Every Texan knows and loves the springtime brilliance of millions of wildflowers carpeting the land. In that season, the renewal of the earth brings not merely the traditional light green, but a riot of oranges, yellows, purples, and reds — and of course the bluebonnet’s azure. The fleeting bloom, overwhelming despite its evanescence, says as much as a longhorn or the Alamo that this is Texas, and nowhere else. It is the gift of the Texas earth — and it is the gift of Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson.
Lady Bird is dead. Her passing was a long time coming: Like Soong Mei-Ling or Strom Thurmond, the great public events of her life passed decades before she did. She lived 38 years after being First Lady, and 34 years after the death of her epochal husband. That husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was — let us say it — a terrible burden of a man who too often treated Lady Bird with majestic contempt. Her lot as a wife was perplexing to the outsider: She endured his infidelities, his public barbs, and his cruel indifference. As he aged, grew wiser in his way and needed her care, it is true that he came to appreciate her the more. But even as President, he was a lout. And Lady Bird — remained a lady. “Lyndon loves people,” she said by way of excusing his appetites, but the greater love was hers. In an age where marriages end over far less, she was an example of the sacrifice and endurance that must undergird matrimony. “For better or for worse,” goes the phrase, and Lady Bird Johnson had it worse too often. When it was better, it was an expression of her endless love.
It is true that politically, Lady Bird was a liberal. Despite her husband’s jabs, she had definitive, well-formed opinions and views, and in later years, he came to rely upon her — in private, of course — for her shrewd perspectives on Washington, D.C. She was, like him, an old-style, big-government Democrat, but she came from an era when that was a reasonable and defensible thing to be. The deep east Texas of her childhood was a hardscrabble, hard-hit region of agricultural depression, educational deprivation, and chronic debt. Her family, the Taylors, was a plantation clan, but their glory was fragile, sustained by a system that Lady Bird herself described as “feudal.” Even if Lady Bird did not grow up in poverty and want, she was raised in its early-20th-century epicenter in the Lone Star State. In this light, her convictions sprang from the same root as that of her predecessors in the populist south — and she should be credited with the same good intentions.
Lady Bird’s final decades were spent as the uncrowned queen of Texas, and like a proper constitutional monarch, she reigned silently except for her good works. In time, she was known to her fellow Texans not so much for her role as First Lady, but for her tireless promotion of the state’s natural beauty. She and her Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center researched — and more important, planted by the millions — the wildflowers that carpet the state today. The brilliance of the land is a testament to her enduring vision.
In the final entry of her White House diary, a First Lady relieved to be returning to Texas wrote out a line of poetry: “I seek, to celebrate my glad releases, the Tents of Silence and the Camp of Peace.” Lady Bird Johnson is there now.
— Joshua Treviño is the vice president for public policy at the Pacific Research Institute. He is a native Texan.