STONEWALL, Texas -- The morning shadows push long and fleeting profiles across the manicured lawn stretching from the stone house to the steamy banks of the Pedernales River.
It was here that important men once plotted America's course through its longest, latest and most bitterly disputed war. It was here, when 'here' was known as the White House on the Pedernales, that a president of the United States convened with his advisers and dispensed favors to a cadre of jostling reporters. The decisions made on this spot would influence a generation.
Today the place is occupied by a small woman, the widow of that power-broker, Lady Bird Johnson, who likes to sit under the sugar maples and oaks and listen to birdsong, her gray-flecked hair tucked under a straw sunbonnet.
She's no longer witness and participant in history. There are no jostling and clattering reporters. Only the laughter of mockingbirds, the whine of cicadas, the sway of wind carried through the bluebonnets and white-brushed wild plum she had planted on the roadside nearby.
She's waiting for the appearance of another bluejay. She saw one two weeks before, a special occurrence in this parched corner of the Texas hill country. The jay's splash of color is as welcome and as rare as a moisture-packed summer storm.
'I was never fond of the name Lady Bird,' she confides, keeping an eye on the treetops. 'Please call me by my real name, Claudia.' Unfortunately, few people know Claudia. Most of America remembers Lady Bird.
She is considered by many the most effective First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, her legacy a battle against highway billboard forests, auto heaps and junk piles and in favor of beauty and sanity in the nation's public landscapes.
With a war raging in Vietnam, she planted flowers. She was ridiculed at the time, but the flowers are still there. The Head Start program she sponsored was among the most effective of President Johnson's 'Great Society' programs. ---
She was baptized Claudia Alta Taylor. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, made a fortune selling furniture and processing cotton in the lush bayou country of East Texas. A black nurse gave her the name she never wanted, musing that the 2-year-old infant was 'purty as a ladybird.'
Her mother might have helped her preserve her Christian name. But Lady Bird scarcely knew her natural mother, who died when the child was 5. She bequeathed to her daughter years of loneliness -- a spinster aunt took over the mothering duties -- and a consuming passion for poetry and good books.
'I don't remember much, but I do remember the lovely Greek and Roman myths she would read me. I loved books early on.'
By age 8 she had finished Ben-Hur and memorized elegiac poems she still recites. Autographed tomes by Jean (Clan of the Cave Bear) Auel and presidential historians clutter her bedside table today and 'Agatha Christie, to me, is like eating ice cream,' she says.
Many of her childhood associates in the column-adorned antebellum home in Karnack, Texas, were black, the children of sharecroppers or house servants. She gained a sense of wholeness, of inner peace, tramping the radiant orchards and cyprus-hung forests of home.
'Nature has always been my refuge and my joy. It thrills me. Even today, there's nothing so magnificent as the feel of a gathering storm. I'm filled with the enormity of that sensation, the strength, the drama, the earth filled with lightning, the roll of thunder, nature all around. I adore storms.
'Everybody grows out of their roots and background. In my case, I grew up close to Caddo Lake and I spent a lot of time winding my way down those sandy roads and past those trees dripping in Spanish moss. I remember those black-eyed Susans and the winecup and pink phlox and wild roses growing on fences.'
She still takes happy, exploratory walks -- at age 73, she tries to stroll at least a mile a day -- much to the chagrin of flustered Secret Service agents whose job it is to tail her in dun-colored jeeps and who have lost her more than once in tangled thickets of wildflowers. 'She can drive those Secret Service guys crazy,' says a friend.
Lady Bird feels she has a debt to pay.On her 70th birthday, she donated 60 acres near Austin, Texas, and $125,000 to create the nation's first wildflower center, a research and growing facility. 'There are 25,000 species of wildflowers and we have only done research on about 250,' she says. 'It was my way of paying the rent for the space I've taken up.'
This year, she mourns the loss of drought-withered wildflowers - Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets, buttercups. 'It physically hurts me to watch what is happening to this country. I feel sad. It's like I'm watching the undernourished children in one of those terrible African famines. The botanists have a word for it. They say these flowers are stressed.
'(For four months) we had 3 inches of rain when we should have had 8. The plants are pigmy, dwarfed. The cracks in the earth are big enough for baby quail to fall into, literally. It pains me.'
There's obviously another pain, one that strikes deeper and which she disguises well. It involves allegations, published since her husband's death, that Lyndon was a self-aggrandizing womanizer, and had an affair with a well-known Washington socialite in his early years.
How does she feel?
'Haven't read the books. Someday I'll sit back in my rocking chair and go through them all. But for now, I don't need to. I knew Lyndon better than anybody else. I knew his faults and his good points, and I loved him. He loved me. That's good enough.'
Lyndon, of course, could be difficult. 'I never publicly dissented from my husband, although we had disagreements. I tried to be careful. Sometimes I took my feelings out on him, verbally. Sometimes I swallowed them. I knew what he was going through.'
She speaks carefully and often formally, the way she writes:
'I was a close witness to the swift, heady wine of public adulation, and the scourge of public disapproval. I wanted to be a leveling force, somebody you could always turn to for fair and reasoning judgment.'
Even today, she doesn't talk much about her father, but credits his genetic line with giving her the right stuff.
'I must have strong genes, because of my (paternal) grandmother. She had four husbands. The first died in the Civil War. The second died of smallpox. There were many epidemics in those days. A whole area might be ravaged by yellow fever or smallpox. You can go through cemeteries and they tell the history of a region.
'Each time she married again. Her third husband was T.J. Taylor, my grandfather. They bore four children. When she was pregnant with the fifth child -- my father -- her husband got a serious kidney ailment.
'The only way to save him to was to go to Mobile and have an operation. So they sold the farm, got into a buggy and drove from Selma, their home, down to the river where they boarded a riverboat. From there they went to Mobile and had the operation. He seemed to be recovering nicely, so they got back aboard the boat and came home. It was a two-day trip by buggy from the river to Selma. They spent the night along the way. His fever increased and he fell desperately ill. So they stopped (and) he died.
'Here was a woman with four children, eight months pregnant, no husband and a lot of expenses. She made it. Whenever the going is rough, I always think about my grandmother. I only hope I can be as strong as Grandma Luisa Bates.'
Whenever possible, Lady Bird swims laps in the large indoor pool she had installed at the ranch three years ago. She follows a 30-minute regimen of stretching and bending exercises each morning, often to collapse in a gurgling hot tub, 'my toy,' hooked up behind the house.
Although she enjoys breakfast in bed -- coffee, fruits (particularly bananas), cold cereal -- she fixes it herself. Lunch and supper are usually light, often eaten over her desk at the LBJ Library or in the small upper-floor apartment she uses when in Austin. Her secret dietary vice: Bit-O-Honey candy bars.
'But I'd like to put an end to thoughts of my boundless energy. For the first time in my life,' she admits, 'I'm feeling the years.'
At times she has trouble concentrating her thoughts, and recently, she fainted at a public gathering. Doctors later diagnosed a touch of diverticulosis. She also suffers from arthritis, although never enough to keep her from pulling weeds from a front-lawn flower patch.
Happy with her looks -- she has aged gracefully, keeping trim and vigorous -- she admits, 'If I had the courage I'd get a nose job.' ---
Lady Bird attended high school in Marshall, Texas -- hometown of a good friend of later years, author and broadcast commentator Bill Moyers. She graduated with honors, and after a brief stint in junior college transferred to the University of Texas in Austin to fulfill her early career ambition -- to become a journalist.
'Journalists live exciting lives. That's what I thought I wanted to do.' She got a job working for the school newspaper and managing public relations for the university's intramural sports program. 'As it turns out,' she says, 'I had a pretty fascinating life anyway. I was marvelously lucky.'
A turning point in her life came on a sunny afternoon in September 1934, still crystalline in memory. Lady Bird, an attractive brown-eyed brunette, dropped in to see a friend in the state capitol building, and chanced upon a tall, reed-thin congressional aide whose charm, ambitions - and talk of his ambitions -- seemed boundless.
'Lyndon was very, very good-looking. He was tall and fast-moving, and not just in terms of ambition, but in physical terms. When he went down the hall he seemed to cut the wind on both sides.'
A day after the chance meeting, the couple had breakfast together. They had their first date that evening. 'I wouldn't call him pushy, but he was mighty straight-forward, determined. He had the most determined manner of anybody I had ever encountered.'
They took a long drive. It was to be fateful. 'We got in a car and drove and drove and drove and talked and talked and talked. He asked me all about my life. I've never heard so many questions. I took him to some of my favorite haunts. In those days it was out the Bull Creek Road towards Anderson's Mill, and a high hill overlooking a park in the city of Austin.
'I knew this was somebody special from the very beginning. He made me catch my breath. He was exciting, vital. He knew what he was going to do, and was probably going to do it successfully. He was probably the best congressional secretary any man ever had. But at the beginning it didn't occur to me that I would marry him.'
But Lyndon had other plans. On this first date, he asked her to tie the knot. She turned him down cold. 'I had what I thought was common sense and I thought marriage at that time was absolutely crazy. We hardly knew each other. On the other hand, I wasn't at all willing to let him depart from my life.
'We sort of see-sawed along on that proposition. He took me to see his mother and father.' His father was Sam Ealy Johnson, a former state representative, whose fortunes were then at a low ebb -- he'd lost his farm and was scraping by as a state bus inspector. 'It was very sad, that meeting. It was clear (Sam)was an old man before his time.'
Later, Johnson tooled his new love out to the sprawling King Ranch of South Texas, owned by his boss, the ultraconservative Richard Kleburg. She was impressed.
A week later, Lady Bird invited the relentless young man to visit her home in Karnack, Texas. 'It was on the way back to Washington. He spent the night in the house where I was born and raised. My father liked him from the start. He took me aside and said 'Well, little lady, you've brought home a lot of boys. This time you've brought home a man.''
There was a second marriage proposal and another rejection. Lyndon was not a man to be put off. He launched a blitz campaign, dashing off a torrent of love letters. Lady Bird still treasures them. 'My dear Bird,' reads one. ('Bird,' then and now, is a term only her best friends are permitted to use.) 'This morning I'm ambitious, proud, energetic and very madly in love with you.'
The courtship heated up. A running dialogue was conducted day after day, Washington to Karnack, via 'that most precarious and uncertain of devices -- a country telephone,' as she calls it.
Lyndon drove back in the fall and made a final plea. This time Lady Bird gave in, two months after they'd first met. They married in an Episcopal church in San Antonio. The pact was sealed with a $2.50 Sears & Roebuck wedding band; there was little time for fancy gift-giving. He swept her off to his small apartment in Washington.
It was Lyndon's good fortune that Lady Bird knew how to prepare turnip greens, cornbread and chili -- haute cuisine of the Texas prairie. 'I had a garden for years and years and I tried to grow those things I knew were not that readily available in Washington restaurants.' The down-home fare and hospitality helped attract and hold one of Lyndon's father's old statehouse legislative buddies. She called him Mr. Sam. Others called him the Honorable Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn.
'From the beginning I just loved him. I loved him personally and I loved him for being the type of public servant he was. He was well-read and knowledgeable about this country. He was the best of us -- an ordinary person, no great background or wealth or erudition, but with a good brain and a good heart and abounding patriotism.
'(Lyndon) absorbed like a sponge and became his protege,' eventually to exceed Rayburn's skill in operating the levers of power. 'I was a bit afraid of him at first. But I grew to love him. I loved the stories he told, his one-phrase descriptions of people. He could be blunt. To him Congress was made up of workhorses and showhorses. He preferred the workhorses.'
Rayburn's picture is the only portrait Lady Bird permits to hang in the living room at the ranch, a modest family room with foot-thick stone walls where the family holds Christmas each year. It is dominated by a huge brick fireplace and a hand-hewn corner cabinet, a gift from the prime minister of Finland. The room is one of her favorites. So is the picture.
The ranch was built near the turn of the century by a family of German settlers. At first Lady Bird hated it. But Lyndon, who by 1951 was a congressman and knew the place from his youth, was not be denied.
When the ranch owner, his aunt, asked Lyndon to take the place off her hands, 'he practically promised on the spot.' When he broke the news to his wife, 'I was mad as hops. We had a perfectly nice home in Austin and the ranch needed a thousand repairs. (But) he wanted it badly. It would have been cruel not to let him have it. I agreed.
'We went to work on it in February 1952. What you work on you come to love, if it's a worthwhile project. We moved in in July 1952 and it became our home ever since.'
Lady Bird hired an architect and accommodated the place to her growing family. Lynda Bird Johnson was born in 1944 and Luci Baines Johnson arrived three years later. The initials 'LBJ' fit the whole family.
To the original stone structure and wooden lean-to in the rear, Lady Bird added an east wing with connecting bedrooms, a large kitchen and a dining area with a broad bay window which permitted her to study the hummingbirds. In back she built a covered garage. Today it houses her 1977 vintage Mercury Marquis.
On the west side she had built a large study. It was in this room, filled with White House mementos, that Lyndon watched television news coverage of the Vietnam war and wrestled with himself as his ranking in the public polls -- and so he believed, in history -- eroded month by bitter month.
During those exciting and terrible years in which the president moved from 'immense popularity to extreme unpopularity, by turn,' Lady Bird, who had become her husband's closest political confidante, kept a private dairy. 'I knew I was in a strategic spot in a strategic time,' she says. Besides 'memory is a fragile servant' and 'I had a front row seat to history, with the freedom to watch and record.'
Her recollection of Lyndon's toughest single night, the one in which he told the nation he was quitting office:
'Lyndon seemed to be congealing into a calm, quiet state of mind, out of reach. And I, what did I feel? ... There was much in me that cried out to go on, to call on every friend we have, to give and work, to spend and fight, right up to the last. And if we lost, well and good - we were free! But if we didn't run, we could be free without all this draining of our friends.
'Lyndon's speech had been, I believe, nobly done,' she says later, 'and in its way almost as dramatic as our entrance into the job.'
She also recalls the entrance, the day Camelot fell; it was Nov. 22, 1963, Dallas:
'It all began so beautifully. After a drizzle in the morning, the sun came out bright and clear. We were driving into (downtown) Dallas. ... The streets were lined with people -- lots and lots of people -- the children all smiling, placards, confetti, people waving from windows.'
Then a staccato of sharp explosions. 'I thought the noise must come from firecrackers -- part of the celebration.' A Secret Service agent vaulted on top of Lyndon in a blur of motion, confusion.
'I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw ... a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. It was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the president's body.'
Later, aboard Air Force One, 'I looked at (Jackie)... stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood -- her husband's blood. Somehow that was one of the poignant sights -- that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.' Jackie refused to change her clothes.
'With almost an element of fierceness -- if a person that gentle, that dignified, can be said to have that quality -- she said, 'I want them to see what they have done to Jack.'
'Now and then I run into Jackie,' she says. 'She is still something special. She's a woman of steel and stamina. She has been public property for so many years, but if you know her, you can't help gaining a respect and a liking for her.'
Lady Bird's own time of testing, perhaps her most painful White House experience, took place on Jan. 18, 1968, the day she entertained various representatives of social action programs. She was then honorary chairman of the national Head Start program, an education program for underprivileged pre-schoolers. Among the guests was Eartha Kitt, the singer and actress.
Quoting from the dairy: 'Advancing a step toward me and looking with intense directness at me -- she is a good actress -- she said, 'We send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war.'
'What do you feel in a situation like this? First, a wave of mounting disbelief. Can this be true? Is this a nightmare? Then a sort of surge of adrenalin into the blood, knowing that you are going to answer, that you've got to answer, that you want to answer.'
A few moments later she did answer: 'I have not lived the background that you have, nor can I speak as passionately or as well, but we must keep our eyes and our ears and our energies fixed on constructive areas and try to do something that will make this a happier, better-educated land.'
She contributed to that vision. She could have lived a life of patrician retirement, easing out of public commitments and counting profits from the LBJ Company, an Austin-based business controlling a slew of broadcast and other properties. But as First Lady -- and long after -- she has lent her name, influence and profits to a skein of beautification ventures.
There was foremost the celebrated battle to ban billboards from unspoiled stretches of federal highway. 'I'm sure I permanently alienated myself from the people who make their living selling signs.' She's convinced she lost that one, since key provisions were watered down in the final Highway Beautification bill and enforcement has been haphazard.
But critics acknowledge her influence. Said then-Rep. William Cramer, who represented the sign-makers, the statute was a 'present to the First Lady.'
Her gift for persuasion was honed during World War II when she ran Lyndon's congressional office and during the Great Society years when she galvanized a diffuse assortment of environmental and private sector interests for parks and landscaping projects, many of which bear her name today.
'It's not a matter of winning a conflict, man versus nature. It's more a matter of integration, learning to live in harmony with nature. We can, I believe, arrange our cities in a more orderly and intelligent fashion, and do what it takes to keep the rivers clean and the air clean and preserve the native plants.
'I gave my energies to the things I value. I did things that were in the hearts of so many of us. I would hate to subtract dogwood from Georgia or redbud from this land in March, or magnolias from Mississippi.'
She remains a trustee of the National Geographic Society and is active in charitable causes. Each summer she sets aside a couple of weeks to take one of her seven grandchildren -- six of them granddaughters -- to federal parklands.
She's close to her grandchildren. One recent weekend she dropped in to see a college ROTC review by 19-year-old Lyn Nugent, son of Pat Nugent and Luci. (They later divorced; Luci is now married to a Canadian businessman.) 'It meant a lot to (Lyn), and to me.'
In the yellow sitting room at the ranch she pores over snapshots of children and grandchildren. At times laughter gushes forth. For a child who grew up without a mother, the attachments and memories are strong.
'Am I a good mother? Everybody wants to be a good mother. It turns out my children were very interesting people. I love my children and I've got pretty good common sense. Not great, but pretty good.'
The White House years tightened family bonds. 'Living in the White House brings you closer. You become a very close circle, much closer than before. Whatever combat you face, you at least have each other. We had some touching moments together.'
One night, she recalls, Lynda Bird crept into the Lincoln Room. The lights were out. Lady Bird and the president had just gone to bed. 'Suddenly I had this sense that somebody else was in the room. It was not all that comfortable. Then I heard this whisper: 'Mother, Mother,' Lynda said. 'I want to talk to you.'
'So I was about to put my feet on the floor and tiptoe out when Lyndon woke up and grumped 'What's going on here.' It was then Lynda told us Charles (Robb) had asked her to marry him. She was breathless with excitement. She had had lots of dates with many people, but I'd never seen her like that. She was riding a cloud.'
Political prospects for Robb, a former governor of Virginia? 'He's a wonderful human being, a wonderful son-in-law, and has a great future. But I won't make any predictions.' Lady Bird can be honest, but she can also be politic.
Lady Bird remembers her first impressions of home, when home was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
'Mrs. Kennedy, who couldn't have been nicer, considering the distress she was under, had me over for tea.
'As soon as I stepped out of the elevator onto the second floor (the family quarters) I got the feeling I had entered my own world, a place where I could pad around in bedroom slippers and my old robe.
'If somebody doesn't want to live in the White House, there's something wrong with them. I loved it -- the beauty of the place, the sense of history.' ---
In many respects, Lady Bird is more alone than she's ever been in her life, save for those childhood years. Admired by the American public who visit the rambling ranch in busloads each day, she cannot replace many of her closest and dearest friends who have moved away or died.
Her daughters live thousands of miles away. Lyndon, of course, died in 1973. He's buried only a stone's throw from the ranchhouse, near his birthplace. She describes her 'bittersweet, wonderful and sad' feelings of visiting childhood haunts recently, and complains about how the early pioneers referred to widows as relics ('relicts'), broken remnants of another age. She never was, and will never be, one of those.
A moment of silence is broken by the cry of a blue jay, sweeping majestically across the limestone-banked Pedernales. Her eyes brighten. She's transformed, fired up. She vaults from her lawn chair.
'See, it's come back. I knew it would come back. There you see.'