My son, Ben, lives in Austin, Texas, which is great because Austin is one of those amazing cities that you love to have an excuse to visit. It bills itself as the “live music capital of the world,” but also boasts great restaurants and bars, outdoor recreation, the University of Texas and the State Capitol, plus a vibrant economy kept humming by the hordes of young professionals drawn to the city and it’s glamour.
On my most recent visit, I finally got around to one of the less well known attractions—the LBJ Presidential Library.
I know what you’re thinking, “You’re in Austin and you go to a library?” A fair question, but any history buff knows that Johnson’s presidency (1963-1969) came during one of our country’s most tumultuous and significant periods—the Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, civil rights.
Those events and much more are covered in a 10-story building of monolithic design located on a 30-acre site on the University of Texas campus.
At the library’s dedication in 1971, Johnson said, “It’s all here with the bark off.” But that wasn’t quite true. The New York Times, in a review of the library later that year, complained that there was “barely any mention of the war in Vietnam.”
The library has evolved and now the war is covered in detail, including Johnson’s confession in a private conversation that Vietnam was “a hell of a mess.” Still, as a more recent reviewer said, the war is covered more as a tragedy than a mistake in judgment.
The Johnson presidency is understandably remembered primarily for the war and, as a result, his stunning speech in March 1968, two months after the Tet Offensive, where he declared he would not seek re-election. But a visit to the Johnson Library is an appropriate reminder that Johnson was about more than Vietnam.
There are multiple exhibits detailing Johnson’s landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and his appointment of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice. These were controversial and politically challenging moves where Johnson had to use all of his extensive powers of persuasion.
Albert Hunt, in his piece in the Times, “Remembering LBJ for More Than Vietnam,” wrote of Johnson’s “cajoling, charming, manipulating” that were necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act. “He understood the egos, frailties and needs of lawmakers.”
Johnson also signed into law Medicare and Medicaid. Today, both programs face serious financial challenges, but they remain cornerstones of healthcare in this country. Johnson said at the bill signing, “And through this new law… every citizen will be able, in his productive years when he is earning, to insure himself against the ravages of illness in his old age.”
For me, the most poignant exhibits were portions of private phone calls that Johnson recorded in the Oval Office. In one, Johnson speaks warmly to Jackie Kennedy just weeks after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Jackie confesses that she’s received more letters from Johnson since the tragedy than she received in a lifetime from her husband.
There’s much, much more to the library—the magnificent Great Hall where 45-million pages of archives occupy four floors, an exact replica of the Johnson Oval Office, his presidential limousine, a section dedicated to his wife, Lady Bird, along with artifacts, pictures and memorabilia from Johnson’s life.
No, all of the bark is not off of Johnson in the Library, but presidential libraries tend to emphasize achievements, while treating controversies gingerly. However, for anyone interested in the life and times of a man whose presidency has had a lasting legacy on the country, the LBJ Library is great way to spend a hot afternoon in Austin.