More than a month ago I promised you a report on our visit to the LBJ Library. I fully expected to sit down and write it later that week. The fact that I wandered off into other historical by-ways is simply a reflection of how easily I’m distracted, not on the quality of the museum.
The Johnson Library was an eye-opener for me. Johnson was the president of my early childhood. My memories of him are limited to black and white photographs, set against a mental background of images from the Vietnam War. Laid over that was the image of Johnson as a major reform president, thwarted by the conflicting demands of the Great Society and the war*–the result of writing a book on the history of socialism.** I left the museum with a stronger sense of Johnson as man and as president–and a deep respect for his accomplishments. Historian Robert Dallek describes Johnson as “a tornado in pants”. That’s pretty dang accurate.
Here were some of the things that took me by surprise:
- Johnson’s first job was teaching school in a rural district in Texas. His students were underprivileged Hispanics, who struggled against both poverty and discrimination. That experience shaped his political goals. If a president ever deserved to be known as the “education president” it was LBJ.
- Pictures of the young LBJ with lots of hair.
- After the attack on Pearl Harbor, LBJ (then 33) was the first member of Congress to volunteer for active duty.
- The sheer scope of reforms that his administration put in place, from civil rights bills to Head Start, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Medicare, the Clean Air Act. Johnson submitted eighty-seven bills to the first session of the eighty-ninth Congress. Eight-four of them passed.
I was particularly taken with a series of stations titled “Please hold for the president”. You pick up a telephone and hear actual phone calls made by President Johnson to members of his cabinet, members of Congress, and other political figures. It gave me chills to listen to him assure Martin Luther King, Jr. of his support for the civil rights movement. It amused me to hear Ladybird critique one of his speeches–she gave it a solid B. A tender conversation with Jacqueline Kennedy soon after her husband’s assassination brought tears to my eyes. And a call where the secure White House line got crossed with a long distance call between two ordinary American homes was laugh out loud funny.
If you’re in Austin, take the time to visit.***
*”Guns and butter” is a hard motto to live up to.
**Blatant self-promotion alert
**Heck, if you’re near any presidential library, take the time to visit. We’ve been blow away by both the Truman and Johnson libraries this year.