And today we really went the distance, from the bed in his family home where LBJ was born, to the bed in the Texas White House where he died – and lots in between.
The Johnson ranch is not too far from Fredericksburg, and it is very close to Johnson City, named after a distant relative of LBJ. He was born in a small house near his family’s cemetery, where he and Lady Bird were also buried. The park begins with a tour of his childhood neighbor’s ranch, still maintained as a working farm by the state. A bit further down the road, the one-room school house where he started his education.
Unusual for the times, his mother was a college graduate, and she finally persuaded him to go to college, where he worked his way through. “Let’s just say I was always available for employment, ” he said. When he graduated, the local Congressman offered him a position as an aide, and the rest we all know.
All of the LBJ sites are on the Pedernales River, which is small but very pretty. When you finally get up to the ranch, the elevation allows you to see for miles and miles, which must have made LBJ feel pretty good.
As is often the case when you visit the home of a major figure, whatever prejudices you walk in with get a bit softened. Can you imagine following the Kennedys at that moment and not being unfavorably compared? And then there are all the things this man accomplished. He was president back in the days when leaders were expected to have a vision. He had plenty. Remember the War on Poverty? The Great Society? The Civil Rights Act? The Clean Water Act? Head Start? The Elementary and Secondary Education Act?
That was a lot of change to accomplish. And when you think about it, who else could have forced such landmark legislation through Congress but the guy who knew exactly how it worked and what buttons to push. An amazing record, and one that made our country a better place, in my view.
The ranch itself is both homey, in a very human scale, and amazing, when you realized he governed the country from there for over 500 days of his presidency. While there is no photography allowed inside, there is still a lot you will be able to see here. There is an airstrip, an airplane hanger where he gave press conferences, and all the outbuildings that went with his security and communications needs, and we barely noticed, the ranch is so large – over 2,000 acres. There are several of his favorite Lincoln Continentals gracing the garages, and then there are the “friendship stones” that he had visitors sign in cement – a Texas-size guest book. Just see who we found – including yesterday’s friend from Fredericksburg, Admiral Nimitz.
There is a 500-year old oak right in front of the house, and he often had his cabinet meet under the tree. At that spot, he was asked to make the decision to either withdraw from Viet Nam or augment the military presence. He decided the future of Southeast Asia was too important to risk Communist control, and opted to send more troops, thinking this would turn the tide. Not a popular decision, remember?
It was a great experience, and yes, we will all think more warmly about LBJ tonight.
Then it was off to Austin, with a first stop at an outpost of the Austin Art Museum, the home of heiress Barbara Driscoll, the Texas lady who led the fight to save the Alamo, may she rest in piece. No art there at the moment, but it’s a lovely house.
Next, the real thing, the Blanton Museum of Art in town. It was quite tasty, with a really fascinating front hall stairway. It shimmered and glowed, and was just terrific from every angle. The collection itself was also glowing.
Across the street is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Despite sounding like something that should come with sausages, it was a cosmic overview art-directed to the teeth, and designed to leave you convinced that Texas must be the best place in the world, certainly miles ahead of any other state you can think of.