Driving from Austin to Johnson City, it dawned on me that I was soon to be at LBJ Ranch to be hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. The event was to raise funds for her son-in-law Senator Robb who was in a tight race for re-election against right wing Ollie North. It turned out the very last political fund raiser that she hosted at the ranch.
The roadside was covered with wildflowers which was testimony to Lady Bird Johnson being one of the first environmentalists. At Johnson City, I met a number of other people who had flown to Texas to be supportive of Senator Robb. Many of the participants were members of the LGBT community who rose to defend the Senator who was one of only fourteen brave enough to vote against Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As we waited for the bus to take us to the ranch, we wondered how President Johnson would have felt with such a large openly gay group attending an event at his home, ironically located at Stonewall, Texas.
Boarding the bus, not one of us could honestly admit that we weren’t thrilled to be seeing such a historic place and meeting the legendary First Lady. To the person, she was admired, loved and respected for her service to the nation through a very difficult period. We saw her transform Washington, DC from a rather dowdy capital city of the world’s largest super power to a stunningly beautiful city that rivaled Paris and Rome. It was her work that planted literally thousands of blooming trees, hundreds of thousands if not millions of new flowers and cleaned up the city to shine and sparkle day and night. A nation could now visit its capital and be in awe of its beauty and majesty because of First Lady Johnson
We drove past the grave site of President Johnson at Stonewall and headed up a classic Texas tree lined road to the main ranch house. Getting off the bus we were instantly greeted by First Lady Johnson. Never have I been put at ease more quickly by a more charming person. She made each of us feel that she had been waiting with great anticipation for our arrival. Taking several of us by the arm, she walked us into the yard that already was smelling of great Texas bar-b-que and quietly pointed out the points of interest such as the Lincoln convertible that President Johnson used to drive his international visitors on a tour of the ranch or the corner of the room where meetings were held with world leaders.
By the time the next bus of contributors had arrived, we already felt like members of the family and were totally relaxed. The First Lady had that special grace that enabled anyone around her to feel at home and loved.
Since there were a number of gays at the event, I asked her how she felt about it and if President Johnson would have approved of the changing constituencies of the Democratic Party. She placed her arm through mine and looked at the group surrounding her and said that everyone was welcomed at the ranch and that her husband’s life was about civil rights and he would have been the first to support us against the Ollie Norths of the world. She then beamed in the direction of her son-in-law Senator Robb and said, “that is why I am so proud of Chuck and Lynda, they are carrying on the President’s work. I wasn’t going to open the ranch for another fundraiser but given Mr. North’s record, I knew the President would want me to.”
Along with us outsiders, the entire Texas Democratic establishment had turned out to support Lady Bird, Chuck and Lynda. There was this special mix of the old and new Democratic Party and only Lady Bird Johnson could have gotten us all in one place at such a happy occasion. She briefly spoke to welcome us to the ranch to help Senator Robb. She looked over at us and smiled and said she especially wanted to welcome the first time visitors to the ranch. We all couldn’t help ourselves and just beamed back at her.
This extraordinary woman had been First Lady in one of the more turbulent times in our history. Her husband, the President, was often the subject of very bitter attacks because of his policies in Vietnam. But never did that hostility broil over to involve the First Lady. She served to heal the nation and make it more gentle and beautiful. The First Lady became the symbol of grace and dignity in a time when both were lacking. She never wavered from supporting the President but never missed an opportunity to bring the American people together.
She was in fact a vehement environmentalist. She was green when green wasn’t in. From sea to shining sea, Lady Bird Johnson has left her legacy in a more beautiful America. From millions of trees and wildflowers planted, to interstates free from billboards and replaced with green.
We will remember the great lady who was a healer, who made our nation shine and who believed deeply in civil rights. Years later both her daughters, Luci and Lynda, joined a plea by other children of Presidents urging Congress to not pass the Federal Marriage Amendment. Clearly as a mother she passed on the right values and principles to her children which is a great gift.
But her memorial will be Spring time in Washington. Every Spring, this country will be reminded of the Lady from Texas. As trees bloom and flowers carpet our nation’s capital, Lady Bird Johnson will be remember. Only Lady Bird Johnson could with her vision of a beautiful America, lay claim to Spring as her memorial.
She will be missed.