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Friday, July 19, 2013

NHPAat50: A White House Diary and the preservation ethic of Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson portrait on White House grounds
LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen
Having looked at the role of a few key figures in the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, we will now break away for a quick moment to review A White House Diary and, in particular, what this says about the historic preservation ethic of Lady Bird Johnson.

This exceptional document provides a vivid, beautifully written, day-by-day account of life in the White House in the Johnson Administration. Very early on in the Preface of this over eight hundred page document, Lady Bird asks the question of her time in the White House and of writing the diary, "Why did I record it?" And one of the many answers she provided was this:
I realized shortly after November 22, that - amazed and timorously - I stood in a unique position, as wife of the President of the United States. Nobody else would live through the next months in quite the way that I would and see the events unroll from this vantage point. And this certain portion of time I wanted to preserve as it happened. I wanted to remember it, and I wanted my children and grandchildren to see it through my eyes.
Happily for readers today, Lady Bird took some of the most intimate, private, and homely experiences of her everyday life, and by recording these in such detail, created a collective experience for all with an interest in these times to be part of. Perhaps the greatest value and impact of her diary writing work was to provide valuable insights into the people, personalities, and politics that so defined this tumultuous time in our nation's history.

This need to record and mark important moments was not felt by Lady Bird Johnson alone, but also acknowledged by President Lyndon Johnson too. In a Message to Congress delivered December 1963, the President said our new challenge as a nation was "not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment but to continue on our course so that we may fulfill the destiny that history has set for us." This sense of history being made in the present was a strongly held belief by many in the Johnson White House. When Lady Bird reflected on her role, she recounted "I feel like I am suddenly onstage for a part I never rehearsed" (p.16).

One gains valuable insights into the close connections between key figures. To Lady Bird, Stewart Udall was simply referred to as "Stew." The role of other key figures becomes clear. Two of these, Mary Lasker and Laurance Rockefeller figured prominently in preservation and beautification efforts. In fact in the waning hours of the Johnson Administration, Johnson made citations giving each of the the Medal of Freedom. Lady Bird added, "I was glad he was doing it" (p.776).

During her time as First Lady, Johnson took a remarkable interest in Washington, D.C. itself. A Committee on Beautification was formed and had their initial meeting in the Blue Room of the White House on February 11, 1965. At the second meeting of her Beautification Committee in March 1965, a presentation was given on various plans for the National Mall. Ever eager to set ideas into action, immediately following a presentation on the history of planning for the National Mall at the White House, Johnson and her coterie headed out to plant some pansies and dogwood trees (p. 248-249). On another day in January 1966, Lady Bird was found with Brooke Astor, Mary Lasker, Walter Washington, and Nash Castro working on beautification - this time looking at Washington's schools and talking about playgrounds and community parks (p.351).

One feature of the Lady Bird Johnson's routine was what she called the Women Do-er's Luncheon. Lady Bird described the composition and purpose of the group, "The guests for the Women Do-ers Luncheons come from among my own friends and include women known for their interests and achievements in whatever we are going to discuss. Suggestions are occasionally made by a Congressman or a staff member" (p. 238). At one such meeting, Mary Lasker served as the speaker and shared her vision for "Masses of flowers where the masses pass" (p. 238). At another Jane Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of Great American Cities was invited to speak.

One of her most direct references to preservation related to the "great cross-country highway system" as she called it. The federal government at the time paid 90 percent of the cost with the remaining 10 percent assumed by state governments. In reference to this program, Lady Bird Johnson asked a hypothetical question:
One of the big problems has been that when you draw a straight line across the country - which is the way a cost-conscious engineer would do it - what do you do about a National Park or a Wildlife Preserve, and a historic shrine like the Frank Lloyd Wright house? If you go around them, you may spend millions of dollars. If you go through them, you may grossly sacrifice a national treasure. (p. 166)
Lady Bird did not share her opinion on this particular matter, and, in general, avoided taking controversial positions - perhaps knowing that some day anyone and everyone could be reading what she was writing at the moment. What is clear from her actions across many years in the White House, is she had a deeply felt belief in the importance of beauty, history, and culture. This was expressed by the sustained advocacy and support that she provided for preservation and beautification. In Lady Bird Johnson preservation advocates were beneficiaries of the rarest of gifts - a well placed person in the White House able to influence policy at high levels. And, that she did.

In our next installment of "NHPAat50" next Friday, we will discuss the great push for historic preservation.

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