2017: Austin

All the Way with LBJ

March 25


Saturday was to be the capstone of my Austin visit. I was going to return to the UT campus and once again go up inside its iconic central tower. First, though, we would spend the morning visiting the LBJ library at the east edge of the campus.

While a bit stark on the outside, the library -- more of a museum, really -- is beautiful on the inside. The stairs leading from the first floor to the second are aesthetically pleasing, and even the dusty archives at the top (unavailable to the general public) are displayed as a work of art.

Library exterior, UT tower in the distance. LBJ's post-presidency limousine. A thoughtful quote.

The exhibits did an excellent job of illuminating Johnson's long public service life, and placing it into the context of his often-turbulent times. Here are some chronology snapshots from 1960 until his death in 1973.

Writing on the wall. Listening in.

There was far too much information to absorb in a short visit; the museum was like a condensation of a detailed history book splashed across the walls. There was more than just text, too. Available for listening were recordings of several telephone conversations of the period, for example between LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr. about the progress of civil rights. I sampled the recordings, but there simply wasn't time to listen to them all.

LBJ's Navy career.  Mural below archives. Not much has changed.

I imagine most people would cite JFK's assassination as the defining event of Johnson's public life, as it led directly to his ascendency to the presidency. But this is Johnson's library, not Kennedy's; the awful tragedy was documented but not dominant.

1960 election memorabilia.  1964 election buttons. Life magazine, Nov. 1963. Warren report.
Sputnik, 1957. Telstar, 1962.

I thought I had a fair grasp of LBJ's accomplishments, at least as president; but the museum was a real education. For example, I thought of JFK as the driving impetus behind the space program; but it was actually Johnson who effectively started and also ended the "Space Race". In 1957, in his role as Senate majority leader, he fomented public controversy over the Soviet's launch of Sputnik and thus pressured Congress and a reluctant President Eisenhower to really commit to the USA's space research program. NASA was founded the following year.

Moon rock.

Four years later, Kennedy appointed Johnson head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council with the charge of exploring the feasibility of landing a man on the moon.

But while NASA continued its mission throughout Johnson's presidency and beyond, and finally met JFK's ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon within the decade, other priorities began to intervene. In 1967, the need to fund the Vietnam war led to a "no space race" treaty with the Soviets and a progressive decline in U.S. space funding.

The last Apollo mission was in December 1972; six weeks later, Lyndon Johnson died.

Hot line, 1967. Teleprompter tape, 1968.

Even though we were sending men to the moon, the technology of that time was still amazingly crude; the first "hot line" to the Kremlin was a teletype. And instead of the nearly-invisible one-way glass tablet that speakers use today, a teleprompter was a spool of paper tape.

Draft lottery, 1967.

Considering how the Vietnam war overshadowed so much of that time, the museum was surprisingly empty of displays or even notes about the war. Only an online section on the library's website thoroughly discusses this crucial aspect of Johnson's presidency which led to his refusal to run for re-election. Perhaps the museum's curators decided -- wisely enough-- to devote library space to a thorough depiction of Johnson's many positive accomplishments.

And many they are. Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives resulted in dramatic reductions in poverty, expansions of opportunity and diversity, and improvements in general quality of life for millions. A single display panel requires two columns to list LBJ's legislative accomplishments.

Face time. Big boots to fill.

Johnson's impressive record was compiled largely through sheer force of personality. One nod to interactivity was a life-sized poster of Johnson allowing a visitor to pose as if receiving the famous "Johnson treatment", his legendary intimidation and manipulation technique that involved, among other things, literally getting in your face.

Replica of LBJ's oval office.

One display was devoted to Johnson's use of humor. An animatronic LBJ delivered amusing lines from his speeches, surrounded by political cartoons of the day.

   Apology from Smothers Brothers.

I especially enjoyed all the period pop-culture items displayed throughout the museum. For someone who lived through the times like me, they evoked a pleasant, comforting nostalgia.

Portrait by Norman Rockwell. Medal of Freedom. Her famous red suit.

The library also devoted some space to Lady Bird's achievements, both as first lady and also during her 35-year life after LBJ's death. Her sometimes-derided "beautification" projects were actually a much wider dedication to conservation and the environment. Her legacy survives to this day in landscaped parks, roadside wildflowers, and many miles of highways devoid of billboards and junkyards; and in her Austin Wildflower Center, which conducts ecological and conservation research. She was also a supporter of the ERA and women's rights.

It had been an awe-inspiring visit. I agreed with a blog post I'd seen which touted the LBJ library as "the best one I've seen", not that I've seen so many, but it's very impressive and educational without being stuffy. It certainly beat the Kennedy Library hands down. We made our way to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and then it was on to the day's main event -- UT!