July 15, 2007
AUSTIN — After he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson all but gave up on the idea of carrying the South that year.His shy but determined wife, Lady Bird, wouldn’t hear of it, and promptly took off on her own whistle-stop tour.More than four decades later, her cheerful confrontation of Southern racism on that campaign trip underscored the uncommon mix of grace and fortitude she carried to the White House and beyond, recalled Bill Moyers, a former Johnson aide and longtime family friend.”Yes, she planted flowers,” Moyers said. “She also loved democracy and saw beauty in it.”Moyers elicited tears, laughter and applause during his passionate eulogy Saturday at Mrs. Johnson’s funeral, which drew 1,800 people to the cavernous Riverbend Centre in Austin, including two former presidents and five first ladies.Mrs. Johnson, 94, died Wednesday.Joining Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the funeral were first lady Laura Bush and four of her predecessors — U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter. Also in attendance were Maria Shriver, wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; her cousin Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of President John F. Kennedy; and renowned Fort Worth pianist Van Cliburn.Over 11,000 average citizens paid tribute to Mrs. Johnson on Friday and Saturday at the LBJ Library and Museum.Her casket was placed at the same spot as her husband’s after he died of a heart attack in 1973.She will be buried today alongside the former president at their ranch in the Texas Hill Country.Though perhaps known best for her pet causes of highway beautification and wildflowers, she also provided a soothing presence at the White House during a time of great turmoil — including the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and years of bitter conflict and racial tension.A powerful coupleBorn Claudia Alta Taylor in East Texas in 1912, the Karnack native got the nickname “Lady Bird” as an infant, and it stuck.Though painfully shy, she was drawn to the adventure and excitement she found in the gregarious politician from Johnson City.Together, as one U.S. senator recently put it, they made a “formidable pair.”Moyers, a PBS commentator and Lyndon Johnson’s former White House press secretary, gave in rich detail his recollections of Lady Bird’s quiet yet steely presence alongside her husband.In November 1960, just before Johnson was elected vice president, Moyers recalled an infamous street protest in Dallas, where angry demonstrators cursed and spit at the couple.Afterward, from her hotel room, Lady Bird looked down on the angry crowd.”Still holding the curtain back, as if she were peering into the future, she said almost to herself: ‘Things will never be the same again,'” Moyers recalled.That became clear four years later, when the hatred the first lady encountered on that election swing through the Old South would test her mettle.”Black Bird Go Home!” read one placard that greeted the former first lady.Moyers said Lady Bird took it all in stride, playing up her southern heritage and accent: “You might not like what I’m saying,” she told one angry crowd, “but at least you understand the way I’m saying it.”Welcoming rainAt various points during the ceremony, those who spoke had to raise their voices to be heard over the steady rain coming down. Some suspected the gentle presence of Lady Bird Johnson, still working a little magic. Family friend and spokesman Neal Spelce told reporters that Mrs. Johnson, who “lived for so long in the hardscrabble hills of the Hill Country, would sit there with welcome arms and say, ‘Let it rain.'”Today marks the end of the three-day ceremony. At about 9 a.m., a funeral cortege will carry Mrs. Johnson from Austin to the LBJ Ranch, where she will be buried at her husband’s side during a private ceremony at the family cemetery.Before the cortege gets on the road to Johnson City, it will stop by the shores of Town Lake in Austin, which Mrs. Johnson helped transform from a weed-infested eyesore to one of the city’s most popular parks.State Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat and former Austin mayor, said the first lady was an environmentalist before people called it that, and he described her impact on the Austin landscape as immeasurable. “Everything we do, I believe, from an environmental standpoint, is standing on the shoulders of the things she did before,” he said.