Rediscovering LBJ’s history and heritage

Posted Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Key Johnson accomplishments

Whether you agree or disagree with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s politics, there’s no denying it: The guy got stuff done. Often remembered primarily for two disparate things — the creation of the “Great Society” social programs and the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam — LBJ oversaw a raft of legislation, much of it with long-lasting effects. Some highlights:

Civil rights: Oversaw sweeping civil rights legislation, which helped end segregation and brought voting rights and fair housing access to minorities.

Healthcare: Signed Medicare and Medicaid into law; Harry and Bess Truman received the first two Medicare cards.

Education: Signed more than 40 bills supporting education, more than any other president; introduced Head Start.

Consumer protection: Took on safety issues by signing legislation that required cigarette packages to carry warning labels and food manufacturers to begin carrying informational labels.

Environment: Signed multiple bills protecting air quality, water quality and natural resources, including the Highway Beautification Act; 35 national parks were created during his tenure.

The arts: Created the National Endowment for the Arts and signed public broadcasting legislation that led to the establishment of PBS and NPR.

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A two-day LBJ crash course

A weekend is just about the perfect amount of time for this itinerary. If you start early enough the first day, you can even do it with just one overnight stay. A logical itinerary:

Friday night: Drive down to the Hill Country and check into your hotel. The most authentic choice: the Driskill Hotel (604 Brazos St., Austin; www.driskillhotel.com). The historic downtown hotel was the site of LBJ and Lady Bird’s first date in 1934. (They met for breakfast in the dining room; you can reserve the booth where they ate.)

It’s also where LBJ waited out the results for his 1948 Senate race, his 1960 VP race and his 1964 presidential contest. Back in the day, LBJ kept an apartment at the hotel, which has since been turned into the Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson Suite, decorated in a Lone Star and bluebonnet motif. If you’ve got the scratch — the suite starts from about $799 per night — it’s available, too.

Saturday: Your full day of touring should start in Johnson City, about an hour west of Austin. At the visitor’s center for the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park ( www.nps.gov/lyjo/index.htm), view a timeline, highlighted by photos, campaign memorabilia and videos.

Soon, the center will unveil a new exhibit commemorating the legislation LBJ passed in 1964; new exhibits will continue annually.

To see LBJ’s boyhood home, you must take a free guided tour, offered every half-hour, with a break for lunch. Before you leave, hike 10 minutes into the woods to see Johnson Settlement, the log cabin compound representing where LBJ’s grandfather and great-uncle settled and launched a cattle business in the 1860s. (Johnson City was named in honor of that uncle.)

Grab lunch in Johnson City, then drive 15 or so miles west to the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site (199 Park Road 52, Stonewall; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/lyndon-b-johnson). Here, stop by another visitors center, where you’ll get the free pass for your driving tour of his ranch, which is part of the national park system; you can also purchase tickets to tour the Texas White House, at roughly the two-thirds point of the driving tour.

A temporary exhibit in the hangar, outside the house, traces the events of Nov. 22, 1963, when Johnson was unexpectedly elevated into the presidency. The state park also houses the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, a German-American homestead restored to its 1918 heyday. Costumed interpreters tend the pigs and chickens, can and cook in the rustic kitchen, and perform other tasks that show what rural Texas life was like during LBJ’s boyhood.

Saturday night: Head back to Austin or, alternately, spend the night in one of the waterfront communities near Lake LBJ, such as Marble Falls. (The former Lake Granite Shoals was renamed Lake Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, to honor his early work on establishing rural electrification in Texas, which resulted in the construction of the Central Texas lakes.)

Sunday: Eat an early lunch at what, by many accounts, was LBJ’s favorite Austin restaurant, Matt’s Famous El Rancho (2613 S. Lamar Blvd.; http://mattselrancho.com). In a Foodways Texas oral history project last year, co-founder Janie Martinez reminisced how LBJ would enter through the back door and sneak through the kitchen, Secret Service agents in tow, to get his Mexican-food fix. Today, the restaurant has relocated to a sprawling complex on South Lamar that is Austin’s answer to Joe T. Garcia’s. However, you can still get the same old-school specialties, like the chile relleno sprinkled with raisins, that LBJ used to have flown to the White House.

Next, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin; http://wildflower.org), which celebrates her legacy of preserving wildflowers and protecting the environment. (In her typical humble style, the first lady launched the project in 1982 with actress Helen Hayes, because “she said, I need somebody famous involved with this if I want to get people to pay attention,” a park volunteer told us.)

The park is worth a stop even in cold months; something’s always blooming in the 279 acres of gardens and trails, and there are interactive exhibits in the visitors center and rotating nature-inspired art exhibits in the gallery. Plus, in January, the admission fee ($9, $7 seniors and students, $3 kids under 12) is waived.

Sunday afternoon: Finish your tour at the LBJ Presidential Library (2313 Red River St., Austin; www.lbjlibrary.org). If you still have questions about LBJ’s life and accomplishments, you’ll surely find the answers here, via videos, interactive displays that feature actual phone recordings of the president and a replica of the Oval Office as it looked in LBJ’s time.

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The park ranger at Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home is herding our little group out of LBJ’s bedroom and on toward the “sleeping porch,” but my son is lagging behind, studying the period furnishings with more interest than you’d expect they’d inspire in an 11-year-old.

“So, this is the window?” he asks, referencing a story the ranger had just told — that young LBJ would sneak out of bed, climb out the window and crawl under the house on evenings that his legislator father had friends visiting in the parlor, so that he could eavesdrop on their political wheeling and dealing. I nod, he grins, and he hustles to catch up with our tour.

Only later did he explain what had struck him: He had never thought about any president ever being a kid, much less a kid who would break the rules. In that modest house, lacking touch screens or animatronic exhibits, history had come to life.

Which was what I’d vaguely hoped for when planning this trip in late November. My son’s sixth-grade class had just spent a week immersed in the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination but had spent little time on the man who succeeded him — despite the fact that LBJ was one of only two U.S. presidents born in Texas. (Bonus points if you knew the other was Dwight Eisenhower, who, though associated most closely with Kansas, was actually born in Denison.)

And LBJ wasn’t just born in Texas — the lifelong Democrat grew up here, campaigned here, even spent much of his presidency governing here, from the ranch house in Stonewall dubbed the Texas White House. Today, the most important sites in his life, plus his presidential library and museum, are well-preserved and open to visitors, all within a roughly 60-mile swath of Central Texas, ready to be discovered by a new generation.

“I think that, now that the [JFK 50th anniversary] observances have concluded, the eyes of historians will turn back to LBJ, and we’re starting to see an increase in interest in him,” says Russ Whitlock, superintendent at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City. The park is commemorating his presidency with a series of special exhibits over the next seven years. “When people come here, see the boyhood home, go through the exhibits, they often experience kind of this ‘a-ha’ moment — ‘I had no idea he did so much.’ 

From a small town

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in 1908 in a farmhouse outside Stonewall. He died Jan. 22, 1973, at just 64 years of age, in his sprawling house just down the road from that cabin. In between, even when he served in Washington for more than 30 years, first in Congress and then the White House, Texas was always home.

Not only did Texas shape his identity, but LBJ shaped Americans’ ideas about Texas. Long before the Dallas Cowboys became America’s Team and someone shot JR on Dallas, it was LBJ — wearing his boots and cowboy hat, bringing foreign leaders to his ranch to gawk at cattle and forge the Pedernales River — who brought Texas style to Middle America.

The Johnsons deeded much of the ranch to the National Park Service in 1972, shortly before his death, with the vision of keeping it a working ranch that would be open to the public. Today, the national park is split in two. The ranch in Stonewall, connected to the state LBJ park, is one half, and the boyhood home and visitor center, in Johnson City proper, is the other.

We start our tour in Johnson City, where the park ranger convenes a group on the porch of the house where LBJ moved with his parents at age 5. Though the politician liked to play up his humble roots, we see immediately that by standards of the day, the Johnsons were fairly well-off. The tidy frame house, a modified dogtrot style, sits on a good-size city block in the middle of town. Our guide explains that Johnson’s parents paid $3,000 for the property in 1913, the equivalent of about $300,000 today.

It’s decorated to look like it did during Johnson’s childhood, with some original furnishings and some belonging to Johnson family members, so we can begin to envision the small-town Texas upbringing that shaped Johnson’s politics.

On the back porch, where Johnson slept alongside his siblings on hot summer nights, his dad, Sam, sometimes cut hair to bring in extra money when times were tight, our ranger explains. In the dining room, LBJ would sit next to the radio every night, soaking up news reports for hours. And on the front porch, Johnson’s mother — one of the few college-educated women in the county — would tutor students, instilling in him a deep respect for education.

In fact, it was on that front porch, in 1937, that Johnson announced his first political campaign, the congressional race that launched him into public life.

Sanctuary for a statesman

That flair for the dramatic, and for storytelling, was something Johnson employed throughout his career. That afternoon, as we begin our driving tour of LBJ’s ranch, 14 miles west of Johnson City, the audio tour we’d purchased in the gift shop pointed out key sites that doubled as photo ops during Johnson’s presidency.

There’s the low-water crossing on the Pedernales River, across which LBJ loved to drive dignitaries for a grand Texas-style arrival at the ranch. There’s the one-room schoolhouse that LBJ started attending at age 4; in 1965, he signed legislation here authorizing broad federal aid for education. Next to him at the press conference was his very first teacher from that schoolhouse, who had let him recite his first lessons while sitting on her lap.

Finally, after stops at LBJ’s grave and the reconstructed cabin that stands in for his birthplace, we arrive at the Texas White House. The ranch house got that name because LBJ spent about a quarter of his time as president here, grooming an image as a working rancher and salt-of-the-earth Texan.

But despite the swimming pool, the chef’s kitchen and the six en-suite guest bedrooms upstairs, this was no vacation retreat. LBJ had a full office here, decorated in the same vintage turquoise leather that was in the Oval Office of the day.

The bank of three TVs in the living room? They were there so LBJ, obsessed with his public image, could watch all three network newscasts every night. In the days before cellphones, there were 72 landline phones, including one installed poolside, one at the head of the formal dining table and one on each side of the bed in the master bedroom — “so he could get to the phone no matter which side he was sleeping on,” our guide suggests.

That bedroom was where Johnson suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after receiving a telephone call from President Richard Nixon informing him that a cease-fire agreement had been reached with Vietnam. (The cease-fire was announced the following day.)

His wife, Lady Bird Johnson, continued to live at least part-time in the house for many years, but after her death in 2007, the home was opened to the public in stages, with the master bedroom opening last.

Renovation is ongoing. Currently, the park service is restoring the second-floor suite that Lady Bird had specially decorated for John and Jackie Kennedy’s first visit to the ranch — scheduled for November 1963.

Putting it all together

If the state and national parks bring to life the human side of the president and first lady, our visit the next day to the high-tech LBJ Presidential Library in Austin helps place us back in the 1960s, witness to his turbulent presidency. A multimillion-dollar renovation, unveiled in December 2012, has added a shiny overlay of interactive exhibits and slickly produced films to the library, first opened in 1971.

We skip the downloadable app, which for 99 cents provides a map and audio tours, in favor of our third excellent guide of the trip, a volunteer docent who happens to be a former history teacher. He guides us quickly through a timeline that covers material we’d learned during our park visits — LBJ asking Lady Bird to marry him on their first date in Austin, his early work bringing electricity to rural Texas — to bring us to the political highlights.

Though by now we’ve spent the better part of two days immersing ourselves in LBJ history, my son is still engaged. At the interactive Vietnam exhibit, he uses the giant touch screen to “play president” by deciding how to react to key events in the conflict, then comparing his choices to how the events actually played out. And when we get to the replica of the Oval Office, he studies it carefully, as if he’s trying to teleport himself back to 1965.

On the way back to the hotel, our history sojourn over, he’s quiet; I resolve to offer him a less intellectually challenging day later in the week. But before I can ask him what he thought of the trip, he volunteers a verdict: “Thank you for bringing me to see all this. I thought [LBJ] was just one of those presidents who didn’t really do anything, like Calvin Coolidge.” (Mental note: Investigate his social studies curriculum a little more closely.) “But he really did a lot.”

In middle school parlance, that’s the equivalent of a five-star review. History mission, accomplished.

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