friend and press secretary.

Other Informative Resources About Lady Bird Johnson

The Beautification Project at