Image Source: Everett Collection
“Art is the window to a person’s soul. Without it, we would never be able to see beyond our immediate world, nor could the world see the person within.” Lady Bird Johnson
I hope we all utilized our voices yesterday, braving the blessed rain, sleet, and snow to get out and vote. I did, but I hesitated about posting this essay, which is not about a political alliance, nor is it a policy statement concerning the issues currently plaguing our nation.
It’s a human one.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about all the conflicts currently immobilizing, of all places, our retirement communities. The elderly residents (just like everyone else) are so caught up with their own convictions they can not allow for any oppositional opinions. So no one is talking. It’s a total stalemate. The result of this is an environment contrary to human thriving, isolating, and pathetically dull.
Is this the kind of future anyone envisions?
When did we lose our ability to listen to each other? To learn from each other? To have an earnest conversation even when we come from opposite sides of the political spectrum?
It’s as if we all become so entrenched in our beliefs and our self-righteousness that we’ve allowed our pride to vilify any and all opposing points of view. It’s obviously altering our experience of community, damaging our relationships, and harming our ability to sow compassion and curiosity instead of discord.
I think I found a provocative solution in the most unlikely place, and I’m calling it The Lady Bird Approach.
On the way up to the lake, I listened to a podcast about Lady Bird Johnson, and I found myself thoroughly intrigued by this shy, astute woman who often chose not to use her voice. She taught by example. She planted generative seeds, and her philanthropic vision continues to influence our world.
She was an impressive woman for her time, maybe for any time, and I can’t help but marvel at her intelligence, patience, and poise. She was born on the same date as my daughter Kelley, December 22, but in 1912, as Claudia Alta Taylor (Lady Bird was a childhood nickname, and it stuck).
After graduating college with honors, she was introduced to Lyndon B. Johnson through a mutual friend. Lady Bird said, “she felt like a moth drawn to a flame.” Lyndon was a congressional aid at the time, with lots of political aspirations, and he had the foresight to ask Lady Bird to marry him on their first date. She did not want to rush into marriage at 22 years of age, but Johnson was persistent, and they were married ten weeks later, in November of 1934.
Lyndon was ambitious, and Lady Bird supported him both financially from her inheritance and emotionally from what I consider a formidable strength of character, immeasurable grace, and intellectual acuity.
Of course, this meant they had the same initials, LBJ, and they kept it in the family naming their two daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines! I’m sorry, but I think that’s adorable.
Lady Bird was instrumental in promoting her husband professionally, but she was also a savvy businesswoman in her own right. In 1943, she purchased KTBC, an Austin radio station, with a small portion of her inheritance. She later expanded her holdings in 1952 despite Lyndon’s objections. And using her voice wisely, she reminded him that she could do as she wished with her inheritance. Lady Bird’s initial investment turned into more than $150 million for the LBJ Holding Company. She was the first president’s wife to have become a millionaire in her own right before her husband was elected to office, and she remained involved with the company until she was in her eighties.
Lady Bird’s role as first lady and wife to Lyndon B. Johnson was one of service and devotion, but more importantly, she was her husband’s confidante. By all accounts, he adored her, but Lyndon had a fiery temper, he could be vulgar, and he expected his wife to cater to his every need, big or small. He’s been known to conduct impromptu meetings from his bed with her still in it or, on occasion, from the commode.
Lyndon had a fiery temper and was a harsh critic of his wife, often embarrassing her in front of friends. In the midst of his disrespect towards her appearance, keeping in mind his many infidelities, she accepted his cutting words and quietly urged others to bear with his fervid temperament. What the hell?
I’d be chasing him down the hall with a hot frying pan.
Lady Bird developed unusual self-control and patience for her husband. Her emotional intelligence was off the charts, and Lyndon came to depend on his wife’s judgment, patience, and uncanny ability to influence others without drawing attention to herself. She may have been a product of her time, embodying traditional roles and staying in the shadow of her husband’s illustrious career, but she also modernized the role of the first lady while running a successful business of her own.
In order to fully understand Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy, you have to recognize her history of active campaigning and how she promoted her husband’s issues while developing her own environmental concerns. But maybe her most profound contribution was her private influence on her husband’s presidency. She wrote, “there is no way to separate us and our role in each other’s lives.”
As we know, Lyndon was a difficult man, and I marvel at the grace and fortitude with which Lady Bird handled his episodic foibles. She elevated not only the landscape of their marriage but the landscape of America while supporting the policies her husband was able to put into place during his presidency. A presidency acquired during some of our nation’s most tragic events, the assassination of President Kennedy, rampant segregation, with the war in Vietnam looming in the background.
This got me thinking about how we might utilize the Lady Bird Approach to elevate our own relationships and emotional intelligence, considering the controversial political landscape of these modern times.
Have you ever spent time with a truly critical person? Someone who constantly looks for things to criticize, someone who tends to overshare these negative thoughts. Lyndon was known to criticize Lady Bird about things as mundane as her lipstick and attire, along with the efficacy of her opinions.
Maybe this is a reflection of how critical he was of himself, as opposed to someone’s lipstick, but either way, those who scan for the negative are impossible to please. This creates a lot of unnecessary drama if you do not have the grace and poise of Lady Bird, who ignored his criticism, choosing to focus on his attributes instead of his failings.
What if it was possible to train ourselves to scan for the positive, to recognize when we’re being needlessly critical, and refocus on each other’s more admirable qualities? Just this morning, Larry interrupted me eleven times in the span of thirty minutes while I was struggling to compose this essay. I kept my cool and said, “honey, you seem restless. Could you run to the store for some cold medicine? I’m feeling poorly.” This gave me twenty minutes of absolute peace and quiet. He returned not only with cough drops and Dayquil but a warm breakfast sandwich and a cafe latte.
I’m calling it the Lady Bird effect…
Lady Bird was the only one who could turn Lyndon’s fears into positive action. He was conflicted about running for reelection after replacing Kennedy for a short term. He worried about public support, his opposition, and the current political unrest.
At Lyndon’s request, Lady Bird wrote a carefully crafted nine-page letter challenging his fears, describing the pros and cons of both decisions, and predicting his ultimate success, while laying out the arc of his entire presidency. Lyndon went with Lady Bird’s vision of the future.
When he was up for reelection, Lady Bird took to the railways to promote both his candidacy and his civil rights bill in the southern states. The Lady Bird Special, as it has become known, came from a tumultuous time in our history when our nation’s first lady sought to heal instead of divide. She was extraordinarily successful and claimed, “the way you overcome shyness is to become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid.”
She found solace and a source of strength in nature. Lady Bird said, “my heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order, and disorder of the flowering earth,” and she made this the focus of her life’s work.
Lyndon was suspicious of everyone, whereas Lady Bird relied heavily on compassion. When Lyndon’s long-term and trusted adviser, Walter Jenkins, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after being caught having sex with another man weeks before the election (keep in mind this was the early 60s), Lyndon wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and Jenkins.
Lady Bird refused, and she posted her own statement in support of Jenkins in the newspaper. Talk about courage. She outright defied her husband’s wishes and did what her heart was compelling her to do.
Lyndon reacted from a place of fear, hoping to create a false version of reality when he fed conspiracy theories to the newspapers that Jenkins had been framed. But it was Lady Bird’s act of compassion that led to a compassionate response from the public.
Lady Bird says, “It’s odd that you can get so anesthetized by your own pain or your own problem that you don’t quite fully share the hell of someone close to you.” Some people vilify the actions and words of others to ease their own insecurities. Most of the time, they use these techniques to mask the emotional chaos in their own lives, but it benefits no one.
Lady Bird sometimes served as a mediating force between her wilful husband and those he encountered. On one occasion after Lyndon had clashed with Dan Rather, then a young Houston, Texas, reporter, Lady Bird, followed Rather in her car. Stopping him, she invited him to return and have some punch, explaining, “That’s just the way Lyndon sometimes is,” and with her unique southern charm, she became a driving force (pun intended) in both their public and private lives.
Lady Bird was brilliant at planting seeds of positivity and then stepping back to watch them grow. Instead of blaming the entire committee for failing to solve an issue, she would observe, “any committee is only as good as the most knowledgeable, determined, and vigorous person on it. There must be somebody who provides the flame.”
It was Lady Bird’s advice to “walk away from an obstacle until you’re stronger, all your problems will be there when you get back, but you’ll be better able to cope.” Good advice by anyone’s standards.
Lady Bird realized early on that our environment had a powerful influence on our sense of well-being. She noticed how impoverished neighborhoods were often dreary, lacking any form of foliage or color. She was an environmentalist before it was a thing, and she fought hard to beautify America’s highways and landscapes. She believed, “where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
She said, “When I no longer thrill to the first snow of the season, I’ll know I’m growing old,” a marker we can all appreciate. Lady Bird died in her home in Texas, attended by family, at the age of 94.
Lady Bird exemplifies a life of positivity, forward-thinking, and compassionate support of others. I’m trying to find the grace to overcome my own pettiness and allow my heart to bend toward equanimity instead of division. Like my country, I’m a work in progress, but I strongly believe we learn more from observing a person’s ethical conduct when under duress than from some firey response triggered by fear.
If we don’t want to spend our golden years languishing in a community contrary to human thriving, we need to come up with a new approach to our divisiveness. If art is an expression of human imagination, then crafting creative solutions to our most difficult problems is actually a window of opportunity, one that opens the human soul to a myriad of possibilities. I believe we can be more than a pendulent society by constructing a substantive future, one that is inclusive and won’t bore us to tears!
I’m Living in the Gap, developing my own Lady Bird Approach while fighting off a cold. How’s your week going?