Austin, TX: LBJ Presidential Library and Museum

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I’ve always gotten the impression (probably from my mother, who hates the man, even though she was a bit too young to have been part of the whole Vietnam/hippy generation) that Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the more reviled modern presidents, after Nixon and George W Bush, at least, depending on your political leanings.  But you all know I adore presidential history, and given the other presidential museum options in Texas (the Bushes…I’m sorry, but it happened too recently…I just can’t bring myself to give money to Dubya), LBJ was really looking pretty good.  Besides, we share a birthday (August 27), so I’ve always felt an affinity with the man, despite some of his unsavoury personal habits.  And Austin is pretty much the only city in Texas with a reputation for being vegetarian friendly (and how!  You must get the “popcorn tofu” from Wheatsville Co-op), so that settled the matter.  LBJ it was.

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Unlike some other presidential sites, because the LBJ Museum is also a library and archives, it is run by the National Archives and Record Administration, rather than the friendly rangers from the NPS.  So they made me pay the full $8 for admission, even after I mentioned that we share a birthday, which I still think should have been good for some sort of discount (though I did learn that the museum is free to all on our birthday, and you even get cake (which I will keep in mind for future birthdays)).  Anyway, the museum is on three different levels (the rest of the building is archives, as you will see), and they have a special exhibition space on the ground floor for temporary exhibits somehow relating to LBJ’s presidency.  Currently, it is on the Beatles, since he was president in the 1960s and all.

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I like the Beatles fine, but I’m not a super Beatles fan, like some of the people visiting the exhibition clearly were, so it was good for a quick walk-though (to be honest, I probably liked Elvis’s guitar better than the Beatles’ stuff) to admire those excellently mod Beatles sneakers (they even had a pointy toe, and I LOVE a pointy toe) and get a drum tutorial from Ringo (though I was afraid to give it my all because people were looking at me), but I didn’t feel the need to spend a whole lot of time in there, especially since we only had about two hours before the museum closed.

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So I fairly dashed through the timeline of LBJ’s life on the ground floor, and headed straight for the animatronic LBJ.  You may remember the animatronic William and Ida McKinley from my post on the McKinley Museum, but LBJ blows them out of the water.  His whole head and hands move, just like a real person’s, and he tells a variety of the mildly raunchy stories he was known for.  It had me wishing they had an animatronic FDR at the FDR museum, so I could have experienced this magic with my favourite president (maybe there’s one in the Hall of Presidents at Disney?  I don’t remember, I haven’t been there since I was a kid).

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Speaking of FDR, it soon became obvious that LBJ loved FDR just as much (possibly even more, since he actually knew the man) as I do.  This is also the point when I began to warm to LBJ, because no one who liked FDR that much could have been all bad.  LBJ worked for the WPA (too many acronyms?), as a young man, and was offered a fairly prestigious position in it by FDR himself, which LBJ respectfully declined because he wanted to run for the House of Representatives instead (and he did, and won).  It seems like all his life he tried to emulate FDR and further his policies, making him rather socialist in his leanings (at least in his zeal for making healthcare more accessible to all), which was probably influenced by the time he spent teaching in poor Mexican schools in his 20s, and the poverty he saw there.

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Having gone over LBJ’s personal life and marriage to Lady Bird in the timeline, this floor was devoted to his political career, starting with the FDR days, and ending with his own presidency.  So it of course addressed all the major controversial stuff, like Kennedy’s assassination (which you will hear a lot more about in future posts, this being Texas) and the Vietnam War.

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I think divisive political issues are always a difficult thing to cover, especially in a museum that ultimately aims to honour the presidency of a particular leader, and though the museum was somewhat apologist in its view on Vietnam (LBJ was opposed to it, and saddened by it, but he couldn’t find a way out, blah blah blah), they did make some effort to show the horrific consequences by showing letters written to LBJ by parents whose children had been killed in the War.  I mean, there was pretty much a whole gallery on Vietnam, but it was still clear the museum preferred to focus on his efforts for civil rights rather than the huge negative that was the Vietnam War.

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To that effect, there was a lot in the gallery about the evils of segregation, and what LBJ did to fight it, as well as a little annex at the back of the floor with biographical details about various people who achieved prominent roles in society as a result of LBJ’s policies, as well as all the ways LBJ’s legacy has benefited us today, which was perhaps laying things on a little thick.

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The only way to the top floor, as far as I could tell, was by lift, since it’s a good six stories up (you can see all the books and papers that fill those floors in the picture two paragraphs up).  This held more items relating to LBJ’s personal life, as well as some material pertaining to Lady Bird.

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There was a mock-up of the LBJ-era Oval Office that was pretty neat, complete with a voice over telling you about all the objects in there (he had a custom-made marble-topped table with a pull-out phone in it), and outside the office, a different phone where you could listen to examples of the “Johnson treatment,” whereby LBJ would try to charm/intimidate people.  Listening to his conversation with a female reporter really drove home that the ’60s were a very different time…I don’t think a president telling you he wished he wasn’t married so he could take you up against a fence post like an animal would be seen as “charming” today.  More sexually harassing, if anything.

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Nonetheless, it must have worked somehow, as he managed to win over Lady Bird, who was very intelligent, and frankly, much too attractive for him, especially when she was young (she kind of looked like a prettier version of Ruth Goodman as she aged, not to dis Ruth, because I enjoy all those “Insert Historical Era Here” Farm shows).  There was, again, a mock-up of an office in the corner, this time Lady Bird’s, and a collection of some of Lady Bird’s (whose real name was Claudia) personal items, including dresses and china, because that’s of course how most people think of first ladies, even though she had much more to her than finery, being well educated, a shrewd investor, and providing the charm needed to smooth over her husband’s brashness.

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Heading back downstairs again, on our way out, we got to check out LBJ’s presidential limo, and the rather impressive shop.  I mean, they not only had an excellent range of refrigerator magnets and postcards (both of which we collect), but a big old heap of retro presidential campaign buttons (not actually dating back to LBJ, but I spotted a couple Nixon ones in there.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one, but it was still cool), and a collection of presidential bobbleheads.  I couldn’t resist the one of FDR with Fala (I think I have a problem).  Although the LBJ museum was, perhaps out of necessity because of the very nature of a presidential museum, apologist at times, I learned a lot about a president I’m not that well versed on (not being the biggest fan of 20th century history, particularly the latter half), and I was in general pretty impressed with the quality of the displays, and, of course, all the bonus FDR stuff.  3.5/5.

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8 comments

  1. Wow, I didn’t realize he was that lascivious – how’d I miss that? And the hands on the animatronic LBJ are unbelievable! They kinda spook me.

    1. Yep, he was a randy devil alright. But then it’s hard to think of 20th century presidents who weren’t. Coolidge, maybe? And probably Taft, although I hear he cut a surprisingly elegant figure on the dance floor.

  2. Great post! I will be coming back to read up on your other presidential adventures. I have taken up reading presidential biographies recently (just finished #1), and would love to see all the museums. But for the latter, I may just have to explore them online. I have been to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, and this summer the William J. Clinton L&M. The Truman museum, instead of being apologist, interactively puts decisions in YOUR hands, while the Clinton museum tended to present everything ultimately as a victory for the president. I understand your comment about the Bushes being “too recently,” and with Hillary running, the Clinton Center felt a little too much like a walk-through campaign ad.

    1. Thank you! I’m hoping to eventually make it to all the museums, but since I don’t live in the US, it’ll probably take years! And I’m working on acquiring a collection of books on each president; not necessarily traditional biographies, more just on aspects of their life that I’m interested in. So lots of assassination and disease books! 🙂 FDR’s museum has been my favourite so far, but that’s just because I really like FDR! I’d like to see the Truman Museum too though. I just saw his presidential plane at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, which I’ll be posting about in a few weeks!

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