Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson

Johnson's White House Portrait (1964)
First Lady of the United States
In role
November 22, 1963  January 20, 1969
President Lyndon Johnson
Preceded by Jackie Kennedy
Succeeded by Pat Nixon
Second Lady of the United States
In role
January 20, 1961  November 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy
Preceded by Pat Nixon
Succeeded by Muriel Humphrey (1965)
Personal details
Born Claudia Alta Taylor
(1912-12-22)December 22, 1912
Karnack, Texas, U.S.
Died July 11, 2007(2007-07-11) (aged 94)
West Lake Hills, Texas, U.S.
Cause of death Natural causes
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Lyndon Johnson (1934–1973)
Children Lynda
Alma mater University of Texas, Austin
Religion Episcopalianism

Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Johnson (née Taylor, December 22, 1912 – July 11, 2007) was First Lady of the United States (1963–69), as the wife of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Notably well-educated for a woman of her era, she proved a capable manager and a shrewd investor. After marrying Lyndon B. Johnson in 1934 when he was a political hopeful in Austin, Texas, she used a modest inheritance to bankroll his congressional campaign, and then ran his office while he served in the Navy. Next, she bought a radio station and then a TV station, which soon made them millionaires. As First Lady, she broke new ground by interacting directly with Congress, employing her own press secretary, and making a solo electioneering tour.

Lady Bird Johnson was a lifelong advocate for beautifying the nation's cities and highways ("Where flowers bloom, so does hope") and the Highway Beautification Act was informally known as Lady Bird's Bill. She was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian honors. She is a descendant of Rowland Taylor through his grandson Captain Thomas J. Taylor, II.

Early life

A photo of Lady Bird Taylor at around age three
The Brick House, Lady Bird Johnson's birthplace and childhood home in Karnack, Texas

Claudia Alta Taylor was born in Karnack, Texas, a town in Harrison County, near the state line with Louisiana.[1] Her birthplace was "The Brick House," an antebellum plantation house on the outskirts of town, which her father had purchased shortly before her birth.[2]

She was named for her mother's brother Claud.[3] During her infancy, her nurse, Alice Tittle,[4][5] commented that she was as "purty as a ladybird".[6] Opinions differ about whether the name refers to an actual bird or a ladybird beetle, the latter of which is commonly referred to as a ladybug in North America.[4] The nickname virtually replaced her actual first name for the rest of her life. Her father and siblings called her Lady,[7] and her husband called her Bird—the name she used on her marriage license. During her teenage years, her schoolmates had called her Bird to provoke her, since she reportedly was not fond of the name.[7]

Nearly all of her maternal and paternal forebears had arrived in the Virginia Colony during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Her father was a native of Alabama and primarily of English ancestry with some Welsh and Danish ancestry; her mother was also a native of Alabama and of English and Scottish descent.

Her father was Thomas Jefferson Taylor (August 29, 1874 – October 22, 1960), a sharecropper's son who became a wealthy businessman and the owner of 15,000 acres (6,070 ha) of cotton and two general stores. "My father was a very strong character, to put it mildly," his daughter once said. "He lived by his own rules. It was a whole feudal way of life, really."[5]

Her mother was the former Minnie Lee Pattillo (1874–1918), an opera lover who felt out of place in Karnack and who was often in "poor emotional and physical health."[3] When Lady Bird was five years old, Minnie fell down a flight of stairs while pregnant and died of complications of miscarriage.[3] In a profile of Lady Bird Johnson, Time magazine described Lady Bird's mother as "a tall, eccentric woman from an old and aristocratic Alabama family, [who] liked to wear long white dresses and heavy veils [... and who] scandalized people for miles around by entertaining Negroes in her home, and once even started to write a book about Negro religious practices, called Bio Baptism." Her unreconstructed husband, however, tended to see blacks as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," according to his younger son.[7]

Lady Bird had two elder brothers, Thomas Jefferson Jr. (1901–1959) and Antonio, also known as Tony (1904–1986). She also had two stepmothers; the second, Ruth Scroggins, married Thomas Taylor in 1937.[8]

She was largely raised by her maternal aunt Effie Pattillo, who moved to Karnack after her sister's death. Lady Bird also visited her Pattillo relatives in Autauga County, Alabama, every summer until she was a young woman. As she explained, "Until I was about 20, summertime always meant Alabama to me. With Aunt Effie we would board the train in Marshall and ride to the part of the world that meant watermelon cuttings, picnics at the creek, and a lot of company every Sunday."[9] According to Lady Bird, her Aunt Effie "opened my spirit to beauty, but she neglected to give me any insight into the practical matters a girl should know about, such as how to dress or choose one's friends or learning to dance."[7]

Lady Bird was a shy and quiet girl who spent much of her youth alone outdoors. "People always look back at it now and assume it was lonely," she once said about her childhood. "To me it definitely was not. [...] I spent a lot of time just walking and fishing and swimming."[10] She developed her lifelong love of the environment as a child growing up in the tall pines and bayous of East Texas and watching the wildflowers bloom each spring.[11]


A field of bluebonnets in Texas

When it came time to enter high school,[10] Lady Bird moved away from home to live with another family during weekdays in the town of Jefferson, Texas,[12] since there was no high school in the Karnack area (her brothers had attended boarding schools in New York). Eventually she graduated third in her class at the age of 15 from Marshall Senior High School in nearby Marshall, Texas. Despite her young age, she drove herself to school in her own car, a distance of 15 miles (24 km) each way, because, she said, "it was an awful chore for my daddy to delegate some person from his business to take me in and out."[10] During her senior year, when she realized that she had the highest grades in her class, she "purposely allowed her grades to slip" so that she would not have to give the valedictorian or salutatorian speech.[4]

After graduating from high school in May 1928, Lady Bird entered the University of Alabama for the summer session, where she took her first journalism course, but being homesick for Texas, she did not return for the fall term at Alabama.[13] Instead she and a high school friend enrolled at St. Mary's Episcopal College for Women,[14] a strict Episcopal boarding junior college for women in Dallas, where she "converted to the Episcopal faith," though she waited five years to be confirmed.[15]

After graduating from St. Mary's in May 1930, Lady Bird toyed with the idea of going back to Alabama, but another friend from Marshall, Texas, was going to the University of Texas, so she chartered a plane to Austin, Texas. As the plane landed, she was awed by the sight of a field covered with bluebonnets and instantly fell in love with the city.[16] Lady Bird received a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in 1933[17] and a second bachelor's degree in journalism cum laude in 1934.[18] She was active on campus in different organizations such as Orange Jackets and believed in student leadership. Her goal was to become a reporter, but she also earned a teaching certificate.[4] The summer after her second graduation, she and a girlfriend traveled to New York City and Washington, D.C., where they peered through the fence at the White House.[4] Dallek described Lady Bird as having undergone a boost in her self-confidence through her years at the college, a departure from her timid behavior in her youth.[19]

Marriage and family

Her goal of a career in media was deferred when a friend in Austin introduced her to Lyndon Baines Johnson, a young Congressional aide with political aspirations[20] working for Congressman Richard Kleberg.[4] Lady Bird recalled having felt "like a moth drawn to a flame".[21]

On their first date, at the Driskill Hotel,[5] Lyndon proposed. Lady Bird did not want to rush into marriage, but he was persistent and did not want to wait. Lady Bird accepted his proposal 10 weeks later.[4] The couple married on November 17, 1934, at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas.

After three miscarriages,[4] the couple had two daughters: Lynda Bird (born in 1944), whose husband Charles S. Robb is a former governor of Virginia and former U.S. Senator, and Luci Baines (born in 1947),[22] first married to Pat Nugent, then Ian Turpin. The couple and their two daughters all shared the initials LBJ. At the time of her death, Lady Bird had seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.[4]

Early politics

When Lyndon decided to run for Congress from Austin's 10th district, Lady Bird provided the money to launch his campaign. She took $10,000 of her inheritance from her mother's estate to help start his political career.[23] The couple settled in Washington, D.C., after Lyndon was elected to Congress.[24] After he enlisted in the Navy at the outset of the Second World War, Lady Bird ran the congressional office.[24]

Lady Bird sometimes served as a mediating force between her willful husband and those he had encountered. On one occasion after Lyndon had clashed with a young Houston, Texas reporter, Dan Rather, Lady Bird followed Rather in her car and invited him to return and have some punch, explaining, "That's just the way Lyndon sometimes is."[25] During the years of the Johnson presidency, there was an incident where Lyndon screamed at the White House photographer after he failed to show up for a photo shoot with the First Lady, who consoled him afterward, the photographer reflecting that in spite of his feelings toward President Johnson, he "would walk over hot coals for Lady Bird."[26]

Business career

In January–February 1943, Lady Bird Johnson spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase KTBC, an Austin radio station.[2] She bought the radio station from a three-man partnership that included a future U.S. Secretary of the Navy and a future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Robert B. Anderson, and Texas oilman and rancher Wesley West.

She served as President of the company, LBJ Holding Co., and her husband negotiated an agreement with the CBS radio network. Lady Bird decided to expand by buying a television station in 1952 despite Lyndon's objections, reminding him that she could do as she wished with her inheritance.[4] The station, KTBC-TV/7 (then affiliated with CBS as well), would make the Johnsons millionaires as Austin's monopoly VHF franchise.[27] Over the years, journalists have written about how Lyndon used his influence in the Senate to influence the Federal Communications Commission into granting the monopoly license, which was in Lady Bird's name.[28][29]

Although LBJ Holding's two small banks failed and were closed in 1991 by the FDIC, the core Johnson radio properties survived and prospered. Emmis Communications bought KLBJ-AM, KLBJ-FM, KGSR, and three other stations from LBJ Holding for $105 million in 2003.[30]

Eventually, Lady Bird's initial $41,000 investment turned into more than $150 million for the LBJ Holding Company.[31] She was the first president's wife to become a millionaire in her own right[2] and remained involved with the company until she was in her eighties.[4]

Second Lady of the United States

John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate for the 1960 election. At Kennedy's request, Lady Bird took an expanded role during the campaign, due to his wife Jacqueline's pregnancy. Over 71 days, Lady Bird traveled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) through 11 states and appeared at 150 events.[4] Kennedy and Johnson won the election that November, with Lady Bird helping the Democratic ticket carry seven Southern states.[4]

Reflecting, Lady Bird called the years her husband served as Vice President and she as Second Lady "a very different period of our lives." Nationally, the two had become celebrities. However, she found the office of Vice President to lack power.[32]

As the Vice President's wife, Lady Bird often served as a substitute for Jacqueline Kennedy at official events and functions.[33] Within her first year as Second Lady, she had substituted for Mrs. Kennedy at over 50 events, roughly one per week.[34] This would provide Lady Bird with the experience that prepared her for her unexpected years as First Lady that followed.[32]

On November 22, 1963, the Johnsons were accompanying the Kennedys in Dallas when JFK was assassinated; they were two cars behind the President in his motorcade. Lady Bird later described that day as unforgettable. Lyndon was sworn in as President on Air Force One two hours after JFK died, with Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy by his side.[35] Afterward, Lady Bird created a tape on which she recorded her memories of the assassination, dubbing it "primarily as a form of therapy to help me over the shock and horror of the experience." She submitted a transcript of the tape to the Warren Commission as testimony, joined by LBJ advisor Abe Fortas in creating notations on the document.[36] In planning for their trip to Texas, the Johnsons had intended to entertain the Kennedys that night at their ranch.[37]

In the days following the assassination, she worked with Jacqueline Kennedy on the transition into the White House. While having great respect for Jacqueline and finding her strong in the aftermath of the killing, Lady Bird believed from the start of her tenure as First Lady that she would be unfavorably compared to her immediate predecessor.[35] On her last day in the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy left Lady Bird a note in which she promised she would "be happy" there.[38]

First Lady of the United States

The official White House portrait of Lady Bird Johnson painted in 1968 by Elizabeth Shoumatoff in a dress designed by George Stavropoulos[39]

As First Lady, Lady Bird started a capital beautification project (Society for a More Beautiful National Capital) to improve physical conditions in Washington, D.C., for both residents and tourists by planting millions of flowers.[31] Her beliefs regarding the importance of national beautification can be summarized in her statement that "Where flowers bloom, so does hope." She worked extensively with American Association of Nurserymen (AAN) executive Vice President Robert F. Lederer to protect wildflowers and the planting of them along highways. Her efforts inspired similar programs throughout the country. She became the first president's wife to advocate actively for legislation[2] when she was instrumental in promoting the Highway Beautification Act, which was nicknamed "Lady Bird's Bill"[4] and sought to beautify the nation's highway system by limiting billboards and by planting roadside areas. She was also an advocate of the Head Start program.[2]

Lady Bird created the modern structure of the First Lady's office; she was the first to have a press secretary and chief of staff of her own and an outside liaison with Congress.[31] Her press secretary from 1963 to 1969 was Liz Carpenter, a fellow University of Texas alumna. Carpenter was the first professional newswoman to become press secretary to a First Lady, and she also served as Lady Bird's staff director. Lady Bird's tenure as First Lady marked the beginning of the hiring of employees in the East Wing to work specifically for the First Lady's projects.[27]

Lady Bird Johnson in front of the South Lawn of the White House

During the 1964 election, Lady Bird traveled through eight Southern states in her own train to promote the Civil Rights Act,[31] at one point giving 45 speeches over five days.[27] It was the first solo whistlestop tour by a First Lady.[25] President Johnson initially said he would turn down the Democratic Party nomination for president, having been unhappy during his service in President Kennedy's administration and believing the party did not want him. Despite aides not being able to sway him, the First Lady convinced him otherwise, reassuring him of his worthiness and claiming his dropping out would ensure that the Republicans took the White House.[40]

Lady Bird continued her Whistlestop Tour in October 1964. However, this time it would be aboard a Braniff International Airways Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop aircraft that would take her on a multi-state aerial tour including stops in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana, and Kentucky. Braniff dubbed the Lockheed Electra "The Lady Bird Special" after the ground Whistlestop Tour Train. Besides the "The Lady Bird Special" script being painted on the sides of the aircraft, a special route map of the tour was also painted on the lower front part of the aircraft's fuselage near the main entry airstairs.[41]

Toward the end of the second term, Lady Bird was anxious for her husband to leave office.[42] In September 1967, Lady Bird voiced her concerns to her husband on the effect a second term would have on his health. President Johnson came to the decision not to seek re-election.[43] She set March 1968 as the month her husband would announce he would not seek re-election, thinking back to Harry Truman's actions when he could have sought another term but chose not to do so.[42] Lady Bird campaigned for Hubert Humphrey during the Vice President's unsuccessful presidential campaign.[44]

In 1970, Lady Bird published A White House Diary, her intimate, behind-the-scenes account of her husband's presidency spanning November 22, 1963, to January 20, 1969. Beginning with President Kennedy's assassination, she recorded the momentous events of her times, including the Great Society's War on Poverty, the national civil rights and social protest movements, her own activism on behalf of the environment, and the Vietnam War. Johnson was acquainted with a long span of fellow First Ladies, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush, and was protected by the United States Secret Service for 44 years, longer than anyone else in history.[45]

Biographer Betty Boyd Caroli said of Lady Bird's contribution to history as First Lady that "She really invented the job of modern first lady. She was the first one to have a big staff, the first one to have a comprehensive program in her own name, the first one to write a book about the White House years, when she leaves. She had an important role in setting up an enduring role for her husband with the LBJ Library. She’s the first one to campaign extensively on her own for her husband."[46]

Later life

A photo of Lady Bird Johnson in the Texas Hill Country
The former First Lady in 1987

Former President Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973.[27] At the time of his heart attack, Lady Bird was in a meeting and the former president was deceased by the time she arrived to see him. She arranged for the body to lie in state at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum the following day and the body was laid to rest two days later. The couple's elder daughter Lynda said that God "knew what he was doing" when her father died ahead of her mother who she deems her father would not be able to live without.[47] After his death, Lady Bird took time to travel and spent more time with her daughters.[48] She remained in the public eye, honoring her husband and other Presidents, as well as entertaining the wives of governors at the LBJ Presidential Library.[49]

In the 1970s, she focused her attention on the Austin, Texas riverfront area through her involvement in the Town Lake Beautification Project. From 1971 to 1978, she served on the board of regents for the University of Texas System.[50] She also served on the National Park Service Advisory Board and was the first woman to serve on National Geographic's Board of Trustees.[27] President Nixon mentioned her as a possible ambassador in a circulated memo, but nothing came of that proposal.[27]

In 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center west of Austin, Texas, as a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and reintroducing native plants in planned landscapes.[51] In 1994, the center opened a new facility southwest of Austin; they officially renamed it the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1995[52] in acknowledgment of her having raised $10 million for the facility.[31] In 2006, the center was incorporated into the University of Texas at Austin.[52]

For 20 years, she spent her summers on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, renting the home of Charles Guggenheim for many of those years. She said she had greatly appreciated the island's natural beauty and flowers.[53]

On October 13, 2006, Lady Bird made a rare public appearance at the renovation announcement of the LBJ Library and Museum. Sitting in a wheelchair and showing signs of recent health problems, she seemed engaged and alert, and applauded along with those present at the ceremony.

Health problems and death

Lady Bird with her daughter Lynda Johnson Robb and First Lady Laura Bush in 2005

In 1993, Lady Bird's health began to fail. In August 1993, she suffered a stroke and became legally blind due to macular degeneration. In 1999 she was hospitalized for a fainting spell and, in 2002, she suffered a second, more severe, stroke, which left her unable to speak normally or walk without assistance. In 2005, she spent a few days in an Austin hospital for treatment of bronchitis. In February 2006, Lynda Johnson Robb told a gathering at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, that her mother was now totally blind and was "not in very good health."[54]

Funeral service for Lady Bird Johnson. Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy Carter, Laura Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, (second row) Caroline Kennedy, Barbara Bush, Susan Ford Bales, (third row) Maria Shriver, and Patricia "Tricia" Nixon Cox attended, representing eight other presidents.

In June 2007, she spent six days in Seton Hospital in Austin after suffering from a low-grade fever.[55] At 4:18 PM (CDT) on July 11, 2007, she died at home of natural causes at the age of 94,[56][57] surrounded by members of her family and Catholic priest Father Robert Scott.[58] At the funeral service, her daughter Luci Baines Johnson gave a eulogy in which she said, "A few weeks before Mother died, I was taking visiting relatives to the extraordinary Blanton Art Museum...Mother was on IV antibiotics, a feeding tube, and oxygen, but she wasn't gonna let little things like that deter her from discovering another great art museum. What a picture we were literally rolling through the museum like a mobile hospital."[59]

Three weeks before Lady Bird's death, the rector of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, which had been her second home for over 50 years, had announced to his parishioners that she had given $300,000 to pay off the church's mortgage.[60]

On July 15, 2007, a ceremonial cortège left the Texas State Capitol. The public was invited to line the route through downtown Austin on Congress Avenue and along the shores of Lady Bird Lake to pay their respects. The public part of the funeral procession ended in Johnson City. The family had a private burial at the Johnson family cemetery in Stonewall, where she was buried next to her husband who had died 34 years earlier.[61] Unlike previous funerals for first ladies, the pallbearers came from members of the armed forces.[61][62]

She was the first former First Lady to die in the 21st century. She was also the third longest living First Lady, after Bess Truman, who lived to be 97 and Nancy Reagan, who surpassed her by 43 days.


Lady Bird Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford on January 10, 1977. The citation for her medal read:

"One of America's great First Ladies, she claimed her own place in the hearts and history of the American people. In councils of power or in homes of the poor, she made government human with her unique compassion and her grace, warmth and wisdom. Her leadership transformed the American landscape and preserved its natural beauty as a national treasure."[12]

She then received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988, becoming the first wife of a President to receive the honor.[1] In a 1982 poll taken of historians ranking the most influential and important First Ladies, Lady Bird placed third behind Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt for her work as a conservation activist.[4]

In addition to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, she was honored by the naming of the Lady Bird Johnson Park on Columbia Island in Washington, D.C., which was founded as a result of her efforts as First Lady to beautify the capital.[4] She declined many overtures to name Austin's Town Lake in her honor after she had led a campaign to clean up the lake and add trails to its shoreline; following her death, Austin Mayor Will Wynn's office said it was a "foregone conclusion that Town Lake is going to be renamed" in honor of Lady Bird Johnson.[12] The lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake on July 26, 2007.[63]

A majestic grove of coastal redwoods, named in her honor by President Nixon in 1969, is located just north of Orick, California. "Lady Bird Johnson Grove" is part of Redwood National Park. In April 2008, the "Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Cherry Blossom Grove" was dedicated in Marshfield, Missouri. The dedication took place during the city's annual cherry blossom festival. Johnson had been supportive of the rural community and their initiative to plant blossoming cherry trees.

Lady Bird Johnson Forever Stamps

In 1995, she received an Honor Award from the National Building Museum for her lifetime leadership in beautification and conservation campaigns.[64] She was also named the honorary chairwoman of the Head Start program.[12]

She held honorary degrees from many universities: Boston University, the University of Alabama; George Washington University; Johns Hopkins University; State University of New York; Southern Methodist University; Texas Woman's University; Middlebury College; Williams College, Southwestern University; Texas State University–San Marcos; Washington College; and St. Edward's University.[12]

On June 7, 2008, Texas honored Lady Bird by renaming the state convention's Blue Star Breakfast as the 'Lady Bird Breakfast'.[65] In January 2009, St. Edward's University in Austin completed a new residence hall for upperclassmen bearing the name of Lady Bird Johnson Hall, or "LBJ Hall" for short.[66]

On October 22, 2012, the United States Postal Service announced the issue of a souvenir Forever stamp sheet honoring Lady Bird Johnson as a tribute to her legacy of beautifying the nation's roadsides, urban parks and trails. Five of the six stamps feature adaptations of stamps originally issued in the 1960s to promote planting in public spaces. The sixth stamp features her official White House portrait, a painting of the First Lady in a yellow gown, by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. The stamps were dedicated on November 30, 2012, at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin.[67]

In 2013, Lady Bird was posthumously awarded the prestigious Rachel Carson Award. The award, presented by Audubon’s Women In Conservation, was accepted by her daughter Lynda.[68]


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  62. Waychoff, Staff Sgt. Madelyn (July 19, 2007). "Ceremonial Guardsmen lay Lady Bird Johnson to rest". The Bolling Aviator. U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Public Affairs. This is the second funeral this year in which the Honor Guard has buried a member of a Presidential family.
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  66. "Residence Hall Construction Moves Ahead". St. Edward's University. 21 May 2008. Archived from the original on May 31, 2008. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  67. Bolen, Robert. "Environmentalist Lady Bird Johnson to be Featured on Forever Stamp".
  68. Weinreich, Regina. "Lady Bird Johnson, Rachel Carson and Women Conservationists Honored at the National Audubon Society Luncheon". August 1, 2013.

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lady Bird Johnson.
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Honorary titles
Preceded by
Pat Nixon
Second Lady of the United States
Title next held by
Muriel Humphrey
Preceded by
Jackie Kennedy
First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Pat Nixon
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