As we toured the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Historic site, it struck me as somewhat ironic that all three of our presidents from Texas were involved in horrible wars; only Bush, Sr. had enough sense to bring his to a quick end. Many people in our generation hated LBJ and cheered when he decided not to run for re-election. Our involvement in the Viet Nam War devastated the country, cost millions of deaths on both sides, and tarnished the position of our country in the world. There was nothing good about it. But if we had been better students of history, we would have realized that LBJ did not begin US involvement in this part of the world. We subsidized 80% of the costs of the conflict when France was fighting in what was known as Indochina under Truman. Eisenhower and Kennedy continued our involvement in an advisory capacity. When Johnson became president, the Domino Theory was a commonly held position. We had to save countries from becoming Communist because they could begin falling like dominoes. In reality Johnson was only the final presidential domino to fall in this Asian conflict. We had never been defeated militarily and it was impossible to imagine that a bunch of rice famers working in paddies could bring us to our knees - a lesson we apparently still have not learned.
It is a shame that this war is our strongest memory of the LBJ administration and caused us to forget the many wonderful things he accomplished as president. Just like Obama has been distracted from his presidential agenda by the economic collapse, Johnson was pulled away from his agenda to bring fairness and equality and to end misery and suffering. First of all he should get credit for keeping the country on an even keel after the shocking assassination of JFK. When he was elected president outright, his popularity was huge and he had a wonderful relationship with many congressmen after his many years in the Senate. The record of all the bills he passed during his first few years as president until the war derailed him is breathtaking. To name a few: Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act (huge accomplishments for a man from the South), Immigration Act, the War on Poverty which included Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, Work Study; Freedom of Information Act, Bilingual Education Act. As we remembered all that was accomplished during that time, we were struck again and again by how well politicians from both sides of the aisle worked together for the common good. It felt like we were hearing about another country, not the place where we live today.
The LBJ historic site has two parts - the first his boyhood home in Johnson City (not named after him or his family) where he lived without electricity and running water. His father was in the state legislature for twelve years and Johnson was debating politics at an age when other kids were still playing kick the can. His mother was one of two women in the county who had a college education and she instilled a love of learning in him that caused him to major in education and become a teacher until he entered the local political arena.
The other part of the historic site is the home he and Lady Bird lived in while he was president and the spot where he died, four years after leaving the presidency on the day that the ceasefire was signed with Viet Nam. Lady Bird brought great wealth to the family through her ownership of radio stations and the LBJ ranch was built as a show place of all that's good about Texas, rather than a working ranch. LBJ was the first president to move the presidency out of the White House for long periods of time and he built a landing strip here and places to stay for the Secret Servicemen, Cabinet members, and retinue of staff that every president requires. He spent 25% of his presidency here, but never stopped taking care of business. He used the ranch to get people out of Washington DC and on to his own turf, where he would fly them in, pick them up in a limo convertible, and drive them through his show barn to admire the cattle he was raising. After a good steak dinner and a few drinks, he would begin twisting arms and using his powers of persuasion to accomplish his goals. He was a wonderful politician in both the good and bad sense of the word. The ranch here enabled him to share the Texas way of life with the world at a time when few folks outside the state knew what that meant.
Lady Bird outlived her husband by thirty years, so until recently this site could only be toured by bus, since she continued to live here. But since her death the National Park Service has opened up the house and conducts walking tours. One of the rooms we saw today had only been opened for tourists a few weeks ago. The park service loans out CD's to keep tourist well informed while they drive past all the buildings, a much better way to tour than on a bus.
We definitely learned some things today. Most of them were things we already knew, but the passage of time provides a perspective that it is impossible to have when you are worried about yourself and/or the people you love getting drafted and sent to die thousands of miles away in a country you have no business occupying. LBJ was a man like all men, with good and bad qualities, and the social services and safety nets he created in our country go along way in redeeming the LBJ presidency.