This time of the year, when wildflowers are in their prime along the Texas highways, I think of Lady Bird Johnson. Now my version of the story bears no resemblance to the truth, but I’m sure it’s a much livelier picture than the weeks of debate in Congress, the budgeting and resulting projects.
I imagine the First Lady getting up one fine morning late in September and saying, “Lyndon, I can’t stand it. The Highway Beautification Act was passed by the Senate weeks ago, but y’all are still talking.”
“You know I’m pushing as hard as I can – these things take time…”
“Well, my dear, I got tired of waiting. I figure if you want something done, best do it yourself. Keys to the Caddy?’
“Oh Lord, what now?”
“If you can help me move that big bag from the trunk, I’ll get someone to drive. Here’s a cup.”
“What the hell for?”
“I’ll leave getting rid of those ugly billboards and junkyards up to you. I’ve got a project of my own and I’m using my own special blend.”
“Seeds, Lyndon. Seeds! This is exactly the right time to sow wildflowers in Texas, and I’m going to do some beautification of my own. No public works projects or construction crews needed. You’ll see it – about March or April. Hop in.”
I imagine Lady Bird and LBJ riding along the highways of Texas for a few days in September, laughing and talking and sowing beauty from their Cadillac convertible.
Now for a little of the real story.
Before signing the Highway Beautification Act on October 22, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson made some remarks that are still relevant today. “In our eagerness to expand and improve, we have relegated nature to a weekend role, banishing it from our daily lives. I think we are a poorer nation as a result.” After signing the bill, he planted a kiss on Lady Bird’s cheek.
Lady Bird Johnson made it clear that “beautification” was the wrong word and not the “cosmetic” solution she had in mind. She pushed for “clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas.” She succeeded in making this country a more beautiful place and was known as The Environmental First Lady. Her legacy lives on in the bluebonnets, scarlet Indian Paintbrush and pink primroses that bloom each year along the roadside. You can also get a glimpse of the flowers she loved so much and feel her spirit at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in south Austin, Texas.
Thank you, Lady Bird. Earth Day should be dedicated to you.