Thursday, July 12, 2007

Facing the fear with Lady Bird’s example

Reams have been written about the contributions of Lady Bird Johnson, who passed away yesterday, to “beautification,” a precursor of today’s environmental movement. Her achievements in this area were solid and long-lasting, and will stand as her greatest legacy. But I’ll remember her for something a little different.

A few years ago, working my way through the Dallek and Caro tomes on the LBJ presidency, I became curious about what kind of person could be married to such a human volcano (as the Secret Service aptly code-named LBJ). Famous for his temper, impetuosity and grandiose displays of affection, LBJ went after what he wanted in Congress, in the press and at home by any means necessary: flattering, cajoling, bullying, begging, blustering or threatening, often moving from one tactic to another within seconds. Surely the wife of someone so much larger than life must have been a pale and retiring figure simply to get through the day.

Not exactly. When I picked up a copy of Lady Bird’s White House Diary, a picture emerged of a very complex woman. Like LBJ, she possessed a variety of tricks for approaching different political and social situations, including engaging with her very volatile husband. Her MOs were genuine warmth, charm, courtesy, patience, persistence, a rather indirect way of giving direction and, certainly, often looking the other way at LBJ’s public and personal excesses. It’s easy now to see those qualities as anachronistic illustrations of a fortunately bygone era. It’s perhaps more accurate to recognize them as the tools she had at her disposal, in that time, of that place, to do the work she wanted to do.

Unlike LBJ, Lady Bird didn’t crave the limelight and thrive on public attention. Originally terrified of public speaking and occasionally overwhelmed by the constant public and social appearances expected of her by an exceptionally gregarious husband, she methodically attacked these challenges with the same discipline she brought to her work with beautification, the fledgling Head Start program, her innovative Women Doers programs and her brave whistlestop train tour of the hostile South just before the 1964 election.

It’s that courage to keep mastering big and unfamiliar tasks that defines Lady Bird for me, that inspires and will stay with me. Long after LBJ’s presidency ended, Mrs. Johnson told longtime White House press corps member Helen Thomas, “Life has been richer because I did the things I was afraid to do.” I remember these words almost every time I’m faced with something I want but am afraid to try for. Steeling myself to speak on national radio for the first time, to learn to dive, to take on a professional project that seems too big for me, I reach down deep to find my Lady Bird mojo. And that, just as much as Mrs. Johnson’s extraordinary work on behalf of the environment and early-childhood education, is a fine legacy to leave behind.