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Lady Bird Johnson Dies at 94

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, died yesterday at her home in Austin. She was 94.

And here to talk about the former first lady, NPR's Cokie Roberts, an old friend of Lady Bird Johnson's. Cokie?

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. Now, you know, at the time, in the '60s, and with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, people tended to think of first ladies as retiring behind-the-scenes tea-pourers.

ROBERTS: But they never have been. It's always been a misconception. And it was certainly a misconception when it came to Lady Bird Johnson. Lyndon Johnson says she was the brains and money of the family. And I was so pleased when the Johnson Library released the tapes of Lyndon Johnson talking on the phone to all kinds of people because it became very clear when they were released what kind of role Lady Bird Johnson played. Listen to her critiquing one of his press conferences. Here she is.

Ms. LADY BIRD JOHNSON: When you are going to have a prepared text you need to have the opportunity to study it a little bit more and to read it with a little more conviction and interest and change of pace.

President LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: Well, the trouble is that they criticize you for taking so much time. They want to use it all for questions.

ROBERTS: You could hear him getting defensive. And as he goes on, he sort of backs further and further away from the phone. And he took her advice. He - she was his main counselor. In later years when the tape came out, I teased her about it, even after her terrible stroke, where she was unable to talk these last few years when she's been incredibly valiant. She still enjoyed a good story. And she loved that one.

MONTAGNE: And Lady Bird Johnson also went on the campaign trail and sometimes under very difficult circumstances.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. For decades she was on the campaign trail, from the 1930s on, from the time he was in the House of Representatives. But it got tough in 1964 after the president had signed the civil rights bill. And the South was really up and arms, Renee. And so she decided, she decided to do an old-fashioned whistle-stop train tour of the South.

My parents were along on that trip and they described it. Sometimes there were furious, angry mobs on the platform. And Mrs. Johnson would just come out and charm them. Here she is in Virginia.

Ms. JOHNSON: To me Virginia means beautiful rolling country, exquisite gardens and love of family.

ROBERTS: Her ladylike demeanor, her reminder that her mother was from Alabama, it had the effect of calming the crowds and the whistle-stop tour was an enormous success.

MONTAGNE: You know, there was one cause Mrs. Johnson has become known for: the beautification of this country. And in a way in its day it was an environmental effort.

ROBERTS: Absolutely an environmental effort. You forget, our highways were blighted by horrible billboards and junk, trash. And she cleaned them up and planted the appropriate flowers for that place all along our highways. But the place that to me is the biggest success is here, our beautiful capital city, which she just completely cleaned up and planted with tens of thousands of azaleas and tulips and daffodils. And the numbers are just astounding. And every spring when it comes into bloom, you have Lady Bird Johnson to thank.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Cokie, your families were friends. How did they meet?

ROBERTS: My father was elected to Congress in 1940. My 24-year-old mother was here with two little babies, neither whom was me. And you still had to go calling. It was before World War II. You called on the House members one day, Senate members another, Cabinet another. And the first people to pick up my mother, to take her calling, were Lady Bird Johnson and Pauline Gore, and the families have been very close friends forever more, and Mrs. Johnson was a very, very special and kind woman.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Cokie Roberts speaking of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of the late President Lyndon Johnson, who died at her home in Austin. She was 94. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.

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