LBJ's multimedia personality tag cloud.
LBJ's multimedia personality tag cloud.

LBJ Museum and Library, With Robot

Field review by the editors.

Austin, Texas

Lyndon Baines Johnson, America's 36th President, languishes in history's hammock -- between a predecessor who became a martyr, and a successor who became a national disgrace. In 1963, Vice President Johnson was hastily sworn in aboard Air Force One, returning from Dallas to Washington with the body of assassinated President John F. Kennedy. LBJ left the Oval Office in 1969, battered by critics and without running for another term, and President Richard M. Nixon moved in.

Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Historians and opinion polls may not rank him in the top ten presidents, but he doesn't do badly. Appreciation of Johnson's solid legislative legacy and Great Society vision is augmented by continuing fascination with his colorful personality, and his political insider version of the art of the deal.

Outnumbering those who read 1960s headlines and watched TV news, more people now encounter LBJ through popular culture. Hollywood actors (such as Bryan Cranston and Woody Harrelson) love to play the smart, earthy Texan. It's hard to forget performances of astronaut frustration in The Right Stuff; toilet conferences in All The Way, and other salty portrayals.

Replica moon and real Moon Rock in the Space Age Gallery.
Replica moon and real Moon Rock in the Space Age Gallery.

If you'd like to dive into the world of LBJ, spend a few hours at his Presidential Library and Museum in Austin. The 12-story, windowless cement building sits on the northeast corner of the University of Texas campus. Dedicated in 1971, the facility preserves the President's documents and artifacts, and provides public access to a museum interpreting his life and impact. The storage shelves of the library levels are visible from the floor of the high ceilinged main gallery. That's for the scholars; for the rest, the museum starts on the ground floor and continues by elevator to the upper levels.

Senate campaign button.
Senate campaign button.

A curved, multimedia presentation sets the tone for understanding LBJ, in part by showing a tag cloud of the many adjectives associated with him -- Caring and Crude, Honest and Calculating, etc. A native Texan born on August 27, 1908, Lyndon Johnson served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1937-1949, interrupted by a stint in the Navy during World War II), the Senate (1949-61), and Vice President (1961-63), then President (1963-69). He died of a heart attack in 1973.

The museum's detailed exhibits offer plenty of buttons to push and LBJ moments to hear on 20th century phone handsets cabled to special "Please Hold For The President" stations.

In "A Legacy of Liberty," a wall-spanning strip of quill pens emphasize just how many federal programs LBJ signed into legislation: Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, PBS support, food stamps, gun control, formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Amid the turbulence of the 1960s, he signed breakthrough legislation in Civil Rights, fair housing, and age discrimination.

Lyndon B. Johnson Robot.
Lyndon B. Johnson Robot.

Then there was that pesky Vietnam War -- what finally broke him. But before we go there, what about his joke-telling robot?

In the "LBJ's Humor" section, a life-size animatronic President spews Lyndon Johnson's stories (we've seen another joke-cracking statue, a bronze at the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, deploying this G-rated audio archive of knee-slappers). The lifelike figure moves slowly, and the stories are drawn out a bit -- no one liners. They often end with the laugh track of the recorded audience appreciating LBJ's wit.

Bulletproof Presidential limo, a 1968 Lincoln Continental, which weighs over 5,000 lbs.
Bulletproof Presidential limo, a 1968 Lincoln Continental, which weighs over 5,000 lbs.

As a senator and then vice president, Johnson was a pivotal founder of the U.S. space program, and was ardently invested in getting American astronauts to the Moon (and safely back) throughout his administration. Yet it was Kennedy who gave the landmark go-to Moon speech, and Nixon who made the unprecedented first lunar phone call, to Apollo 11 astronauts. The LBJ museum is home to a chunk of rock brought back by Apollo 15 in 1971 (the world's largest cache of lunar rocks is at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston).

The Cold War and the arms race dominated foreign policy throughout LBJ's administration, according to displays titled "Cold Warrior" and "Leading the Free World." One innovation of the classic Hot Line, a 1967 ITT Intelex Teletype machine, allowed leadership of the U.S. and the Soviet Union to communicate directly with typed messages. The teletype's clunky black body and white keys seem primitive, but as a brink-of-annihilation texting app it apparently worked.

LBJ's presidential boots.
LBJ's presidential boots.

Glass cabinets present an array of pop ephemera, intended to transport the viewer back to the day (a standard practice in Presidential libraries). The 1960s cultural landscape is revealed with record album covers of the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and the Mamas & the Papas; a leather fringe vest; a "Make Love Not War" bumper sticker; a fragment of tie dye; and a Bonnie and Clyde movie poster.

LBJ faced his harshest critics over the Vietnam War. Strategies, battle terrain models, and weapons are interspersed with panels titled "Operation Thunder," then "Escalation," and the inevitable "Quagmire." Somber phones, black and faceless, offer snippets of White House conversations. One sad panel depicts hospitalized soldiers, war dead coming home, and LBJ slumped over the table of an empty White House conference room. The enlarged display quote: "I can't get out."

Other highlights:

  • A full scale replica of the Oval Office on the 10th floor.
  • The little Voting Rights desk, where the Act was signed into law.
  • LBJ's guns and his cowboy boots emblazoned with Presidential seals.
  • A selection of state visit gifts, such as a gold-trimmed malachite box Soviet leader Alexei Kosygin gave to Johnson at their 1967 summit in Glassboro, NJ (chosen because it was halfway between DC and where Kosygin was staying in New York).
  • The custom-built bulletproof Presidential limo, a 1968 Lincoln Continental, which weighs over 5,000 lbs.
  • The teleprompter copy of Johnson's 1968 speech in which he essentially said "I quit."

Lady Bird's bowling shoes.
Lady Bird's bowling shoes.

A photo op invites visitors to pose with a blow-up of the President (he was almost 6'4"). Johnson was notorious for his charming, sometimes intimidating in-your-face attempts to convince others to bend to his will. According to one panel, "his almost irresistible power to persuade came to be known as the Johnson Treatment." A compulsive schmoozer, LBJ even sent an autographed photo of himself to the Homeless Mayor of Silver Spring, MD.

The museum includes an extensive area devoted to First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson, who he married in 1934. Veteran Roadside America fans may recall our antipathy to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act championed by Lady Bird, and the systematic decimation of tourist attraction billboards along national highways. The story told at the museum is unsurprisingly rosier, focusing on the positive side of her ambitious flower planting initiatives.

No slouch in her First Lady duties, elegant Lady Bird gave many speeches around the nation, supporting the President and his agenda. The collection includes her bowling shoes, her formal gowns, and her official electric toothbrush. A White House dining etiquette quiz employs a table mockup with painted-on silverware and plates that pivot away to reveal correct answers. Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007.

If this packed museum hasn't sated all LBJ cravings, head west from Austin to the LBJ Ranch and boyhood home, where his floating Amphicar is displayed. A gleeful LBJ roaring into the water in his two-worlds car might be the most apt image for this complicated and consequential leader.

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LBJ Museum and Library, With Robot

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Address:
2313 Red River St., Austin, TX
Directions:
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Northeast corner of the University of Texas campus. Free parking in Lot 38 off of Red River St.
Hours:
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
512-721-0200
Admission:
Adults $10, under 13 and active military free.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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July 16, 2018

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