February 16, 1967. Lady Bird Johnson and Mary Lasker accept on behalf of their beautification program a surprise donation of flower seeds to be used in Washington, DC school grounds, in a presentation at the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden of the White House.
LBJ Presidential Library photo #C4560-20a, public domain.
September 21, 1966. Lady Bird visits California and makes a speech in Monterey:
“I wanted not only to see the natural beauty of your country but also to salute the citizens and leaders in government who have taken action to preserve this natural heritage. Your coastline, which is your immediate pride and pleasure, is also the nation’s coastline, our common western edge. What you have done with it makes all your countrymen applaud. We have misused our resources, but we haven’t destroyed them. It is late. It is fortunately not too late, and I know that the people of Monterey Peninsula know that conservation, beautification, call it what you will, is more than just one tree, or one historic building, or one scenic highway. It is a frame of reference, a way of life.”
-Lady Bird Johnson, A White House Diary, New York: Dell Books, 1971, pages 465-466. Photo: Lady Bird at the Pacific Coast Highway. LBJ Presidential Library #C3188-27a.
April 26, 1966. Lady Bird shows two young people some blooming white azaleas. She later wrote of this and other urban beautification efforts:
“Green oases and neighborhood parks within cities offer a promise. If people in humdrum jobs, in drab buildings, surrounded by noise and confusion, know they can move out of all that into areas of serene beauty and quiet, even for a brief time each day, they can better cope with conditions that may bring them to the breaking point.”
LBJ Library photograph C1754-25. Lady Bird Johnson quote from Lady Bird Johnson and Carlton B. Lees, Wildflowers Across America, New York: Abbevile Press, 1993, p. 264.
and will be here, if we preserve it, long after we depart: the forests and the flowers, the open prairies and the slope of the hills, the tall mountains, the granite, the limestone, the caliche, the unmarked trails, the winding little streams-well, this is the America that no amount of science or skill can ever recreate or actually ever duplicate.
“This America is the source of America’s greatness. It is another part of America’s soul as well.
“When I was growing up, the land itself was life. And when the day seemed particularly harsh and bitter, the land was always there just as nature had left it—wild, rugged, beautiful, and changing, always changing.
“And really, how do you measure the excitement and the happiness that comes to a boy from the old swimming hole in the happy days of yore, when I used to lean above it; the old sycamore, the baiting of a hook that is tossed into the stream to catch a wily fish, or looking at a graceful deer that leaps with hardly a quiver over a rock fence that was put down by some settler a hundred years or more ago?
“How do you really put a value on the view of the night that is caught in a boy’s eyes while he is stretched out in the thick grass watching the million stars that we never see in these crowded cities, breathing the sounds of the night and the birds and the pure, fresh air while in his ears are the crickets and the wind ?
“Well, in recent years I think America has sadly neglected this part of America’s national heritage. We have placed a wall of civilization between us and between the beauty of our land and of our countryside. In our eagerness to expand and to improve, we have relegated nature to a weekend role, and we have banished it from our daily lives.
“Well, I think that we are a poorer Nation because of it, and it is something I am not proud of. And it is something I am going to do something about. Because as long as I am your President, by choice of your people, I do not choose to preside over the destiny of this country and to hide from view what God has gladly given it.”
October 22, 1965. LBJ signs the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and gives Lady Bird the first signing pen. The Act regulated billboards and junkyards along highways and set aside federal money for beautifying America’s roadsides.
Lady Bird had lobbied hard for the bill’s passage, and she and the President’s legislative liaisons had encountered significant resistance from billboard-industry interests in Congress, especially in the House. Her involvement and that of her staff—especially Liz Carpenter—may have made the difference. Texas Congressman George Mahon said:
“No one in the Texas delegation likes the bill, but no one wants to vote against Lady Bird.”
“When I found myself in the White House it was natural—and inevitable—for me to turn to the movement we called beautification (we never could think of a better word!). Because my heart had for so long been in the environment, I began to think that in the White House I might now have the means to repay something of the debt I owed nature for the enrichment provided from my childhood onward. And since my hometown for the next few years was still to be Washington, D.C., where better to start than in the ‘nation’s front yard?’”
—Lady Bird Johnson, in Lady Bird Johnson and Carlton B. Lees, Wildflowers Across America, New York: Abbevile Press, 1993, p. 12.
Photo by schizoform, via Flickr Creative Commons.
April 6, 1965. Lady Bird plants a cherry tree at the Cherry Blossom festival in the Washington D.C. Tidal Basin.
The First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital has been meeting for several months now, and their efforts have included plantings along the Mall, cleaning old statues, and improving the Watts Branch section of northeastern D.C. The people of Japan donated 3,800 cherry trees to the effort.