A National Beautification Campaign Revitalized Communities in the ’60s and Could Again Today

 Lady Bird Johnson and Stewart Udall in a raft on the Snake River. (Photo: LBJ Library) Lady Bird Johnson and Stewart Udall in a raft on the Snake River. (Photo: LBJ Library)

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty,” once declared Doug Tompkins, conservationist and founder of the global clothing giants, The North Face and Esprit. The beauty he meant was not the garments he sold, but the natural beauty of the Earth, and the beauty of well-designed human environments. In this polarized time, can a campaign for beauty help bring Americans together? I think so.

Beauty was once very much a part of the American dialogue and tradition. It animated the paintings of the Hudson River School art movement; 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. President Franklin D. Roosevelt carried on the torch with his national restoration and public works programs, like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the arts and building projects of the Works Progress Administration.

Yet somehow, beginning in the 1980s, even the environmental movement lost sight of beauty’s appeal and the positive citizen energy it can generate. The movement has split into silos of resistance in opposition to an administration which seems determined to set back decades of progress and protection. But opposition alone cannot, in the end, inspire new progress. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” explains the Book of Proverbs.

A New Campaign

Together with others, I’ve started a campaign, And Beauty for All, to test the Tompkins hypothesis. Our tagline is: “Bringing Americans together and healing our wounds by embracing natural beauty and human design in ways that revitalize our communities and renew our environment.”

It’s not a new idea. Fifty years ago, Americans were engaged in a comprehensive program of national beautification that united much of Congress across partisan lines. Without it, the air in Los Angeles might be deadly today, the Cuyahoga River still flammable, our highways buried in litter and billboards, and large swaths of our landscape beyond repair. Many parts of the country still see such pollution and squalor, but we have made progress.

We changed things then. We can do it again.

The Background

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade, rocked by struggles and shaped by the will and political acumen of then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Much of Johnson’s memory is clouded by his disastrous and divisive failure: the war in Vietnam.

But Johnson’s legacy includes flashes of nobility — 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.

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 United States which the world would respect, not for “the quantity of its goods,” but for “the quality of its goals.”

Johnson wished to unify the US — 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 Johnson 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. I have written at length about that speech, which centered on three themes:

1.) Ending the sin of segregation with a Civil Rights Act;

2.) Reducing deprivation in the US with a War on Poverty; and

3.) Moving beyond economic growth toward a different vision of progress.

It was the first of a consistent set of messages that found their way into his speeches throughout his presidency.

Operating mostly behind the scenes to influence President Johnson was Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, a holdover from the Kennedy administration. Failing to move Kennedy towards a strong environmental strategy, he 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 1964. During the trip, he convinced her of the necessity of strong new environmental protections.

“Stewart Udall, who was an expert salesman, came to see me hoping to interest me in the field of conservation,” 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.”

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. Lady Bird insisted that justice required beautification target the poorest, most neglected areas of the city and include cleaning up the polluted Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

Launching the Campaign

President Johnson’s State of the Union message in January 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. “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.

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.” “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 did not “show up in the Gross National Product,” Johnson warned, “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.” And while we wouldn’t always agree about what most beautiful, he added, we all “know what is ugly.”

A Comprehensive Program

At Lady Bird’s urging, 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.”
  • The countryside. Johnson proposed a new Land and Water Conservation Fund (signed in 1965, it must be re-authorized by Congress by next September 30 or it will expire) and the acquisition of great areas of public land for national parks and monuments. He called for legislation to correct the “ugly scars” left by strip mining in Appalachia and elsewhere.
  • Rivers. Johnson demanded that we clean up polluted rivers and establish “a National Wild Rivers System.”
  • 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.”

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.

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. President Johnson let the nearly 1,000 attendees know that “it is the quality of our lives that is really at stake.”

“I know for many of you it was not easy to attend,” Johnson said. “Most of you are busy people with much to do. But there is nothing that is more important.”

The delegates 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 insistence, 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:

And really, how do you measure the excitement and the happiness that comes to a boy from the old swimming hole in the happy days of yore, when I used to lean above it; the old sycamore, the baiting of a hook that is tossed into the stream to catch a wily fish, or looking at a graceful deer that leaps with hardly a quiver over a rock fence that was put down by some settler a hundred years or more ago?

We have placed a wall of civilization between us and the beauty of our land and of our countryside. In our eagerness to expand and to improve, we have relegated nature to a weekend role, and we have banished it from our daily lives…

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. The billboard lobby had extracted its pound of flesh.

This bill does not represent everything that we wanted. It does not represent what we need. It does not represent what the national interest requires. But it is a first step, and there will be other steps … Beauty belongs to all the people. And so long as I am President, what has been divinely given by nature will not be taken recklessly away by man.

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. And in December, Johnson announced that 1967 was to be the “Year of Youth for Natural Beauty and Conservation.”

Of course, Johnson, Udall and Lady Bird did not do these things alone. They needed the bipartisan 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.

The War Drowns Out Beauty

In the summer of 1967, while the newly-emerging hippie “counterculture” was celebrating love and altered states in San Francisco, a large contingent of American young people convened at the White House for a Conference on Youth for Natural Beauty and Conservation. New programs put many of them to work in restoration activities, such as the planting of millions of trees.

That summer, I had no idea this was happening, even though I was working for Johnson’s War on Poverty at the time. There was a reason for that: The war in Vietnam was sucking all the air out of the room.

Still a blip on the radar when Johnson was re-elected, it had escalated sharply. Like many of my generation, I saw no purpose to the war, which consumed resources that might otherwise fight poverty, and resulted in the deaths of people I knew and countless more Vietnamese, who had done nothing to us. As the body counts rose, the war made Johnson increasingly unpopular and his good work less visible.

In early 1968, push came to shove. The Tet Offensive in February shocked many previously complacent or even war-supporting Americans. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, and then Bobby Kennedy, entered the primaries against Johnson. On March 31, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Hope for an end to the war filled the air, only to succumb to despair, as first Martin Luther King Jr., and then Bobby Kennedy, fell to assassins’ bullets. “In such an ugly time,” folksinger Phil Ochs wrote then, “the true protest is beauty.” In his own way, Johnson agreed.

And his campaign for beauty would have one last hurrah.

Conservation’s Grand Slam

It came on October 2, just a month before Nixon edged Humphrey in the presidential election, on a day when a far more newsworthy story rocked the world press. In Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza, army snipers opened fire on unarmed students who were protesting the upcoming Olympic Games. The death toll was in the hundreds.

So once again, few of us were paying attention when Lyndon Johnson signed four bills — “Conservation’s Grand Slam” — protecting the US’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.”

We forget these things to our peril — beauty, especially, helped unite Americans after Kennedy’s untimely death. It’s time to try again. It may be tilting at windmills, but I don’t think so.

And Beauty for All Day

A new emphasis on beauty may be just what it takes to save the US — to bring us together again, heal our wounds and lead us forward. I have discovered how beauty helped unite people of different beliefs in the small town of Nevada City, California, as they came together to save a beautiful river from destruction by a power dam, and learned that, while they often disagreed, they were not enemies and could respectfully work with each other for a better future.

We wish to build a new organization dedicated to bringing beauty to all Americans. We envision local chapters in every community. We want to establish partnerships with organizations ranging from garden clubs, to architectural associations, colleges, parks, faith communities, public agencies and health organizations, Native American tribes and the National League of Cities. We will celebrate And Beauty for All Day on October 2, 2018 (the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic Trails, Redwood National Park and North Cascades National Park acts) in communities and colleges throughout the country.

There is an unfinished legacy here, the unfinished legacy of unsung heroes like Stewart Udall and Lady Bird; environmental pioneers from Muir to Leopold to Rachel Carson and David Brower, and the unfinished legacy of President Johnson himself.

For more information about the And Beauty for All campaign, go to www.andbeautyforall.org.