Picking up where I left off...
The next morning we woke up early, had breakfast, checked out, and then headed off. We were on a mission. Specifically, we were off to the LBJ Library (https://www.lbjlibrary.org/).
Lyndon Baines Johnson has a certain importance to both of us. He was the first president about whom I thought a lot. Before him, well, I was too young to give politics much heed. JFK was just sort of there...until his assassination, when he came very much into my consciousness. (Would the world have been different if he lived? Did Oswald really act alone? And so on.)
But LBJ was in my view from day one of his presidency, and while I never saw him in person or encountered him in any way (where-as I did see Kennedy, once, in passing), he was definitely an important part of my definition of presidential politics, for good and ill.
Martha in the gardens beside the library.
But I’d never been to the LBJ Library. So, when Martha suggested we visit it, I was on board with the idea. We’d originally planned to go to the Blanton Museum of Art (https://blantonmuseum.org/), which is really impressive. In fact, we visited it just before Covid, and we’ve been trying to get back ever since. But, unfortunately, we found out that it opens at 1pm on Sundays, and we were hoping to be on the road by then.
But the LBJ sounded like a great second choice, so off we went. It didn’t take us long to drive to the place, and there was considerable parking in the area. Oh, and I should mention that it is on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, so, if you go, be prepared for a University experience.
We walked the small distance from the parking lot to the library itself (a white on white stone affair. Impressive, if a little cold from the outside) and entered. The admission fee was quite reasonable-- $13 for adults, but as seniors we snuck in at $9--and everyone was quite pleasant, which isn’t always the case at museums.
We then entered the library. The records and papers themselves -- a staggering 45 millions pages of them! not counting audio and video pieces -- are mostly on the upper floors. You can see the stacks of documents through vast windows on the second floor. Rather terrifying, really. A government produces a whole lot of documents, and making sense of them requires teams of experts.
Which is an indirect way of bragging, btw. I spent quite a lot of time at the JFK library in Boston. I was employed for a period as a professional researcher by a scholar/quasi-public intellectual who had been hired, in turn, to do a book on C. Douglas Dillion, who was Kennedy’s Secretary of the Treasury, and who served in the same role for the first eighteen months of Johnson’s administration.
Dillion’s papers, or, at least, the ones that matter, are in the JFK library, and I spent long days diligently burrowing through them. (Rather fascinating really.) Then, I’d forward my notes to the scholar who was actually doing the writing. I don’t know if the book was ever published. I *do* know I haven’t been able to find it online or on Amazon. ‘Twould be a shame if the project had been scuttled. But, who’s to say? Maybe it was delivered to the publisher, tied up with a bow, and I’m just not looking in the right places.
The LBJ Library itself…which is big, and white, and kinda overwhelming. But, such was monumental architecture in the mid- to late-1960s, and believe me, I’ve seen far more sinister buildings pretending to be cultural artifacts.
There are exhibits on floor three of the LBJ library (actually, the entrance) and on some of the upper floors. After we entered, we went to the first of the exhibits, which was a powerful video about LBJ and Lady Bird, their lives together, and LBJ’s legacy as an American leader. It was short but quite powerful, and as we left, Martha said, “I’m about to burst into tears.” I replied, “I’m already there.”
Why? I think Martha put it best. I overheard her on the phone telling a friend about it later. With her permission, I’ll quote, or at least paraphrase her now. “It was everything we wanted,” she said, meaning LBJ’s beginnings. “And, then, it went so very wrong.”
By which she meant that Johnson started off to be one of the greatest presidents in American history. He was determined to end poverty and racism in the country. He introduced, and somehow got passed bill after bill...the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and Medicaid expansion, the Air Quality Act of 1967...hunger, education, environment, race...on and on and on. If things had gone as they were going, Johnson might have been a second FDR...(see here for more: https://www.lbjlibrary.org/life-and-legacy/seeing-is-believing).
It was the war that he hadn’t begun. It had been going on for ages by the time he was in the Oval Office. It was Eisenhower and Kennedy who got us into it. But, it was Johnson who “Americanized” it, and who, in the end, took the fall.
Such tragedy. Such utter tragedy.
We dried our eyes...covertly, of course. Don’t want to be seen tearing up in public...and went into the rest of the exhibits.
But that’s for next time...
More to come.
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