Lady Bird’s Lost Legacy
The former First Lady dreamed of beautifying roadsides. Is
her dream now a lost cause?
By Lawrence Wright
Andrés Vera Martinez
At one in the morning on October 8, 1965, the House of
Representatives finally voted on the Highway Beautification Act—“Lady Bird’s
bill,” as Representative Bob Dole, one of the leaders of the opposition,
patronizingly called it. The representatives were supposed to have been at the
White House six hours earlier for a “Salute to Congress” dinner, and the
gallery was filled with hungry, impatient spouses who had watched their evening
plans drown in the tumult on the House floor.
The bill had already been beaten down once before by allies
of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. President Lyndon Johnson was
undeterred. “You know, I love that woman,” he told his cabinet about his wife,
“and by God, we’re going to get it for her.” The vote finally passed, 245 to
138, and a few exhausted representatives went to the White House to present the
bill as a gift to the first lady.
The obituaries for Lady Bird Johnson [in mid-July] focused
mainly on her advocacy for highway beautification, largely failing to note that
nearly all of the 200 laws related to the environment during the Johnson
administration had her stamp on them, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the
Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and many
additions to the national parks system. She worked to protect the redwoods and
block the damming of the Grand Canyon.
The environmental movement was just being born—Rachel Carson
had published Silent Spring the year
before Johnson took office—but it found in Lady Bird its most effective
advocate. She hoped to leave the country more beautiful than she found it, and
there is no doubt that she did so—from her efforts at cleaning up the slums of
the nation’s capital to the creation of the National Wildflower Research Center
From the start, however, the centerpiece of Mrs. Johnson’s
legacy was crippled by compromises with the billboard lobby. You wouldn’t know
it from [the recent] coverage, but Lyndon Johnson realized when he signed the
bill that it was a failure. “We have placed a wall of civilization between us
and between the beauty of our land and of our countryside,” he reflected. “This
bill...does not represent what the national interest requires. But it is a
first step, and there will be other steps.”
There were no other steps.
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