(Photo credit: LBJ Presidential Library, courtesy Dave Wilson, Flickr Creative Commons)
Among the 13 presidential libraries run by the National Archives and Records Administration is the one devoted to perhaps the most effective yet controversial president of the 20th century: Lyndon Johnson.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library sits on a 14-acre site adjacent to the University of Texas at Austin. It’s a big, intimidating, block-like structure that evokes the less desirable aspects of ’60s Modernist architecture. There are five permanent exhibits on display on its three public floors, including the Civil Rights Theater, Social Justice, the First Family in the White House, and a reproduction of the Oval Office as it looked during LBJ’s presidency. Perhaps the most engaging exhibit, however, is the Legacy Gallery. More than most occupants of the Oval Office, Johnson’s presidency screams “legacy.”
Johnson was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-living, hard-everything man who bullied and cajoled everyone in his path to get things done. In an era that was defined by a much greater degree of consensus than we could hope for today, that made him effective. He was a successful Senate majority leader and, if we put Vietnam to one side, he was one of the most successful U.S. presidents ever in terms of getting legislation passed. The Legacy Gallery reminds us just how effective he was. The museum web site describes the gallery in these terms: “If you’ve watched PBS, received financial aid for college, enjoyed wildflowers on the side of a highway, enrolled in Medicare, or visited a national park—then legislation passed by LBJ has had a direct impact on your life today.” This was all part of Johnson’s vision of a Great Society. Chuck in Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and it’s clear that Johnson created a liberal legacy in his five short years in office that has defined the United States ever since.
Unfortunately, LBJ’s legacy also includes the Vietnam War, which overshadows everything else. Johnson pushed the U.S. military escalation there just as hard as he pushed everything else. The result was catastrophic, for American foreign policy, for America’s image abroad, and ultimately for its divisive impact at home. Americans’ increasing distrust of government can clearly be dated back to this period. The beginnings of the Republican backlash against what they see as overreaching Big Government date back to this period. The late 1960s really were a turning point.
Vietnam is the reason Johnson didn’t run for another term in 1968. During my visit the video of perhaps his best-known speech to the nation—the one where he declares “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President”—played on a loop in the entrance lobby of the museum. There’s something deeply sad about watching that speech over and over in a place so devoted to Johnson’s legacy. Kennedy has a number of great and inspiring speeches that define his memory in the public imagination. But our public memory of Johnson remains dominated by that March 31, 1968 speech, more than anything else.
The library facilities and most of the museum’s exhibits have been updated thanks to a year-long renovation that was completed in December 2012. (When I visited, back in the early 2000s, the interior looked a little dated, so the upgrade was probably worthwhile and overdue.) Not surprisingly, much of the effort has been in the direction of using new technology to make the exhibitions more interactive. The library now offers a downloadable app, amped-up social media interaction, new theaters and interpretive films, and “an interactive look at how legislation passed under LBJ affects visitors today.” Again with the legacy. Interestingly, the museum also now features an interactive Vietnam War exhibit “where visitors experience elements of the President’s decision-making process.” George W. Bush has done something similar at his new presidential library regarding another, more recent divisive conflict: the Iraq War. An exhibit there asks visitors to review and consider the decision points leading to Bush’s decision to start that conflict.
Unfortunately, the renovations and updates carry a price tag, and the LBJ Library now charges admission. Previously, it had been the only one of the 13 NARA-run presidential libraries to allow free entry.
Johnson died of heart failure just four years after leaving office, just 64 years old. He never had a chance to rehabilitate his public image the way, say, Jimmy Carter did. Instead, the most visible elements of his legacy remain contained in the morass of the late 1960s: Vietnam, race riots, rising crime, and a sense the country was falling apart. It’s a pity for him—and maybe for all of us—that there weren’t better photo ops for Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights and all the other positive social legislation that he championed.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. Available at http://www.lbjlibrary.org/
Anne Wheeler (2012). LBJ Library Opens New Exhibits After Multi Million Dollar Renovation. LBJ Presidential Library. Available at http://www.lbjlibrary.org/press/lbj-library-opens-new-exhibits-after-multi-million-dollar-renovation#sthash.p4xNlebO.dpuf