Beauty was once very much a part of the American dialogue and tradition. ...
It animated the paintings of the Hudson River school, the urban parks of Frederick Law Olmsted, the Country Life vision of Liberty Hyde Bailey, the City Beautiful Movement and the urban dreams of Jane Addams, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, the presidential actions of Teddy Roosevelt and the passion of John Muir. FDR carried on the torch with his national restoration and public works programs like the CCC and the arts and building projects of the WPA, which offered meaning as well as money to their participants, as Harry Boyte makes clear in his inspiring book, Building America. But beauty as a mobilizing idea for public policy really came of age during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s
Johnson’s legacy includes the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Head Start and Medicare. Under his watch, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were born. His environmental accomplishments include early versions of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, a Pesticide Control Act and a Wetlands Preservation Act.
Yet tucked away among these crusades, and now almost forgotten, was the dream he had hoped to be remembered for. A dream of a more beautiful America which the world would respect, not for “the quantity of its goods,” but for “the quality of its goals.”
Johnson wished to unify America—polarized then as now, especially by race and inequality—around stewardship of its immense beauty. And he was clear: the beautiful land he dreamed of was not meant to be a luxury for the fortunate, but a birthright for every American. We would do well to consider what he and his administration did then and how their vision might be fulfilled in our own time.
LADY BIRD AND STEWART UDALL POINT THE WAY FORWARD
Johnson’s focus on quality of life was a part of his goal of a “Great Society,” first revealed only six months into his first term in a May 22, 1964 commencement speech at the University of Michigan, which centered on three themes:
1) We need to end the sin of segregation with a Civil Rights Act;
2) We need to reduce deprivation in America with a War on Poverty; and
3) We need to move beyond economic growth toward a different vision of progress.
As Johnson put it:
"Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth … Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference." Lyndon B. Johnson
It was the first of a consistent set of messages that found their way into his speeches throughout his presidency.
In September of 1964, Johnson signed the Wilderness Bill, preserving millions of acres of American land in near-pristine condition as a legacy for generations to come. Johnson’s goals were furthered by a sense of national unity born in the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. That fall, he easily won re-election and soon after, was promoting the conservation and preservation of natural beauty as key aspects of his Great Society program. In the next four years, he would move those causes forward as has no other president, before or after him.
Operating mostly behind the scenes in the campaign were Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, and his Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, a holdover from the Kennedy administration. Failing to move Kennedy towards a strong environmental strategy, Udall learned that he might reach Johnson through the president’s wife, Lady Bird. Udall took the First Lady on a Snake River rafting trip through the Grand Tetons in August of 1964. During the trip, he convinced her of the necessity for strong new environmental protections.
“Stewart Udall, who was an expert salesman, came to see me hoping to interest me in the field of conservation,” Mrs. Johnson explained in her oral history. “I decided, that’s for me.” What followed came to be known as the “beautification” campaign, a term she disliked. “We struggled to find something else but not successfully,” she said, “so we stayed with the word. To me, it was always just part of the whole broad tapestry of the environment—clear air, clean water, free rivers, the preservation of scenic areas…the beauties of this country had been my joy, what fueled my spirit, made me happy.”
Indeed, the program was broad and deep. And though a strong and abiding sexism gave Lady Bird credit for only two aspects of it—removing billboards and planting flowers—it was far more, and her role far more important than often thought.
"Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool," she wrote in her diary. "All the threads are interwoven -- recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks -- national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else."
Her work began with an effort to beautify Washington DC. Despite its iconic architecture, the nation’s capital had long been an eyesore and an embarrassment when shown to foreign visitors. Although wealthy donors were willing to make official Washington sparkle, Lady Bird insisted that justice required that beautification target the poorest, most neglected areas of the city and include cleaning up the polluted Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. "Ugliness is so grim," she declared. "A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions." The idea caught on. “Beautification, prissy word though it may be,” she later remembered, “became the business of the politician, the businessman, the newspaper editor, and not just the ladies over a cup of tea.”
LAUNCHING THE CAMPAIGN
President Johnson’s State of the Union message in January of 1965 was replete with admonishments that would be even more relevant today. “We do not intend to live in the midst of abundance, isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs,” he declared. “The Great Society asks not how much, but how good…not only how fast we are going but where we are headed…This kind of society will not flower spontaneously from swelling riches and surging power.” “I propose that we launch a national effort to make the American city a better and more stimulating place to live,” he told the assembled senators and representatives. He also called for support for the arts and a shift of agricultural subsidies from giant farms to family farmers.
A few weeks later, on February 8, Johnson followed with a “Special Message to Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty.” He began: For centuries Americans have drawn strength and inspiration from the beauty of our country. It would be a neglectful generation indeed, indifferent alike to the judgment of history and the command of principle, which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants. Johnson went on to talk of population growth “swallowing” natural beauty, urbanization crowding out nature, and new technologies “menacing the world” with the waste they created. The problems, he argued, required a “new conservation” based not only on protection, but on “restoration and innovation.” Its concern was not only nature, but the human spirit.
“Beauty,” Johnson said, “must not be just a holiday treat, but a part of our daily life,” and provide “equal access for rich and poor, Negro and white, city dweller and farmer.” The value of beauty, Johnson warned, did not “show up in the Gross National Product,” anticipating Bobby Kennedy’s famous comments three years later, “but it is one of the most important components of our true national income, not to be left out because statisticians cannot calculate its worth.” Access to beauty improved mental health, he claimed, an assessment now confirmed by many studies. And while we wouldn’t always agree about what most beautiful, he added, we all “know what is ugly.”
A COMPREHENSIVE PROGRAM
Johnson announced that he would convene a national conference on beauty at the White House later that year. It would address:
- Cities. Jefferson, Johnson reminded Congress, had written that communities “should be planned with an eye to the effect made up on the human spirit by being continually surrounded with a maximum of beauty.” Every aspect of urban planning, he said, should center on beauty and community. He proposed a major investment in open space to “create small parks, squares, pedestrian malls and playgrounds.” As St. Louis University philosopher Dan Haybron points out in a wonderful article about New York’s Central Park, such green spaces provide benefits far beyond the material value of the land for development.
- The Countryside. Johnson proposed a new Land and Water Conservation Fund (now in danger of being eliminated by Congress) and the acquisition of great areas of public land for national parks and monuments. He made special mention of the need for a Redwoods National Park in California. He called for legislation to correct the “ugly scars” left by strip mining in Appalachia and elsewhere, and for the conversion of unused military land to space for outdoor recreation.
- Rivers. Johnson demanded that we clean up polluted rivers and establish “a National Wild Rivers System…before growth and development make the beauty of the unspoiled waterway a memory.”
- Trails. “We can and should have an abundance of trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding in and close to our cities,” Johnson declared. He recommended a national trails program and insisted that “we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be allowed to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic.”
Air pollution could no longer be tolerated, Johnson argued, adding with dismay that “the White House itself is being dirtied with soot from polluted air.” He asked for new controls on solid waste and on pesticides. He suggested burying utility lines to beautify cities, and that a national tree planting program be carried out at all government levels and by private groups as well. The final goal was “an environment that is pleasing to the senses and healthy to live in”—for everybody. “Our land will be attractive tomorrow only if we organize for action and rebuild and reclaim the beauty we inherited.”
It was an ambitious program. But step by step, aspects of it became law, if sometimes in watered-down form. The work was enhanced by the May 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, led by Lady Bird and Laurence Rockefeller. Calling it the most impressive White House conference he had ever attended, LBJ let the nearly 1000 attendees know that “it is the quality of our lives that is really at stake.” “Beauty cannot be a remote and occasional pleasure,” he stressed. “Children in the midst of cities must know it as they grow. Adults in the midst of work must find it near.” “Many of you are busy people with much to do,” he acknowledged, “but there is nothing more important.”
Johnson was ebullient with hope, heightened by the new spirit of bi-partisanship in Congress after Kennedy’s death. The committees at the conference drew up an impressive report, adding meat to the bare bones of Johnson’s proposals. Nationally, they urged “the active collaboration of artist, architect, horticulturist, educator, planner, designer, labor leader, conservationist, and citizens in all fields.” They called for a wide range of state and local conferences and beauty committees. And they urged that “the beautification projects be undertaken particularly in blighted areas, in order to develop the spirit and the leadership which are vital to alleviating racial tension, poverty and the tragedies of dejected youth,” and “that natural beauty be further emphasized as a focal point of rural area development, of poverty programs and of urban renewal.”
THE BILLBOARD BATTLE
At Lady Bird’s urging, Lyndon Johnson took on the cause of eliminating billboards and auto junkyards from the Interstate Highway system and other major roads. But it was a tough battle—the billboard industry in those days had the kind of political clout that the NRA has now. Johnson won passage of the National Highway Beautification Act, but it was a compromise. He used its signing on October 22, 1965, to speak to his love for beauty. There is more to America than raw industrial might,” Johnson said in a particularly moving speech:
A wall, he said, of billboards that must come down.
Johnson was quick to admit that the bill was not all he, and Lady Bird, had hoped for.
A year later, in 1966, Johnson established a cabinet level agency, the President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty, to monitor the programs, though it was dismantled by Richard Nixon in 1969. In December, Johnson announced that 1967 was to be the Year of Youth for Natural Beauty and Conservation. “Those who would not live without beauty must join in a tireless effort to bring it into being,” he proclaimed. “They must help to reverse the sorry decline of cities and countryside…Young people sense this strongly. They have not grown accustomed to ugliness. They have not resigned themselves to living among the litter and clutter of a careless civilization.”
Of course, Johnson, Udall and Lady Bird did not do these things alone. They needed the bi-partisan support of Congress and that support had to be won from below—by the American people. Organizations like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club mobilized their members to support new national parks and wilderness areas as well as pollution controls. Sierra Club executive director David Brower’s beautiful series of coffee table books, combining the photos of artists like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter with fine prose and poetry, brought the unprotected beauties of America into thousands of living rooms, building the kind of constituency Johnson needed to win over Congress. As the letters poured in, the legislation rolled out.
CONSERVATION’S GRAND SLAM
The apex of Johnson’s campaign may have come on October 2, 1968, just three months before he left office. That day, he signed four bills—“Conservation’s Grand Slam”—protecting America’s beauty: the Redwoods National Park, North Cascades National Park, Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Scenic Trails System acts. “In the past 50 years,” Johnson said as he affixed his signature to the bills, “we have learned—all too slowly, I think—to prize and to protect, God’s precious gifts.”
The warrior of a thousand battles and nearly as many victories, weary and weakened then—and less than five years from his early death at age 63—took a moment to honor his wife, who had done so much to advance the entire beauty campaign, and her mentor, Secretary Udall. He wished to pay tribute, he said, “finally, to Mrs. Johnson, who has been an ardent, enthusiastic, pertinacious advocate—long before she ever dreamed she would be in this house, but every minute that she has been in it—for the complete cause of conservation…This is really a monument to you Secretary Udall. Our children will remember your great adventures and pioneering.”
Beauty, especially, helped unite Americans after Kennedy’s untimely death. It can again. There is an unfinished legacy here, the unfinished legacy of the baby boomers who, in Jackson Browne’s words, tried “to make the journey back to nature,” who filled the streets on the first Earth Day. The unfinished legacy of the unsung heroes like Udall and Lady Bird, and the environmental pioneers from Muir to Leopold to Carson and Brower. The unfinished legacy of LBJ himself.