I’ve been to Austin three times in the past five years. I’d even driven onto the University of Texas campus in the past — not once did I consider visiting the LBJ Library. Being in Austin gave me another opportunity to wrestle with the “devil”. I was ambivalent even as I intellectually recognized it would be worth my time. I had been a war protester and emotionally I still blamed him for Vietnam; and I was also biased because he had replaced JFK who I’d idolized since I was eight years old.
Also it seemed appropriate to visit this Library after visiting George W Bush Library while in Dallas earlier in my trip. I justified it as a student of history. It didn’t mean I forgave him–this would be no pilgrimage.
Like the other presidential libraries I’ve visited the exhibits sucked me in — there was his presidential car, the model Oval Office and the array of gifts given by foreign and domestic leaders.
LBJ was educated to be a teacher. He worked with poor Hispanic kids south of Austin. He became a congressman in 1937. He was the first member of congress to resign and enlist in the military after Pearl Harbor and he was a decorated war hero.
Actually it really doesn’t and here is why. LBJ was a conundrum. He was a disciple of FDR, yet until he became the Senate Majority Leader he consistently voted with the segregationist Democrats, later, re-labeled “Dixiecrats” who represented the majority of the south. Once in a position of power he shepherded legislation that supported civil rights — much of which impacted people of color.
JFK’s death gave LBJ the platform and political capital to ensure that voting rights, civil rights, education, etc. become law. Was he a progressive hiding in a wolf’s clothing? Display after display showed all the progressive legislation passed on his watch as president including naming the Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
And lest I forget he made certain that medicare and the expansion of a health safety net became law — a dream that Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman all shared:
The chips seemed to be falling his way and I was being swayed — maybe he’s not as bad as I recalled. Then the pain of JFK’s murder hit home again. I pondered why so many exhibits dwelled on JFK. Was this the gloat factor that was linked to the Kennedy-Johnson feud — LBJ was the victor and so enjoyed the spoils:
Perhaps the strategy was to attack any naysayers head-on by showing respect for JFK — to stop the gossip about the feud. I listened to LBJ’s White House tapes which included conversations with Bobbie and Jackie Kennedy demonstrated a genuine cordiality bordering on affection. This stunned me — I had read many negative books, articles and manuscripts that stated the opposite.
The museum did not ignore Vietnam. Justification for the war weaved through the displays. Interactive tools attempted to defuse public sentiment. To the credit of the museum they shared the contrary view of the war (my view).
Imagine how shocked I was to see the following in the a Vietnam War display:
Yes, the Smothers Brothers had sent a written apology to LBJ. I thought back to the times. I knew CBS was booting them off the air for their anti-war rhetoric at the behest of LBJ. Was this letter their attempt to rescue the show? Or was this a sincere note of remorse. There is no way to know.
My mind was unchanged by the exhibits although I felt better informed about LBJ’s position. The war made a mess of our country and of Vietnam. LBJ and his cabinet made it worse — hubris played a role as did fear of Communism.
This visit provided this ah-ha moment — most, if not all leaders, have a strong need to be loved or at the very least liked. It seems they usually obtain power to improve their world not destroy it — somehow power mixed with human frailty, ego and fear can manufacture a toxic situation that no person can totally control.
LBJ was a complex man who was driven to improve the world, however circumstances hampered his better angels thus shortchanging his plans.
We elect those we believe will represent our views honestly and fairly. Since these folks are human there is no way to predict their courses of action once in office.
As Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form off government except for all the others that have been tried”.