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Texas History: Lady Bird Johnson gets her turn at the LBJ Library

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson pose in front of the new Lyndon B. Johnson Library on April 8, 1971. Lady Bird was instrumental in the planning and building of the LBJ Library, and now, 50 years later, her life is the focus of a new exhibit.

You might have read my recent story about the changing attitudes toward Lady Bird Johnson's legacy.

Or you heard the recent podcast episodes about those insights into her influence on politics and policy.

Or perhaps you studied the magnificent recent book authored by the same podcaster.

Even if you didn't indulge in the article, podcast or book, you can see the museum show.

A year and a half after it was scheduled to debut, "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers" opened to the public recently at the LBJ Presidential Library. The library announced late on Aug. 6 that it would close again for the time being because of worsening COVID-19 conditions in Travis County, but this exhibit is scheduled to be in place until at least August 2023. I saw the exhibit during the few weeks the library was reopened.

"Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers" at the LBJ Presidential Library covers the breadth of the late first lady's life, including her college days in Austin.

As I've reported, the idea behind this museum show tracks closely with Julia Sweig's recently released book, “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight,” a fresh look at Lady Bird's political and policy influence. Sweig updates her research regularly through “In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson,” a popular podcast.

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In short, historians, journalists and museum curators are finding that Lady Bird was a true partner to LBJ, indeed more so than had previously been understood.

"She had enormous gravitas and substance, and she knew her value," Sweig told the Statesman on the occasion of the LBJ Presidential Library's 50th anniversary in May. "Maybe that will start to change now: The way the history is told must place her squarely in the center of the LBJ presidency, where she belongs. Not on all the issues, but she was in the room, not just for strategy, not just for politics, but navigating the massive tumult of three assassinations, a war abroad and conclusive upheaval in cities during the 1960s."

"Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers" is packed with Lady Bird's things, such as this still-crisp envelope that enclosed a 1934 letter from LBJ in Washington, D.C., to the then-single Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor.

'With love from Lyndon'

It is one feat to follow Lady Bird's life and career — from pampered yet adventuresome childhood in East Texas, through her years as a serious college student, trained in journalism and history, a successful business owner, mother and grandmother, as well as political and policy partner to LBJ — in words and small pictures, as one does in an article, podcast or book. It is another thing altogether to see the actual things of her life.

Library curator Nikki Diller has pulled from the deep archives dozens of material objects, including books and letters — she was a prodigious reader and writer — documents, keepsakes, suitcases, medals, clothes, gifts and other key objects that each tell their own story. We see, for instance, a trowel used by Lady Bird during one of her beautification projects in Washington, D.C., placed beneath a photo of her kneeling to plant an urban garden. 

Also a construction hardhat — personalized with the first lady's name — that she wore when the Lady Bird Johnson National Wildflower Center was built.

There's a touching patchwork pillow made from fabric samples from her favorite White House rooms and put together by her staff in 1969 as a memento.

One comes away from "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers" wondering how far LBJ would have gone in the world without this superlative woman.

A particular find: A burnt orange 1932-1933 flip school calendar from the University of Texas that shows her November appointments jotted down in blue ink. From this evidence we know that Lady Bird kept up a pretty active social schedule along with her considerable class load. She also made short trips to New Braunfels and Round Rock that month. 

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Backing up the recent scholarship about Lady Bird's influence on lawmaking, a framed collection of souvenir pens spell out which bills LBJ signed in part for and with her. 

An accompanying plaque reads: "To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our lands and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon."

It's worth repeating that she never really cottoned to the nickname "Lady Bird," the title "first lady," or the term "beautification" for her environmental efforts. The childhood nickname stuck, however, and we see a certificate for the "holy union of matrimony," signed on Nov. 17, 1934, in modest script by "Bird Taylor."

Fashionistas will not be disappointed by the numerous outfits on display in "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers."

Dressing the parts

Few material objects in this show are more charismatic than the outfits that Lady Bird wore through her life, some of which are represented in photographs. These include light, sensible ensembles that she wore on the campaign trail and hardier work clothes that she put on at the LBJ Ranch. You can tell that she was intimately familiar with the out of doors from her rough-and-ready hiking and rafting wear. 

Yet as demonstrated in a previous runway show and exhibit at the presidential library, Lady Bird dressed up well. Advised by American designers, she easily fit into the "mod" look of the day. She looked as comfortable in a modified minidress as in a traditional long gown.

The material outfits are sometimes matched with photos of Lady Bird wearing them. Such is the case with her classic 1961 inaugural gown, which she wore with easy grace. Lady Bird was no Jacqueline Kennedy, who befriended European haute-couture designers, but she knew what looked good on her, and she always appears confident and relaxed inhabiting them.

Many of the images in "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers" have not been seen widely before.

Pictures tell Lady Bird's stories, too

Here's a tidbit that didn't really sink in until a week after visiting the exhibit: This is the first major show that the LBJ Library has curated about Lady Bird.

That seems odd, since she had everything to do with making the library and museum a reality 50 years ago, after planning it intently for much of the previous 10 years.

Besides precious material objects, this mostly chronological exhibit shows in large, beautifully presented photographic prints Lady Bird's evolution from sweet, outdoorsy and bookish girl to striking, sharp and self-assured college student, and then savvy, organized and accomplished politico. We see her as a mother, friend, businesswoman and philanthropist.

While she consciously softened her public image to conform to the gender decorum of the day, this was no doubt one tough lady.

The visitor comes away from "Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers" wondering how far LBJ would have gone in the world without this superlative woman as his partner.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached a mbarnes@statesman.com.

Lady Bird Johnson is known for her environmental efforts, and visitors get to see her personal trowel at the LBJ Presidential Library.

'Lady Bird Johnson: Beyond the Wildflowers'

On the University of Texas campus, the LBJ Library reopened on July 14 after more than a year closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Aug. 6, the library announced that it would close again starting Aug. 9 because of worsening COVID-19 conditions in Travis County, fueled by the delta variant. Check for updates at lbjlibrary.org. The Lady Bird Johnson exhibit is scheduled to be up for two more years.