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Friday, July 12, 2013

NHPAat50: The Growing Partnership between Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson and Stewart Udall during visit to Grand Teton National Park, August 16, 1964.
LBJ Library Photo by Robert Knudsen. 
While the Task Force was finalizing their recommendations, Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson began to form a personal alliance in support of conservation that included historic preservation as a major goal. During a trip to the Grand Teton National Park in August 16, 1964, Udall spoke extensively about their shared interest in conservation and natural beauty. Liz Carpenter who served as Press Secretary to the First Lady recounted Udall’s connection with Lady Bird as such: “He loved the scenic beauty; they were his parts; and he began to see that he had a very responsive first lady to the wonders of nature.”[i] Lady Bird Johnson spoke with her connection to nature in equally reverent terms. For her it was her East Texas roots and the beauty of Caddo Lake with its gnarled roots that left an early impression and inspired Mrs. Johnson all of her life. In an address at the Grand Tetons on September 7, 1965, she addressed this influence and said: “Each of (our) actions sprang from what nurtures us, and what nurtured me was walking through the piney woods in my own deep East Texas.”[ii]

This thirst for beauty and appreciation of nature did not stop with wide open spaces alone. Both Udall and Lady Bird recognized the importance of more beautiful places where people lived too. Udall at times referred to the “American environment” linking the built environment and natural environment together. In nearly the same breath he asked “what kind of cities do we want to be building” while considering “clearing up the countryside, and cleaning up air and water.”[iii] Likewise, when Lady Bird Johnson hosted Jane Jacobs at the White House for a “Woman Doer Luncheon” on June 16, 1964, she recounted the event in A White House Diary afterwards:
I said I felt the questions we all want answered when it comes to urban life are how to keep size from smothering the individual, crowding him into an impersonal and uncomfortable mold, and how to make a city beautiful. These are questions which writer, planner, and citizen must answer, and one of the front runners with the possible answers was Jane Jacobs, who was all three.[iv]

Lady Bird Johnson and Stewart Udall clearly had shared values. How they transformed this into a movement to encourage conservation and historic preservation is a story of great interest. During a visit to the LBJ Ranch in December 1964, Udall and other Cabinet officials conferred with the President about what they hoped to see included in the 1965 State of the Union Message. Johnson sought to put together “a really virile program that would lift this country to something better than it had ever known, whether it was environmental improvement, improvement of the economy, the ghettos having hope, whatever it was.”[v] As Udall laid out his ideas he found Lady Bird Johnson to be very attentive and knowledgeable when discussing conservation issues. The First Lady asked Udall to contact Liz Carpenter once they all returned to Washington, and to mention the conversation they had in Texas.

Udall followed the First Lady’s instructions and a meeting was planned at the White House. The Queen’s Room was selected for the meeting and the two sat beneath a portrait of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, it had not been since the Theodore Roosevelt Administration that “beauty” had been used in the vocabulary of national leaders. That made their selection of location particularly fitting. During the meeting Udall laid out how he thought it would be excellent for the First Lady to serve as a champion of beautification of the nation’s capital. As he conceived it, restoration of the Potomac River would be the President’s personal Washington project while beautification of the city would be Mrs. Johnson’s.[vi]

As a direct outgrowth of this meeting a Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and then a Society for a More Beautiful Capital were formed. The philanthropist Mrs. Albert D. Lasker was selected as President. Appeals followed and contributions were collected for beautification efforts throughout the capital. In one such letter Lady Bird wrote: “As I work with the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, it is helpful for me to know of your interest in this nationwide endeavor to enhance the beauty of our cities and countryside. It is my hope that future generations of Americans will be even more proud of our Nation than we are today.”[vii]

Soon the contributions began pouring in. Lady Bird Johnson took an active interest in the work herself, often driving to visit schools and other sites in Washington D.C. to supervise the work firsthand. She recounted many of these visits in A White House Diary.[viii] This work that the First Lady was engaged in generated a flood of outside interest from garden clubs, town planning boards and citizens with an interested in beautifying their own communities. The interest was so great that an office was established within the White House and a staff member designated whose exclusive role was to handle this ample correspondence. The goal was to serve as a sort of clearing house for ideas and information, and to help one community learn from the successes and accomplishments of another.

In our next installment of "NHPAat50" next Friday, we will review A White House Diary and the preservation ethic of Lady Bird Johnson.

[i] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. Credit: LBJ Library.
[ii] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. p. 4-5. Credit: LBJ Library.
[iii] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Stuart Udall. May 19, 1969. Credit: LBJ Library.
[iv] Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. 2007. p. 169-70.
[v] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. p. 6. Credit: LBJ Library.
[vi] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. p. 7. Credit: LBJ Library.
[vii] Letter from Mrs. Johnson to Mrs. W.S. Jennings dated September 21, 1965.
[viii] Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. 2007.

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