“He was full of faults, too, and sometimes misjudgments about people,” Lady Bird Johnson said about her husband Lyndon. Full of faults can’t be said about the LBJ Presidential Library on Red River Street in Austin.
Because it opened 41 years ago, the LBJPL was ready for renovation, which began in December, 2011. It was completed by the time Ruth and I revisited in October, 2013. I returned mainly to see if Gallagher and Associates changed the aspect of this Library that I most liked and remembered, the soaring 4 level display holding Johnson’s presidential papers. They hadn’t. A glass wall fronting red and gold boxes reportedly holding 45 million pages, 650,000 photos, etc. still greets visitors climbing the stairs from Level 3 to 4.
What they did change was the exhibits, “incorporating the latest technology and interactive elements with historic and cultural artifacts.” For example, President Johnson was famous for conducting business on the telephone, and now visitors can listen to more than 60 conversations about the Vietnam War, voting rights, the Great Society, etc. Until now, this was the only Presidential Library/Museum that didn’t charge an entrance fee. Now it does. Another change on Level 3 is a slick, new 11-minute multi-media film on a semi-circular screen about LBJ.
Also on Level 3 is a traditional timeline that begins in 1908, the year of Johnson’s birth. The first image is of a Model T, but the future 36th U.S. President gets quickly integrated into the flow of historical events with childhood pictures, his teaching years, marriage to Lady Bird Taylor and their Mexican honeymoon, etc. It ends with Lady Bird’s death in 2007 at the age of 94. Well done!
However, the timeline was getting far less attention than a joke telling LBJ animation that also received a makeover. This eerie likeness fronts funny political cartoons like the one above. I joined the laughing crowd to hear a Churchill story about drinking. And that’s what people want to see and remember about LBJ, his outsized personality. “He came on strong, a human dynamo, a Tornado in Pants.” Words like calculating, devious, tough, generous, driven flash by. This is certainly honest about the man, but, in my opinion, short of full disclosure.
I looked for but didn’t find anything about the controversy surrounding the 1948 election in which Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate. The Democratic State Central Committee handled the vote count and announced that Johnson won by 87 votes leading to bipartisan allegations of fraud. For one thing, 202 ballots in Precinct 13 had been cast in alphabetical order as the polls were closing. Later, some of these voters swore that they hadn’t voted at all. Robert Caro, who has spent his entire professional life writing about LBJ, claimed that Johnson stole this and other elections. Perhaps this aspect of Johnson’s political career was documented somewhere else in his Library/Museum but I just didn’t see it.
An elevator off the Great Hall takes visitors above the archives to the 10th Level where I wandered through what seemed to be the leanest display of presidential years and life in the White House of any of the 13 PLMs. There were lots of social events–the Beatles, Elvis, etc.–integrated into stories about the impact of Johnson’s Presidency on his family. Perhaps planners figured that the timeline below was enough.
However, I eavesdropped on a guided tour and heard a great Johnson story. Entertaining visiting dignitaries at the LBJ ranch, he would often drive them around and then veer into the Pedernales River to elicit horrified reactions. What he knew but they didn’t was that his vehicle was amphibious. Here’s the real LBJ.