Austin Rocks: The LBJ Library and Museum

LBJ in the pool with his grandson courtesy the LBJ Library and Museum Austin TX

LBJ at work in the swimming pool with his grandson, courtesy the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.

(Part of the Austin Rocks series of posts by a local about things to do and see in Austin, Texas)

President Johnson said that he wanted his Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum to show his Presidency and times “with the bark off,” and it does a pretty good job of that.

My reaction to visiting the LBJ Library was similar to the one I had while exploring the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri – “Wow, there is a LOT here; I don’t think I allowed enough time.”

Although I live in central Texas, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never visited the LBJ Library, although I drive right past it going and coming from downtown Austin. One recent afternoon, we fixed that.

The Library building itself is not one of my favorites on the Austin skyline. I’m not a fan of semi-Brutalist boxes…

Exterior of LBJ Library and Museum in Austin TX

Exterior of the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin TX, on the University of Texas campus next to Interstate 35.

Once inside the box, though, I liked how they used skylights at the top to brighten the interior, and the gleaming red and gold boxes containing Johnson’s Presidential papers (over 45 million pages) are impressive…

Interior of LBJ Library and Museum Austin TX incl red and gold records storage boxes

Interior of the LBJ Library and Museum, including illuminated red and gold records storage boxes for Presidential documents.

There are three floors of exhibits. You’ll enter the facility on the 3rd floor, which features Johnson’s post-Presidency limousine in the entrance lobby. An introductory video only takes about 11 minutes and is worth the time. You’ll walk past a rather weird-looking animatronic version of Johnson telling jokes and funny stories in “LBJ’s Humor.” Apparently it came to the Library from a late 1990’s promotional display at the Neiman Marcus department store.

One section explains how the quite tall President Johnson used his height and strong personality to cajole (er, how about, intimidate?) people when he was pushing for legislation, an idea, or a particular political appointment. Visitors can put themselves in that moment, then share it on social media with the #LBJLibrary hashtag, which is then displayed on a monitor.

The Johnson Treatment interactive display at LBJ Library Austin TX

The Johnson Treatment interactive display. 

The 4th floor of the museum gives you a little flavor of LBJ’s youth and development, along with a year-by-year timeline of major historic events occurring as he grew up. I’d forgotten that he served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War Two.

There’s a little bit of future wife Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor from Karnack, Texas in there, too, holding up a string of fish that she caught as a young girl.

LBJ on the debate team in college (courtesy the LBJ Library and Museum)

LBJ on his college debate team – he’s on the far right. The Southwest Texas State Teachers College is now Texas State University in San Marcos (courtesy the LBJ Library and Museum)

As you enter the “Core Exhibition” about Johnson’s Presidency, there are portraits of Johnson and Lady Bird at different times during their marriage. I liked this one…

Photos of LBJ and Lady Bird juxtaposed at the LBJ Library and Museum Austin TX

Photos of LBJ and his wife Lady Bird juxtaposed at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin TX.

The sections on Johnson’s Presidency are almost overwhelming, like the man himself. I was struck by his handwritten edits to short remarks given after President Kennedy’s assassination, when then-Vice President Johnson became the President.

There is also a November 23, 1963 typed memorandum to his Cabinet members; he bluntly asks for their support and help in the transition. “I want you all to stay on. I need you.”

His painful legacy in the Vietnam War occupies a large section of the multimedia Core Exhibition, but there are all kinds of details about his other legacy – civil rights, voting rights, and the Great Society programs to alleviate poverty and improve people’s daily lives.

The sheer volume of initiatives will take you some time to work through: fair housing, the creative arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, environmental legislation and “Keep America Beautiful,” Medicare, Medicaid, aid to Appalachia, highway safety and beautification, immigration reform, and more.

We almost skipped an exhibit out in the open area of the 4th floor, near the exit to the Sculpture Garden. Its focus is how LBJ’s civil rights and Great Society legislation made a personal difference for so many Americans – it’s called “LBJ and You.” There’s an explanatory placard at the entrance, but it’s easy to miss, and you’ll then be wondering why there is a blurb about, for example, Oprah Winfrey at the LBJ Library. In her case, it’s because Johnson’s Upward Bound program (part of his Economic Opportunities Act of 1964) helped her as a young, low-income student who then won a full college scholarship and launched her TV career.

Other examples of Johnson programs helping now-famous people: author Alice Walker (Friends of the Children of Mississippi/Head Start,) boxer George Foreman (Job Corps,) and George W. Bush’s White House Executive Chef Christeta Comerford (immigration reform – she’s from the Philippines.)

On the 10th floor, you’ll find a reproduction of the Oval Office as it was during Johnson’s terms, plus gifts to the President and First Lady from around the world.

The LBJ desk in the recreated Oval Office at the LBJ Library and Museum Austin TX

LBJ’s desk in the recreated Oval Office at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. The avocado green phone bank is on point for the era.

Johnson was an information and news junkie who wanted to know what was going on at all times, on all the (then only three) TV networks. So, he had three TVs set up in his Oval Office, similar to multiple TV sets at his “Texas White House” ranch near Johnson City, TX.

3 TV sets in the recreated Oval Office at the LBJ Library because there were only 3 TV stations

Three TV sets in the re-created Oval Office at the LBJ Library because, hey, there were only three major TV networks at the time – ABC, CBS, and NBC.

This Presidential Library does an excellent job of making visitors feel that they’re learning about not only a particular Presidency and historic period, but also about the person in the Oval Office, making the tough decisions and trying to determine what is best for the nation as a whole.

This photo captures one of those intense moments of wondering, “Am I doing the right thing?”…

Agonizing over Presidential decisions (courtesy the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin TX)

Agonizing over Presidential decisions, particularly with regard to Vietnam and his chances for reelection, given the unpopular war plus his own health issues (courtesy the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin TX)

If you’re in Austin or central Texas, don’t miss a visit to this Presidential Library. It’s an eye-opener.

(Photos by the author except as noted)

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  1. Kerry Dexter February 21, 2020
  2. Sheila Scarborough February 23, 2020

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