Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two Texas Presidents in Two Days: Part 2

A Full Day of Lyndon Johnson

Austin, Texas (3,340 miles) and Johnson City, Texas

June 23

Before we get to the Presidential Library here, a quick aside on Austin is in order. The city has the most confusing and treacherous freeway system we have ever seen. We felt like we were playing a high speed game of Chutes and Ladders, with lanes suddenly rising high into the air, splitting and dipping, and necessary lane changes and exits marked only at the last minute (if they were marked at all), short exit ramps and strange sections where it seemed like the lanes just split off to send half the traffic up and half the traffic on ground level, only to end up at the same exit a few miles down the road. It drove us batty!

Speaking of bats, there is a colony of over a million Mexican free-tailed bats that summers under a bridge in Austin, and they draw crowds of people around sunset to watch them emerge from their roosts under the bridge and fly off over the river in search of food. We joined a crowd of about 100 sitting on a grassy hillside in a riverside park next to the bridge to wait for them to emerge. Another group of onlookers formed on the bridge above us.

A shout went up from a few diligent watchers—"They're starting!" First a few bats flew out and then back to the bridge tentatively, then they were joined by more bats, and then it turned into a dark fluttering cloud, spiraling out from the underside of the bridge, turning, then flying down the river in search of bugs. It was breath-taking, a truly amazing and wondrous sight that lasted for about ten minutes and then was over as the clouds of bats disappeared in the distance and only a few stragglers fluttered about.

We aren't surprised to learn that Austin's latest economic impact study indicates that the bats contribute $7.9 million to the city's economy. We can state with certainty that far more people come to see the bats than come to visit the Johnson Library and Museum.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Like the bats, the Johnson Library and Museum is a free attraction—it is the only Presidential Library in the United States that is free of charge, at LBJ's insistence, consistent with his goal of providing equal access to opportunity for all in our nation.

Before our Museum visit, we hadn't realized how long LBJ served in Washington before he was chosen as Kennedy's running mate in 1960. He began with service as an aide to a congressman in 1931, was elected to the House in 1937, the Senate in 1948, chosen as Democratic Minority Leader in 1953, and became the youngest Majority Leader in history in 1955. When he ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964, he won the election with 90% of the electoral vote and the largest popular vote up to that time. We thought some of the anti-Goldwater campaign buttons were pretty memorable and amusing: "Goldwater: In your guts/you know he's nuts," "Goldwater in '64/Hot water in '65/Bread 'n Water in '66," and one that clearly would never see the light of day in this century—"Bury Goldwater."

Exhibits recaptured the turbulence of the 1960s—the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr; the Viet Nam War and anti-war protests, race riots across the country. Those events have dominated our memory of that time, like blood thrown on the canvas of Johnson's Presidency, eradicating our ability to see the full picture.

So, here's the picture we missed appreciating when we lived through it. Lyndon Johnson had an extraordinary record of over two hundred pieces of landmark legislation passed during his time in office. In the area of civil rights, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968 were passed. There were 60 education bills passed, Head Start and Job Corps were initiated. The National Endowment for the Humanities, Medicare, the Clean Air Act—the list of legislation that was passed in support of Johnson's vision of The Great Society is immense, and most continue to enhance our society today.

We could imagine how his many years in the House and Senate paid off during his Presidency, as we listened to tapes of his phone calls to legislators, horse trading and bull-dogging in rapid fire fashion to ensure that legislation for his projects passed.

In his final State of the Union message, Johnson said, "I hope it may be said 100 years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just for all people." Forty years later, his legacy of justice for all endures.

However, as we left the museum, discussing what we learned, we couldn't help but wonder what happened to Texas between the years Texans elected Johnson to represent their state in Congress and the Senate, and the years they elected George W. Bush to serve as their Governor. Johnson was a pragmatic liberal, and Bush a dogmatic conservative. (We're not talking about his dad—we think he was a moderate conservative, maybe even a compassionate conservative.) How did Texas swing so far right, and when will the pendulum swing back? We can talk about questions like this for a long time as we drive along the Texas highway with no decent radio stations on the dial.

The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Lyndon Johnson grew up in a six-room house in Johnson city, Texas, a settlement of 200 people named for his ancestors. It was on our way west from Austin, so we stopped to look at his little home there, then drove 13 miles down the road to the LBJ Ranch.

There we picked up a CD that provided a guided driving tour around his vast holdings. We don't know how many acres it is, but, to give you a little perspective, when we went to the Park Visitor Center at the ranch entrance to get our driving pass, and said we wanted to take the 4 p.m. tour of the Texas White House, the ranger said, "No way. It's 3:45, and it'll take you at least a half hour to drive there from here." The ranger was right. It took us more than half an hour just to get to the house. It is a very big ranch.

Along the way on our driving tour we stopped at the show barn where Johnson's staff cared for and trained his prize winning Hereford cattle. There we learned that this ranch was just one of nine that Johnson owned, and one of his smaller ranches, at that.

We laughed at the portion of the tour which included a taped phone conversation with his ranch manager—his interrogation style and rapid-fire maintenance instructions sounded exactly like his phone call ramming through legislation that we heard back at the Museum. The ranch manager offered his own wry commentary: "Whoever wrote the song about 'where seldom is heard a discouraging word' didn't work here."

1 comment:

  1. I love this phrase from NEH's legislative mandate, because "Democracy demands wisdome and vision in its citizens."

    I did not know Johnson was a rancher, or came from a town named after his ancestors. Geeze, he is the real version of W's personna!