President Lyndon Johnson wanted to push the bill through. He recognized the bill he was going to sign was not great or perfect, but he loved his wife, and he wanted to sign it for her. After all, some members of Congress, in a sarcastic way, had dubbed it “Lady Bird’s bill” as they debated it the night before.
LBJ signed the Highway Beautification Act at 2:15 p.m. Oct. 22, 1965. The bill built on the Highway Beautification Act of 1958, which promised federal money to states to voluntarily control billboards and other outside advertising. The new legislation instituted fines for littering, provided money for scenic enhancements and offered incentives for governments and other organizations to clean up city parks. The bill also would require that junkyards along the highway to be fenced in.
Mrs. Johnson, or “Lady Bird” as she was often called, believed highway beautification, and nature in general, was tied into everything else in the world, including the crime rate and mental health. If highways and other scenic vistas could be improved, that might lead to more good in other areas of life. She often said, “Everything leads to something else.”
These beliefs stemmed from the onset of the modern environmental movement in the early 1960s. Aldo Leopold published “A Sand County Almanac” in 1949, and the country had just witnessed the publication of Rachel Carson’s environmental masterpiece “Silent Spring” in 1962. People were talking more about the environment then.
According to author Kate Andersen Brower, Lady Bird was one of the country’s first environmentalists. She believed there was something special about the beauty in nature and how it could uplift others. She became one of the first presidential wives to advocate openly for beautification.
Although viewed by some as a very congenial Southern bell, Lady Bird could be a tough campaigner and first lady. During the 1960 presidential campaign, she once gave 45 speeches in five days to support the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. In 1964, she became the first first lady to go on the campaign trail without her husband. She also organized luncheons for important business women at the White House. She was tough and gracious and knew what she wanted.
Today, Lady Bird is credited with being a special hero to “scenic America.” She outlived her husband by more than 30 years and treasured her time with other first ladies. She became a mentor, guide and friend to them.
She never stopped thinking about nature and beautification of the nation’s highways. In the early 1980s, she helped to found a center for the study of wildflowers at the University of Texas at Austin. Presently, it is known as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. One of its roles is to create and restore landscapes using native plants.
True, “Lady Bird’s bill” probably did not go far enough to ensure a more complete beautification of the nation’s highways. Even her husband thought so when he signed it. He knew the nation’s billboard lobbyists would fight it heavily, but he pushed it anyway.
Driving down America’s highways, we still see some of her bill at work. Flowers, trees and plants adorn many exits and turn-offs. There are parks and places to turn into for rest and relaxation from long hours in transit between one place and another.
There’s no doubt Lady Bird had a profound effect on the way we see scenic areas in our time. She had a heavy influence on most of the hundreds of environmental bills which were passed during her husband’s presidency, including protections for the California redwoods and parts of the Grand Canyon.
But, she would be disappointed in us. Drive any road today and one sees trash and other refuse in many places. I’m sure many of us have been either in front or behind cars whose passengers have thrown debris out their windows. The lack of care and responsibility to keep certain things clean and neat is simply appalling. It’s wrong. It needs to stop. People need to think twice before littering and looting the environment of its natural wonders.
In this time when almost anything can be bought, consumed, used, given away or destroyed, we need a new environmental ethic and a feeling of renewed responsibility toward protecting the treasures of the earth.
All the legislation in the world will not save the environment around us — will not protect the places we love to drive to and the places we love to go for rest and renewal. Educating younger generations can help.
Leaving a place better than we found it was something Lady Bird believed in, and we should honor people like her by thinking more about the part we have to play.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute. Email him at email@example.com
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