Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on "The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Lyndon B. Johnson"

Posted on May 21, 2008

I first came to the Senate in 1967 as a young aide to Senator Howard Baker and was here during the last two years of the Johnson Presidency. So, I heard firsthand stories about Lyndon Johnson, the Senator, and his larger-than-life, in-your-face personality with other Senators. I felt, in the elections of 1966 and 1968 -- which were my first in politics -- how his support for civil rights legislation had made him a controversial President. I felt, also, at my age, the agony of the war in Vietnam. And I watched, with surprise, on television in 1968 when he said he would not run for another term in the Presidency. Now, today, 40 years later, I see him as I think most Americans clearly see him: as one of our most consequential Presidents and public figures. Every January or February, my youngest son and I go to Cotulla, TX. Senator Hutchison spoke of Cotulla, TX as the place where Lyndon Johnson taught in the elementary grades. I never cease to go to Cotulla, TX without thinking of what a remarkable comment it is upon our country to think that a graduate of San Marcos State could go to Cotulla, TX, and be teaching in an elementary school, and then 13 years later be in the Senate and on his way to being the Minority leader, the Majority leader, the Vice President, and then President of the United States. There are many examples of how in our country anything is possible. I know of no better example than the life of Lyndon Johnson. Others will say more about President Johnson and his contribution to the Senate and to our country, but today I want to say a few words about his family. My contemporaries were the Johnson children, Luci and Lynda, and especially Lynda and Chuck Robb. Chuck was Governor of Virginia when I was Governor of Tennessee. We have known each other well since that time. I saw their daughter, Jennifer, this morning, and I can remember when she had our youngest son Will in a headlock one time at a Governors Conference. I can remember learning, either from Lynda or perhaps it was from Luci, lessons about how children -- and the Presiding Officer will appreciate this, especially since his father was a distinguished Governor of Pennsylvania -- about how to grow up in a family where your parents are public officials,as Senators or Governors or even Presidents, in their case. One of the Johnson girls told me she did not like very much going to political events -- our children were much the same -- until one day their father, President Johnson, said: Let me make a suggestion to you. I want you to find one interesting thing about three people at the event you go to, and then come back to me afterwards and tell me what you found out. Lynda told me that changed the way she thought about going to those events. It gave her a way to go to them and make them more interesting. I told all of our children that, and they did it as well. It was good advice for children of parents in public life. But in speaking of the family, I want to especially speak of Mrs. Johnson, Lady Bird, and her contribution to preserving the natural beauty of America. Mrs. Johnson convened the first White House Conference on Natural Beauty, saying: “Surely a civilization that can send a man to the moon can also find ways to maintain a clean and pleasant earth.” She became the de facto leader of the scenic conservation movement. She raised our consciousness about the natural world in our lives. It is fair to say she is probably the most influential conservationist in America since Teddy Roosevelt. When I visit my wife's home in the State of Texas in the spring, there are bluebonnets everywhere. Texans are immensely proud of those flowers. In Austin -- and Luci Baines reminded me today it is still going stronger than ever -- is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Many states copied Texas' idea of planting wildflowers in the interstate medians. Lady Bird and Lyndon passed the Highway Beautification Act to free us from highway billboard blight and rampant ugliness. With her encouragement, President Johnson also persuaded Congress to pass the Wilderness Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. She became the first woman to serve on the National Geographic Society's Board of Trustees. President Johnson used to joke about how he would turn around and there would be Laurence Rockefeller and Lady Bird in the East Room of the White House cooking up some new conservation agenda for him to pass in the Congress. Her legacy of natural beauty is secure, but because she is now gone, America's legacy of natural beauty is not so secure. We seem to have forgotten how much natural beauty is an essential part of our national character. Someone once said: Egypt has its Pyramids, Italy its Art, and our country the Great American Outdoors. Or, to put it less grandly, when I am at home in Tennessee, I see the streets named Scenic Drive and Blue Bird Lane, and I read the real estate ads describing the beautiful mountain views. And, if you ask Tennesseans why they live in Tennessee, even the most grizzled will say: Because there is not a more beautiful place in the world. Many Americans feel that way about our hometowns. After Lady Bird, there have come a number of stronger and more outstanding environmental organizations devoted to clean air, clean water, and climate change, and more recently, other conservation causes. But most of them seem to have diminished interest in scenic beauty. There was recently on the Senate floor an effort that nearly succeeded to gut Lady Bird's Highway Beautification Act. It would have allowed hundreds of illegal billboards to become legal. There has been almost no organized outcry about the profusion of thousands of cell towers along the same interstates and in the same communities that Lady Bird sought to protect from junkyards and billboards. These cell towers have replaced almost every available scenic view in America with a tall tower, usually ugly, always with blinking lights. And, most of it is unnecessary because they could have been co-located, or be smaller, or they could have been put below the ridge tops, or even camouflaged. And we still could have had access to our cell phones and our blackberries. The National Park Service even erected a cell tower in clear view of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. In our enthusiasm to deal with climate change, we are spending billions of dollars to encourage Americans to erect thousands of giant wind turbines that are twice as tall as football stadiums and can be seen for 20 miles, without thinking to pass legislation that would keep them away from our most scenic views, beaches, and mountaintops. If Ansel Adams were alive today, he would probably be distraught because he would have fewer and fewer beautiful places in America at which to aim his camera. Lady Bird left America a legacy that honors an essential aspect of the American character, one that today is, unfortunately, too often ignored. If it continues to be ignored, it will never be undone. It is almost impossible to unclutter a highway or renew a view scape once that has been obliterated by ugliness. So, I would hope that one result of this commemoration of Lyndon Johnson's birthday would be to encourage someone among us -- or more among us -- to revive in us Lady Bird's passion for the natural beauty of America, to encourage once again the planting of wildflowers, to preserve the view scapes, and to remind American communities of how satisfying it can be to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.